by carl wilson

It's Official: Boss-a-Nova Mania

bruceback.jpg

When pseudo-seriously-pseudonymed Brooklyn artists are doing it, you know it's happened: Like eight-bit and heavy metal before him, Bruce Springsteen has crossed over from the resurgent-among-arty-musicians zone to the referenced-in-art-galleries plateau of trendiness. Collections of academic papers are sure to follow. I don't have spare theorizing time (or mental space) but feel free to submit yours: Suggested themes include masculinity, sincerity, assertions-of-suburban/exurban-identity, post-industrial melancholy, guitar-as-Other, New Class exoticization of past class locations, etc. If you employ the term "new Boss" please do not include the phrase "same as the old Boss" in your response. I refuse to call it something like "hipster Bruce" as in "hipster metal," because I don't think the word hipster has any substantial meaning, though it's sure tempting. But I'm going with "Boss-a-nova" for the moment. Among all the novas, though, the only one I think is super (though I like the Bossisms on the Arcade Fire disc) is The Blankket, from whom, by the way, there are rumours of an upcoming tour.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 10 at 4:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (17)

 

COMMENTS

Ali,

you said, "Except that the Carter Family was pop also."

Exactly!

Posted by john on April 15, 2007 2:20 PM

 

 

Except that the Carter Family was pop also.

I mean "pure folk" because of exactly your exception, Carl, that independent of marketing agendas, "popular music in general is folk music."

I find myself eternally confused about the boundaries between "authentic" and "good" music. Sometimes, they HAVE to be the same thing, and other times, they have no responsibility to each other, except in my own experiences. I am so personally involved in the music of this discussion that I have trouble separating the internal associations with the intellectual observations - meaning, I don't think I can. Guthrie, Seeger, Dylan, Springsteen, they are part of this immense web of music that I go beyond identifying with, I just feel it as a part of myself, as a part of things that I think, things that I do, music that I sing.

If that's not authenticity, then I don't know what is. But I'm willing to allow that authenticity is totally relative. Especially hearing y'alls opinions on Genesis or whatever.

Just want to add a question, to the comment about the falsity of yankee Bruce doing a southern drawl, and americans talking british and doing Seeger or Guthrie: What do you make of Billy Bragg & Wilco doing Mermaid Avenue?

I can't wait for the conference!

Posted by ali marcus on April 15, 2007 1:26 PM

 

 

Seeger was POP. The Weavers had a few Top Tens and one Number One on the Hit Parade -- their cover of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene," orchestration by studio king, tin-pan songwriter, and Sinatra collaborator Gordon Jenkins.

As a songwriter, he wrote Top Tens too, including one Number One -- the Byrds' cover of "Turn! Turn! Turn!" "If I Had a Hammer" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" were big hits too, for other people. And he wrote some of the verses to "We Shall Overcome." Which takes him Beyond Pop to . . . History!

I must admit that Bruce's overlap with prog is marginal, but it struck me as real, that's all. That said, I have never found his Marias, Crazy Janeys, or Rosalitas to be any more convincing than Elton John's Suzie. And convincing matters to me. "Convincing" is my trump word to get out of the sincerity/authenticity blind alley. I don't actually believe that Brad Dourif killed himself in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"; I don't believe that he was a virgin or had a terrible stutter or was terrified of his mother -- but his performance was *convincing*.

Lots of Boss performances convince me too, but lots don't. Only an opinion.

I don't hear Guthrie as bombastic or melodramatic. He took his stoicism wholesale from the Carter Family. He's almost always emotionally understated in vocal affect, though not in overall emotional impact -- the great feat of the Carters too. He did things with vocal phrasing that nobody has done since, at least that I've heard. An enormously underrated musician.

Posted by john on April 14, 2007 4:14 AM

 

 

Ali, I think it's a big stretch to claim Bruce for "pure folk" - except in the sense that popular music in general is folk music. The prog comparison is counterintuitive because the mythologies of the two are so at odds, but Bruce is just as much a stadium performer, in whose music and shows professional musicianship is a Big Deal (as illustrated by the Big Man, Clarence Clemmons, and the keyboard and guitar solos, etc. - it's not an accident his musicians turn up in talk-show bands, the epitome of professionalism). And in the 70s and 80s, the peak of his career, he was at the top of the big-record-company sphere and the world of the charts. That's why the rhetoric of authenticity in rock comes in for so much questioning - all Bruce's signifiers of authenticity are in the language of nostalgia, about teenage life and family and cars and Jersey, not actual depictions of his life when the songs were written. The point where he actually attempted that - with Tunnel of Love, Human Touch, Lucky Town - marked his step outside the commercial limelight.

