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Concert Reflections Part Two: Dancing With the Robber Barons

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(Today’s concert photo is from the website of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald).

While I was waiting for the Springsteen portion of the concert to start at Magnetic Hill on Sunday, I spent some time wandering around the edges of the crowd, buying T-shirts and snacks, looking and listening. I also checked my phone occasionally for Twitter update from other people who were at the show.

At one point I walked past two guys talking to each other and overheard one saying, “There are people here from literally every walk of life.” A few minutes later I saw someone on Twitter post about the “incredible diversity” of the crowd.

On reflection, I didn’t agree with either of them. There certainly was some diversity in that large crowd, most notably diversity of ages — there were a lot of concertgoers in their 20s and a lot in their 60s and many in-between, with Jason and I, in our late 40s, probably being about average. But I don’t think there was a lot of diversity in the kind of people. I don’t think we really represented “every walk of life.” The people in their 60s were older versions of the people in their 20s. Fairly clean-cut, almost exclusively white (not unusual in Atlantic Canada, but I suspect probably true of Springsteen fans even in more diverse areas), well-off enough to afford a $115 concert ticket and in some cases travel to the concert venue. I saw very few of either aging hippies or young hipsters; this was a very mainstream crowd, essentially a safe crowd.

If you analyze Springsteen’s lyrics, he often sounds like an angry activist, but there weren’t many activist-types at the concert, and nobody looked very angry. Hardly anyone looked radical or countercultural here. And I had to ask myself: Why not?

Springsteen’s songs celebrate a particular type of person: the blue-collar American worker, usually a city-dweller, the man who works with his hands and whose way of life is threatened and being squeezed out of existence by an economy that doesn’t value his kind of work. And certainly, Springsteen’s fans are drawn from the blue-collar working class that he celebrates, but even more, I think, from the social class just above: middle class professionals, people with a college education who believe (often wrongly, these days) that their education protects them from the economic forces that have crushed so many blue-collar workers. People like these (people like me) often have a romantic attachment to the idea of working-class life, usually because that was the life their parents or grandparents lived. They (we) enjoy the stories of Springsteen’s working-class heroes without fully identifying.

I suspect Springsteen’s politics are considerably further to the left than those of many of his fans. In the past The Boss has publicly supported Barack Obama and expressed admiration for the Occupy movement. I doubt more than a handful of Sunday’s concert attendees had ever set foot in an Occupy camp. Many probably belonged to a union and, being a Canadian crowd, some had probably voted NDP. But others probably sat firmly in the centre-right camp and even more, perhaps, didn’t consider themselves political at all, much less radical. (Though I would guess from the smell in the air at the concert, the one typically left-wing political cause much of the crowd would support was the legalization of marijuana).

Springsteen has many fans among his political opponents, including a surprising number of upper-class elites, the rich “bastards” whom the character in his song “Jack of All Trades” wishes he could “shoot on sight.” Even right-wing politicans aren’t immune to his appeal. While checking out Twitter feeds before the concert I noticed that Lana Payne, a Springsteen fan with impeccable left-wing credentials (she’s president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour) had attended Friday night’s concert in Toronto and tweeted: “Ironic [that the] minister responsible for swinging a massive #wreckingball through fed services would be at a #Springsteen concert.” The added hashtag #Clement made it clear which member of Stephen Harper’s Conservative cabinet she had spotted at the Toronto venue.

Unlike many fans, Payne is an astute enough listener to the Boss’s lyrics as well as an astute enough political thinker to recognize the irony of a Conservative cabinet minister rocking out to the anthems of the working class. But of course this irony is nothing new for Springsteen: in 1984 his mega-hit “Born in the USA” was misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem and briefly referenced as such by Ronald Reagan, who obviously hadn’t listened closely (or at all) to the angry lyrics about a disillusioned, unemployed, embittered Vietnam veteran. Other musicians with left-wing political views have been similar misunderstood, most famously in recent headlines when U.S. Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan cited Rage Against the Machine as his favourite band and Tom Morello promptly shot back with “Paul Ryan is the embodiment of the machine our music rages against.” As an example of the same kind of misunderstanding, Morello mentions in that article that “[New Jersey] Governor Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen but doesn’t understand him.” (A brilliant piece dissecting the complex one-sided relationship between conservative Christie and his favourite rock star appeared in The Atlantic magazine during this summer’s Springsteen tour).

I’m glad to see young people loving Springsteen’s music, as evidenced by the concert crowd. I wish that the young people who were more active in speaking out and calling for change in their world — the radicals, the Occupiers — were embracing his music, but for the most part I think there’s a gap of musical taste, and that young people who are edgier in the politics may also be edgier in their music tastes, and they may consider Springsteen’s classic rock and roll too mainstream. People can listen to what they like; I’m not going to let that bother me.

But the other side of the equation does bother me. Why do wealthy conservatives admire a singer who vilifies everything they stand for? And why do people who may not be wealthy, but are more generally right-wing, enjoy Springsteen’s music without engaging with his ideas? I can imagine a couple of reasons.

First, the way Springsteen writes his songs leaves room for interpretation. He’s a poet and a storyteller, not a pamphleteer. Hey, just two posts ago I defended my own right to interpret his songs in a way that makes sense to me, admitting that my favourite song “Reason to Believe” means something different to me than it means to The Boss. While some of his songs (like “We Take Care of Our Own”) are more polemic, most are stories, and stories are open to a lot of interpretation. Springsteen’s songs often show us a person caught in an unjust system and make us feel what that person feels, rather than telling us that the system needs to be taken apart or specifically how it should be rebuilt. You might say — since I’ve dragged Tom Morello into this post already — that Springsteen’s message is less “rage against the machine” than “complain about the machine.” While he (and his song-characters) can be very angry, they can also be wistful, or despairing, or even hopeful and ambitious. This isn’t to criticize his songwriting, which I think is pretty much untouchable. It’s to say that when you tell stories rather than writing campaign slogans, you leave a lot of the meaning-making up to the listener. It’s something I’m aware of too, in my own small way, as a novelist. Which leads me to the second reason …

I think there are some conservatives — and I think NJ Governor Chris Christie, as profiled in the article linked above, is a good example of this — who hear something different in Springsteen’s songs than I do. That is, I think they hear the message of injustice suffered by the working class (and the would-be-working-if-they-could-find-work class). But they have a different solution to the problem. The narrative they are listening for (and it’s not impossible to read this narrative into Springsteen’s music, though I don’t think it’s his intended meaning) is one of hard work, ambition, aspiration — rising up from a hard life to a better life. They believe, as it were, in the promised land, and think that their conservative policies and trickle-down economics will bring it about. And while I disagree fiercely with this, and I think Springsteen would too, it is, at least, a real and genuine political debate that’s worth having.

It’s the third reason that worries me most. It carries me back to my teenage years in church, when rebellious kids enjoyed listening to rock music and pastors and youth leaders told us to be careful of the evil messages celebrating sex and drugs in rock’n’roll. “But I’m not even listening to the lyrics!” we would protest. “I just like the tune! I just like the beat! Who cares what the words say?”

I think a lot of the 25,000+ people rocking out to Springsteen on Sunday night in Moncton — and maybe a certain cabinet minister in the Toronto audience Friday night — are in the “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it,” camp. Who cares what the lyrics say? It’s great, anthemic rock and roll! We can all sing along to the chorus of “Born in the USA” — even those of us born in Canada — and forget that it’s a song about a guy who got kicked around, neglected and abused by the country that was supposed to be his. Let’s just dance and forget all that heavy stuff, man!

When, as teenagers, we used to tell our earnest church leaders that we just liked the tune and the beat, they would tell us that lyrics mattered, that the words to a song could affect us on a subconscious level even if we didn’t think we were listening. Oh, how I hope that’s true for politicians who like listening to Springsteen. I fear it’s not, but I hope there’s some truth to it. I hope that if you’re constantly rocking out to the stories of hurting, despairing people who got trapped in a system that was supposed to serve them but instead used and discarded them, you might eventually look beyond the tune and beat, and think about that system and what your part might be in changing it.

The song “Death to My Hometown” from the new “Wrecking Ball” album sounds, to me, like an angry sequel to one of my favourite Springsteen songs, “My Hometown.” The older song was a poignant lament about the economic devastation of an American community: the new song is a poetic rant naming, shaming and blaming those responsible. Near the end of the song, Springsteen sings:

So listen up, my Sonny boy
Be ready for when they come
For they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun

The next line starts “Now get yourself…” and the first time I heard it I was half-expecting “Get yourself a gun” or something like that, but the lyrics continue:

Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done
Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves that came around
And ate the flesh of everything they’ve found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Walk the streets as free men now
And they brought death to our hometown…

When you go out to fight against injustice, Springsteen’s narrator in this song suggests, don’t arm yourself with a gun. Arm yourself with a song, and sing it well. Tell your story. Use your art as protest. Do it with a tune so catchy the robber barons themselves will dance and sing along. Then, just maybe, the Conservative cabinet minister and the US Republican governor and the people who chartered their private jets to get to your concert, will have a chance of hearing what you’re saying.

At the very least, I think my church-school teachers got one thing right. The lyrics matter. Listen. Pay attention. This may be one of the greatest rock concerts — maybe THE greatest rock concert — you’ll ever attend, but it’s more than that. It’s so much more. If you listen to Springsteen — if you listen to any artist with opinions and a political agenda — and just hear that it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, you’re missing the most important part.



One thought on “Concert Reflections Part Two: Dancing With the Robber Barons

  1. Very well put! You nailed it!

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