Finally, at TNR, Bruce Springsteen has received the put-down he has deserved for quite some time, written by the magazine’s long-time literary editor, Leon Wieseltier. The singer-songwriter has recently received two major rave articles, one by Jeffrey Golodberg in The Atlantic, and the other by David Remnick in The New Yorker. In his usual acerbic style, Wieseltier tears apart these two examples of bad journalism. He makes the following point:
David Remnick’s 75,000-word profile of Bruce Springsteen is another one of his contributions to the literature of fandom. Once again there is a derecho of detail and the conventional view of his protagonist, the official legend, is left undisturbed. It could have been written by the record company.
Calling both articles on Springsteen “articulate swoon” and “stenographic journalism,” and later makes the point that “nobody tries harder and less persuasively, to be everyman than Bruce Springsteen.” Once a fan of Springsteen — I recall a column Wiesltier wrote many decades ago about hearing him in concert for the first time and how exciting he thought it was — he is candid to acknowledge his “musical decline” which includes “the sanctimony, the grandiosity, the utterly formulaic monumentality; the witlessness; the tiresome recycling of those antithetic figures, each time more preposterously distended…” You get the idea.
When it comes to Springsteen’s left-wing politics, Wieseltier does not let Springsteen off the hook:
Nothing has damaged Springsteen’s once-magnificent music more than his decision to become a spokesman for America. He is Howard Zinn with a guitar. The wounded workers in his songs do not have the authenticity of acquaintance; they are pious hackneyed tropes, stereotypical class martyrs from Guthrie and Steinbeck. Springsteen’s sympathy is genuine, but his people are not. His 9/11 and recession songs are bloated editorials: “where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” His anger that “the banker man grows fat” is too holy: “if I had a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight” is not a “liberal insistence.” I prefer Dodd-Frank. The drawl in his voice is a production value, the grit a mannerism. A few minutes with one of Johnny Cash’s last records and it is impossible to take Springsteen’s vernacular seriously. A few minutes with Lucinda Williams (who is perilously close to becoming a prisoner of her own mannerisms) and the costs of preferring sermons to experiences are clear. When was the last time Springsteen wrote a song as moving and true as Alejandro Escovedo’s “Down in the Bowery”?
Or as Dylan once said of Phil Ochs, “You’re not a songwriter, Phil, you’re a journalist.” In a nice turn, Wiesltier ends his article by turning the to 60’s sage Herbert Marcuse, who was upset that America would not have a revolution, but would “contain its contradictions without resolving them; it will absorb opposition and reward it.” Wieseltier agrees, and notes that this is “good news, because we will be spared the agonies of political purifications.” And he notes, “protest songs become entertainment for the rich,” and its bard Springsteen “the idol of the elite.”
Kudos to Wieseltier for going against the grain, and for telling the truth about the much heralded so-called boss.