I'd say Bruce comes by his Guthrie-ism directly via Dylan (his early work makes clear how immensely Dylan-influenced he was) and that the Seeger thing is interesting particularly because it's a "return to roots" that's in many ways the return of someone else's roots - Bruce being a bit too young to have experienced the original folk revival first hand (if a revival can be said to be something original and first hand). Bruce's occasional simulation of a twang on that stuff is kind of the equivalent of a '60s fake English accent - I don't have anything against either one, really, since I find them endearing and don't think people are duty-bound to sing in their "real" voices, but a northerner taking on a southern accent to signify realness is no more credible than an American talking Brit to be cool.

I think it's much to his credit that he chose to do the Seeger Sessions instead of the Guthrie Sessions, though, as Seeger, the popularizer, the auditorium-filler, the singalong-leader and activist, is much more similar to Bruce as a pop figure than Guthrie was. Bruce has come to these identifications gradually, since Nebraska, as he's come to see his work in more politicized terms: When he was doing his "new Dylan" stuff on the first album, he wasn't singing about politics - it was "me and Crazy Janey makin' love in the dirt, singing our birthday songs" - a boho-magic-realism more like Patti Smith (who had a lot of the same influences) than Pete Seeger.

Still, as you say, Guthrie was a pop musician in many ways too, and certainly a fan of melodrama (and borrowed stylings) in his own right.

So in the end, none of these folk are "pure" anything. Prog arguably is far more upfront about its weird intentions than any of the pop-folk-rock masqueraders. But the masqueraders generally made better music. I don't think that's an accident, either - being upfront usually isn't the point of art. That's why we call it that.

(Uh, that was a bit longwinded, eh? Sorry.)

Posted by zoilus on April 13, 2007 11:54 PM

 

 

The prog=evil default just makes people sound like Lenny Kaye when he's going on about the enduring genius of Van Morrison's Them or suchlike. If the best of Yes and Gabriel-era Genesis have to answer for the worst of prog (and, yes, the worse of Yes and Genesis, too), then Springsteen has to answer for every sub-Barney Bentall, sub-Hip bar band playing no-frills, four-on-the-floor, thoroughly "authentic", achingly earnest, eye-streamingly dull, original heartland, car/road-as-metaphor rocknroll across North America right now.

If arpeggio keyboards are a crime against music, then what are extended sax solos? The very essence of good taste? Just saying.

Posted by Nathan on April 13, 2007 8:32 PM

 

 

It's funny, because I would never associate Bruce with Prog, ever. He's pure folk. I suppose I would make that association for any musician, given the chance, but Bruce has always been very much like Guthrie. Unfortunately, saying that automatically puts him in direct comparison with Dylan, but it turns out that where Dylan always rejected the notion that he was part of a movement (for more than passing phases, anyways), Bruce would most certainly revel in the idea.

The Seeger Sessions album, in my mind, proves it. And also, Guthrie was nothing if not bombastic.

Posted by ali marcus on April 13, 2007 5:44 PM

 

 

I never thought of Bruce & Styx as related until one night a year or so ago when I saw live footage of Bruce on PBS, and there was an epic song with all of Roy Bittan's arpeggios, and it started quiet and grew HUGE, and . . . I just felt the urge to come sail away.

Posted by john on April 12, 2007 4:34 PM

 

 

Hey John,

No student of prog am I, but sure, I think you could say Styx is prog-derived. Though I can honestly say I've never, ever thought of Springsteen and Styx as musical cousins.

I'm way out over my head here in terms of musical vocabulary, but the keyboards and epic-striving in Springsteen just sound ... different than the keyboards and epic-striving in Yes or whatever. Maybe it's the tempo changes in the latter, as you say, or maybe also a sense of self-conscious virtuosity that you don't get with the E Streeters and their bar band roots. Plus Roy Bittan's piano just sounds ... lighter in touch to me, fleeter of foot.

Not that Springsteen doesn't have flaws or limitations; I've just never thought of them as residing in the prog arena.

A propos of nothing, I think another possible reason for his popularity right now might be his sheer gift for economical storytelling -- it really is incredible, though it seems to have deserted him a bit on the more recent records -- which I imagine could be refreshing to people who are used to/tired of more impressionistic lyrics.

