Music Matters: Why Feminists* Love Bruce Springsteen
*By "feminists" I mean me.
Not long ago, I got into a conversation on Twitter about why feminists love Bruce Springsteen. Of course I can't speak for all feminists or even most feminists, but I can certainly discuss my love for Springsteen. And it seems only right to follow talk about Johnny Cash and U.S. politics with discussion of the other oft-misappropriated American blue-collar icon who's a major influence in my life.
Because yeah, Bruce and Johnny: that's what the men in my life have to live up to.
(OK, not really.)
I should credit Emma Forrest for reintroducing me to Springsteen as a semi-adult, in her novel Namedropper. But it was really a road trip with my mother, during which we ran out of music we could both stand quickly driving from South Carolina to New Hampshire, and stopped at a Best Buy highwayside to dig for something else.
I ended up with a Best of Bruce and we blasted it across New Jersey, which is the only proper way to drive the New Jersey turnpike. Bruce is the patron saint of the country's most-abused state, the one that pays the most in taxes and receives the least back.
Most people who've embodied the Myth of America are Southern or Western, but Bruce is solidly Northeast Suburban and so am I. His America is one I can relate to, one in which the brickyard-working half of my family mixes with the Ivy League Jewish half, one where my mother's love for fast cars and my dad's keep-your-head-down-and-work ethos all meet.
Reagan tried to claim Bruce and I still have a hard time with "Born in the USA" even though I know what it really means. Bruce provided the theme song for The Wrestler and performed "This Land is Your Land" with Pete Seeger at the inauguration, celebrating the broken and laughable while never laughing on the one hand and calling us to remember the best of us on the other. He played the Super Bowl not long after, and then last year he gave a song and an intimate performance to Howard Zinn's The People Speak.
So what does this have to do with feminism? Again, models for masculinity. Bruce doesn't ask anyone to give up their pleasure in these sorts of male ideals—he's the fast-car-driving, football-loving, patriotic guy who even likes pro wrestling. He just asks us to critique them.
War is the most obvious one—again, "Born in the USA"—but his The Rising is the other best response to 9/11 (with Sleater-Kinney's One Beat) and when he played its title track at the inauguration it gave me chills of something set right after seven years of being oh so wrong. He looks up at that day from the point of view of the workers and the everyday people who weren't spouting platitudes about "with us or against us," but focusing on the ways you get by when your way of life is shaken.
And of course, for me, the point is class baby, class. There's not a lot of working-class points of view that don't get an airing in a Springsteen song, from factory workers, to highway patrolmen, to migrant workers risking death crossing the border, and even a sex worker or two.
The New York Times this weekend ran a lovely feature on Bruce ahead of the release of a three-CD, three-DVD boxed set, “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story.” The piece closes with this:
“I went back to where I was from, and I looked into that world and those lives, which I understood was only tangentially going to be my life from there on in,” he said, as the fire behind him burned. “But if I was dedicated to it, and if I thought hard enough about it, and if I put in my time, I could tell those stories well. And that’s what I did.”
And that's it, really. He knew he was leaving behind that working-class world and knew he'd have to work to retain his roots there—but he's been willing to do that work where many others haven't been.
And Bruce on women (finally, she gets to the damn point):
He's been critiqued for his use of the phrase "little girl," but I love Bruce's women. From Mary from "Thunder Road" (my favorite) who ain't a beauty but yeah she's alright, and isn't looking for a savior but just someone else to run away for a while on the open road, to Rosalita and Wendy of "Born to Run," Bruce gives you women who are real, who you (or at least I) can see yourself in.
He explores relationships and feelings in a thousand complex ways instead of writing the same falling-in-love or getting-heartbroken song over again. I don't have time or space here to list them all, but I think the best I can say, the best explanation I can give, is that Bruce writes of real life, of the tiny moments in it that transcend, yes, but also the struggles and heartaches of everyday existence. That he writes from the point of view of a (now quite wealthy) white heterosexual man but one who understands and loves women as people as well.
I don't know if I've even come close to explaining Why Feminists* Love Bruce Springsteen. But at least I've scratched the surface on why this particular feminist does. And if I haven't convinced you yet, well...
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