To paraphrase critic-turned svengali Jon Landau’s most famous sentence, written immediately before he drained all of the joy out of Bruce Springsteen’s music, I have seen the future of centrist punditry, and its name is David Brooks!
Or not. I loved David Brooks’ Bobos In Paradise, but his latest op-ed is remarkably silly, although it does have the benefit of inadvertently defining one aspect of the Bobo mindset absolutely perfectly:
Like many of you, I went to elementary school, high school and college. I took such and such classes, earned such and such grades, and amassed such and such degrees.
But on the night of Feb. 2, 1975, I turned on WMMR in Philadelphia and became mesmerized by a concert the radio station was broadcasting. The concert was by a group I’d never heard of — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Thus began a part of my second education.
We don’t usually think of this second education. For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.
In any case, over the next few decades Springsteen would become one of the professors in my second education. In album after album he assigned a new course in my emotional curriculum.
This second education doesn’t work the way the scholastic education works. In a normal schoolroom, information walks through the front door and announces itself by light of day. It’s direct. The teacher describes the material to be covered, and then everybody works through it.
The knowledge transmitted in an emotional education, on the other hand, comes indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards and through the vents. It’s generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious.
From that first night in the winter of 1975, I wanted the thrill that Springsteen was offering. His manager, Jon Landau, says that each style of music elicits its own set of responses. Rock, when done right, is jolting and exhilarating.
Once I got a taste of that emotional uplift, I was hooked. The uplifting experiences alone were bound to open the mind for learning.
I followed Springsteen into his world. Once again, it wasn’t the explicit characters that mattered most. Springsteen sings about teenage couples out on a desperate lark, workers struggling as the mills close down, and drifters on the wrong side of the law. These stories don’t directly touch my life, and as far as I know he’s never written a song about a middle-age pundit who interviews politicians by day and makes mind-numbingly repetitive school lunches at night.
Ironically, one of the best criticisms of Bruce Springsteen’s music came from a source that one would assume would be even more sympathetic to “the Boss” than Brooks himself: Slate, where Stephen Metcalf wrote in 2005:
By 1978, and the release of Darkness on the Edge of Town, the endearing Jersey wharf rat in Springsteen had been refined away. In its place was a majestic American simpleton with a generic heartland twang, obsessed with cars, Mary, the Man, and the bitterness between fathers and sons. Springsteen has been augmenting and refining that persona for so long now that it’s hard to recall its status, not only as an invention, but an invention whose origin wasn’t even Bruce Springsteen. 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 protégé’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.
Naturally, Brooks has fallen into the former camp, when it comes to his worship of one of the establishment’s biggest musicians. I’m surprised he didn’t cop to admiring the cut of Springsteen’s jeans.