Posted by DW. on April 11, 2007 9:51 PM

 

 

once 'boss-a-nova' permeates popular culture and forces the genre to change its name, maybe the Blankket can be blocks-a-nova and kick it up a rhetoric notch.

and i wonder
what makes me think its okay to spend my time causing punning accidents on the information superhighway

they'll never let me back in toronto
Jessie S.

Posted by Jessie Stein on April 11, 2007 4:20 PM

 

 

Re Prog: My understanding of the taxonomy may be wrong. Is Styx Prog? Because I hear a lot of overlap, on the early albs, in the keyboards and the striving toward epic. Bruce doesn't have the tempo changes -- you're right about that.

Posted by john on April 11, 2007 4:17 PM

 

 

I also don't see the prog thing -- I think of prog as being built on psychedelic and/or classical motifs, whereas even Springsteen's epic song-suites still sound like expanded rock & roll songs or girl-group songs or whatever.

> My personal Bruce taste diverges from the CW around the question of Nebraska: I think lost the plot a bit when he began to believe the critics who said he was the new Guthrie/Steinbeck. He was always best with the E Street Band blasting behind him -- dull verging on shrill in Okie-balladeer mode.

Hear, hear. I find as I get older I like the jokey comic songs more and more, the epics just a little less, and a lot of the acoustic stuff not at all.

That said, "Backstreets" is still one of my all-time faves, mainly for its over-the-top histrionics.

Posted by DW. on April 11, 2007 2:15 PM

 

 

Jody,

Good points. I guess the prog is on the 2nd & 3rd ones especially, which have a lot of long-form mini-operas a la prog. And the arpeggiated keybs. And the bombast.

Agree with you about the Guthrie-esque, though I do like some of the songs on Nebraska. Also agree with you about rock nostalgia and a hope for post-irony.

"Brilliant Disguise" is probably my fave Bruce song. Gorgeous and insightful.

Posted by john on April 10, 2007 9:53 PM

 

 

There actually *was* an academic conference on Springsteen recently, in Jersey (albeit not a particularly trendy-seeming one). Check it out:

http://www.outreach.psu.edu/C&I;/Springsteen/

Posted by Evan on April 10, 2007 9:46 PM

 

 

Of course, none of the above has anything to do with Carl's question about Boss-revivalism. Carl, I like all your suggested themes, but also suspect this has something to do with hip-hop-era rock nostalgia, not to mention yearning for righteous earnestness at a moment of decadent post-post-post-modern irony. But then again I tend to trace all pop phenomena to one or both of these causes.

Posted by Jody on April 10, 2007 9:12 PM

 

 

John, I don't quite hear the Bruce-prog connection, at least not post-Born to Run. The sound is grandiloquent sure, but the song forms and pure pop, taut as hell. My personal Bruce taste diverges from the CW around the question of Nebraska: I think lost the plot a bit when he began to believe the critics who said he was the new Guthrie/Steinbeck. He was always best with the E Street Band blasting behind him -- dull verging on shrill in Okie-balladeer mode.

My three desert island Bruce discs are:

- Born to Run: majestic-bombastic baroque Bruce. Gotta love the chutzpah.

- The River: 60s pop-rock Bruce. Great songwriting. "The Ties That Bind," "Two Hearts," "Out in the Street" -- god, I love it. "Sherry Darling": beautiful, wise, and FUNNY ("Your mama's yappin' in the backseat/Tell her to push over and move them big feet"). "Hungry Heart" -- perfection, Bruce's masterpiece, and one of my favorite songs of the last 30 years.

- Tunnel of Love: lovely, tuneful, meditative, pop-romantique Bruce.

Posted by Jody on April 10, 2007 9:02 PM

 

 

I classify the Boss with Prog, at least starting with his 3rd alb -- the same bombast, the same arpeggiated keybs, the same striving toward grandeur. I've seen critics I respect link him to Beatles & Stones, which I don't hear at all, though I do hear a Dylan connection with his earlier stuff; but his rock forebears are more Orbison & Spector, or, to go slightly pre-rock, Stan Kenton.

So the academic question for me is . . . something about . . . the How Does Visual/Verbal Imagery Trump Sonic Affinity in Rock Taxonomy?

Posted by john on April 10, 2007 6:58 PM

 

 

"Like eight-bit and heavy metal before him..."

Are you talking about this?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtZ1d6ovVNw

Posted by Ryan on April 10, 2007 5:45 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson