Ed Driscoll

Meet The New Boss

One of the better articles that Slate has run was Stephen Metcalf’s 2005 profile of Bruce Springsteen, which (I think quite accurately) named manager Jon Landis as Bruce’s downfall, transforming him from a funky regional act to a commercial superstar–and punitive establishment bore:

For all the po-faced mythic resonance that now accompanies Bruce’s every move, we can thank Jon Landau, the ex-Rolling Stone critic who, after catching a typically seismic Springsteen set in 1974, famously wrote, “I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

Well, Bruce Springsteen was Jon Landau’s future. Over the next couple of years, Landau insinuated himself into Bruce’s artistic life and consciousness (while remaining on the Rolling Stone masthead) until he became Springsteen’s producer, manager, and full-service Svengali. Unlike the down-on-their-luck Springsteens of Freehold, N.J., Landau hailed from the well-appointed suburbs of Boston and had earned an honors degree in history from Brandeis. He filled his new protege’s head with an American Studies syllabus heavy on John Ford, Steinbeck, and Flannery O’Connor. At the same time that he intellectualized Bruce, he anti-intellectualized him. Rock music was transcendent, Landau believed, because it was primitive, not because it could be avant-garde. The White Album and Hendrix and the Velvet Underground had robbed rock of its power, which lay buried in the pre-Beatles era with Del Shannon and the Ronettes. Bruce’s musical vocabulary accordingly shrank. By Darkness on the Edge of Town, gone were the West Side Story-esque jazz suites of The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. In their place were tight, guitar-driven intro-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus songs. Springsteen’s image similarly transformed. On the cover of Darkness, he looks strangely like the sallower cousin of Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik, the already quite sallow anti-hero of Dog Day Afternoon. The message was clear: Springsteen himself was one of the unbeautiful losers, flitting along the ghostly fringes of suburban respectability.

Thirty years later, and largely thanks to Landau, Springsteen is no longer a musician. He’s a belief system. And, like any belief system worth its salt, he brooks no in-between. You’re either in or you’re out. This has solidified Bruce’s standing with his base, for whom he remains a god of total rock authenticity. But it’s killed him with everyone else. To a legion of devout nonbelievers–they’re not saying Bruuuce, they’re booing–Bruce is more a phenomenon akin to Dianetics or Tinkerbell than “the new Dylan,” as the Columbia Records promotions machine once hyped him. And so we’ve reached a strange juncture. About America’s last rock star, it’s either Pentecostal enthusiasm or total disdain.

Springsteen used his power with his base to become something safe and respectable, the left’s answer to Pat Boone. He’s the definitive establishment rock star–it’s no coincidence that Springsteen’s most visible when it’s an election year and there’s a Democratic president to elect.

Bruce’s fame, as Metcalf noted above, derives from repetition and predictability. Because, as Kyle Smith notes, no matter who’s in office, when Bruce is at the local football stadium or hockey arena, it’s always Darkness On The Edge Of Town:

There is a bracing consistency in Springsteenian gloom, from the Ford years (“The street’s on fire, a real death waltz”) to Carter’s (“Lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy”) to Reagan’s (“This old world is rough, it’s just getting rougher”) to the first Bush’s (“Ain’t no mercy on the streets of this town, ain’t no bread from heavenly skies”) to Clinton’s (“Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia?”) to the second Bush’s (“Woke up Election Day, skies gunpowder and shades of gray”). If the Boss has a motto, it has always been this: No hope, no change, no way.

But as Kyle asks, what happens when one of show business’s most famously punitive liberals can’t blame America first for a change?

(Incidentally, after a surprisingly long absence, note that the text of Kyle’s blog is back online.)