Sunday, October 24, 2010

On Springsteen and Working-Class Heroism

In rock, during the 1970s and 1980s, Bruce Springsteen projected the image of an American blue-collar hero.

As a performer, he is transcendently excellent and charismatic. I recall my own amazement at seeing what he does live, because it did not seem to translate in the studio. Hitherto, none of his songs seemed anything more than "alright" to me. You really have to see him live to get it. (If Canada has any equivalent to this, I think it's the Tragically Hip. Friends of mine raved about them, but I remember hearing their songs on the radio and finding them unremarkable, forgettable, middle-of-the-road rock. Once I saw them live, though, it all suddenly made sense.)

What's interesting for me about the whole Springsteen phenomenon, though, is the massive white-collar following he has amassed. Tongue-in-cheek, I've sometimes wondered if Springsteen is a liberal yuppie's fantasy-come-true of what a working-class man should be.

Well, it turns out some Springsteen fans have wondered about the same thing. In his ethnography of Bruce Springsteen fans (Tramps Like Us), Daniel Cavicchi quotes one fan who thinks that most Springsteen fans are not from Springsteen's own socio-economic background:

I've read numerous published comments on the nature of Bruce's audience being incongruous with the music he sings about. We tend to be mostly upper middle class and above....A friend once questioned how I had suffered in order to understand Bruce's music? The people Bruce wrote about early on were my family, the people in my town, but they weren't me....I do not believe that the people who truly understand and enjoy Bruce's talents live those lives. Quite frankly, if I was "laid off because of the economy," I don't want to sing about it....I think you could look across the audiences of our favourite singer-songwriters (Springsteen, Petty, Seger, Mellencamp) and see a remarkable economic and social homogeneity to the audience. I would like someone to explain to me why the 200 million plus Americans who live the life Bruce sings about haven't bought the albums.

This is a great question. I've never been sure if Springsteen's music colourfully and compelling represents blue-collar America to itself, or if it offers a tangible image for middle-class listeners of a noble, politically-correct (and non-threatening?) working-class icon. Woody Guthrie played a similar role for New York folk afficionados between the 1940s and 1960s, a musician whose subaltern origins seemed to inform a righteous progressivism that agreed with the sensibilities of liberal intellectuals. In some way, consuming ostensibly working-class music like Guthrie's or Springsteen's just feels right: it's a sign of good, liberal citizenship, like giving to charity, recycling, etc.

According to the fan quoted above, it's easy for the middle-class audience to empathize with the working class, as Springsteen sings about it. Other kinds of performers representing American working class life are probably harder for such an audience to empathize with. It's interesting to compare Springsteen (a rocker) with comparable male country stars (Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels, Toby Keith). Unlike Guthrie or Springsteen, the political and social statements of these country singers are all over the map: their defiant pride in their blue-collar identity and anger at economic injustice might be consonant with progressive attitudes, but their forays into angry nationalism and conservative social causes repulse a liberal sensibility.

In the liberal middle-class imagination, then, Springsteen works as an affirmative, mythic icon of the American working class. He activates no redneck or hillbilly stereotypes for this audience, so the audience's prejudices don't stop them from embracing what he says.