Saturday, January 18, 2014

Springsteen Goes Viral

Bruce Springsteen has made national headlines many times over the past 30 years.

But he's never really been an internet sensation. His website is modest with few interactive features beyond links to order products. His official videos on youtube, especially of more recent vintage, typically generate fewer than a million views. His first twitter post was just a few months ago.

That changed Wednesday morning.

On Tuesday, Bruce's latest studio album, High Hopes, was officially released. That didn't make a dent.

But that evening, he appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. And by Wednesday morning, seemingly the whole world knew about it. My facebook wall exploded with links. Not just from my Bruce friends, either: From my old high school friends from New Jersey. From college friends in the diaspora. From conservatives.

Bruce's appearance on Late Night came as no surprise; after all in 2010 he went in the show and spoofed his own '70's look for a comedy bit with Fallon, and in 2012 Springsteen essentially took over the show for a week upon the release of the Wrecking Ball album. I figured this time they might use Bruce's most iconic look, the Born in the USA tour denim and bandana, as they'd done for the final show in 2012. On that part I guessed right, but I didn't see the rest of it coming.

Shortly after Bruce's Late Night appearance was announced, news broke that New Jersey governor Chris Christie's office had masterminded the September shutdown of two local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, causing massive gridlock in Fort Lee.

Comedic gold.


Christie, of course, is a major Springsteen fan. He claims to have attended 130 shows, and to have wept after Springsteen hugged him. Once, Christie even appeared on Late Night himself, and sang a duet of Thunder Road with Fallon.

George Washington Bridge Traffic Jam
Fort Lee, NJ, September 6, 2013
After a commercial break, Bruce Springsteen was announced. Of course, it was Fallon; strumming the opening chords to "Born to Run" on an acoustic guitar, faithfully crooning: In the day we sweat it out on the streets... and then the first bomb: stuck in traffic on the GWB. The first verse continued with original lines, modified lines, and broadsides, leading to the chorus: We're stuck in Governor Chris Christie's Fort Lee, New Jersey traffic jam!"

Then Bruce came out, looking every bit a Roman God, and, holy shit do you see his arms? I want to touch his arms!! He could go on tour like that, right now!

He stared down Fallon, and started the 2nd verse by playing with the original lines: Governor, let me in, I wanna be your friend...ˆ That sounds conciliatory! Present tense, even! And it's kind of cute.

The second line, "Let me wrap my legs 'round your mighty rims and relieve your stressful condition?"

Did he really just sing that?

Thankfully, Bruce did not want an everlasting kiss from the governor. He wanted a different kind of relief: "I really gotta take a leak."

Somewhere in there, the parody went from cute to brilliant. Laughs and truth hung out together, words of conciliation and self-deprecation colliding with the finality of a blunt condemnation: "you're killing the working man." You. Not your staff. Not anyone else. You.

I imagined Governor Christie, returned from that evening's State of the State address, watching it. Did he cry over Bruce seeming to sever their friendship? Or was he more a Mike Wozowski: "I'm in... a BRUCE SONG!!!"

nytimes.com put it on the front page, with the headline blaring, "A Tale of Devotion, and a Very Public Snub." It seemed, every major news outlet ran with it; washingtonpost.com went for "skewer." The crowing moment waiting until Thursday. That's when Rush Limbaugh made a hilariously whiny statement on his radio show. Pay dirt!

By Friday evening, the youtube page for the video had 2.5 million page views, and other sites had received millions more. Springsteen had gone viral!

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On the way home yesterday, a sudden snow storm caused traffic to slow to a crawl. My half hour commute became two hours. As I round the last corner of my last detour to home, I thought, "I really gotta take a leak."

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Bruce Springsteen, Elections, and Songs of Hope

Jay-Z, Barrack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. Columbus, November 5, 2012. 
A few days ago, I read an article posted on the Rolling Stone website. Springsteen producer Ron Aniello was talking about Bruce's latest album, High Hopes. Talking about how the project began, Aniello said, "I remember that Bruce called me on my birthday, so it was December 9th, 2012. He said to me, 'I have some songs. I want to get together.'"

Aniello went on to talk about how Bruce tends to work, and how the process unfolded.

I keyed in on the date.

On November 4, 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected to his first term as President of the United States. The next evening, Bruce introduced Badlands by saying, "I don't know what you guys think about what happened last night but I think it's pretty frightening. You guys are young, there's gonna be a lot of people depending on you coming up so this is for you." The song performance, without the spoken introduction, was eventually released to the public on Live: 1975-85. It is a song of determination and hope in the face of troubled times:
I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the faith the can save me
I believe and I hope and I pray
The some day it may raise me
Above these badlands
On November 3, 1992, Bill Clinton was elected to his first term as President of the United States. This time, Springsteen's reaction was quite a bit different. He opened the 2nd set of a concert in Milwaukee by announcing, "All right, we got a new President of the United States, Bill Clinton"; later in the show he dedicated Glory Days to the president-elect.
A lighter tone in concert: Cleveland, April 17, 2012.

In 1996, with the Democrat Clinton winning again, Springsteen again took a lighter tone after the election. Introducing Red Headed Woman, he would say something like, "I got some theories about cunnilingus. One is I believe that if Bob Dole during the election had not tried to push for that 15 percent tax cut but instead decided to use cunnilingus as a part of his platform... 'I'm Bob Dole, I believe in strong America and cunnilingus,' ,..generally that, that might have helped close the gender gap for him."

Springsteen did not become explicitly partisan in national elections, though, until his participation in the Vote For Change tour in 2004. He told Rolling Stone that when growing up, his mother had told him, "We're Democrats, 'cause Democrats are for the working people," but that he "wanted to remain an independent voice for the audience... Part of not being particularly partisan was just an effort to remain a very thoughtful voice in my fans' lives." He added, "I always liked being involved actively at a grassroots level, to act as a partisan for a set of ideals: civil rights, economic justice, a sane foreign policy, democracy. That was the position I felt comfortable coming from."

Springsteen explained further, in a Nightline interview with Ted Koppel, "You build up credibility, and you build it up for a reason, you know, over a long period of time, and hopefully we've built up that credibility with our audience. And I have an audience that's Democrats, Republicans and everything else, you know. And I think there comes a time when you feel, all right, I've built this up, and it's time to spend some of this." He then ticked off various things that he found wrong with the events of the prior 4 years: large tax cuts for the richest one percent, cuts in services to the needy, environmental rollbacks, and risking young people's lives in unnecessary wars.
Campaigning for Obama. November 5, 2012.

Of course, Bruce's candidate, John Kerry, lost that election. Bruce wasn't on tour, so reacting from the stage wasn't an option.

A few months later, he told John Pareles of The New York Times"I had a couple of weeks where it was like, ah, Patti had to peel me off the wall. And then it was onward and upward." That is, he threw himself in to his work. The first project he completed was Devils & Dust, which started with a soldier "just trying to survive" in Iraq, and ends with an immigrant dreaming of a better life, just before drowning in the Rio Grande.

Even before speaking to Mr. Pareles about that album, Springsteen also resumed work on  We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The tone of the album was joyful, arguably even defiant. One of the last songs recorded for that album, Jacob's Ladder, recalls the biblical story of Jacob's dream of the ladder reaching to heaven. The lyrics are simple, combining action, will, strength, and brotherhood to attain a better place:
We are climbing Jacob's ladder...
Every rung goes higher and higher...
Every new rung, just makes us stronger...
We are brothers and sisters, all
In 2008, Springsteen campaigned again, only this time, his candidate won. In his final campaign appearance before the election he debuted the song Working On a Dream, which would become the title track of his next album. The tone, even in the midst of a great recession, was optimistic.

By 2012, though, Springsteen appeared less than completely thrilled with Obama's progress. We Take Care of Our Own seemed to take Democratic leadership -- and Obama -- to task in a manner he had previously reserved for Republicans. "The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone," he sang; considering he'd never accused Republican leadership of having "good intentions," that could only have been aimed at Obama's administration.

In an interview with Agance France-Presse, Bruce said that while he still supported Obama, he thought Obama was "more friendly to corporations than I thought he would be, (and) there's not as many middle-class or working-class voices heard in the administration as I thought there would be." When asked if he would campaign again, he initially backed off: "I prefer to stay on the sidelines. I genuinely believe an artist (is) supposed to be the canary in the coalmine, and you're better off with a certain distance from the seat of power."

Campaigning for Obama. Ypsilanti, October 6, 2008.
Of course, Bruce did end up campaigning for Obama, even singing We Take Care of Our Own at several campaign events. But Springsteen also made clear why he joined: "That first debate really freaked me out," he said on stage. He was a reluctant warrior. Bruce was "proud to be standing with" Obama, but he didn't seem altogether happy to be there.

Though Bruce generally lauded the President in his remarks, he also said things like this: "I'm also troubled by thirty years of an increasing disparity in wealth between our best off citizens and everyday Americans. That is a disparity that threatens to divide us into two distinct and separate nations. We have to be better than that." The implication was that increasing disparity started with Reagan, and that Obama's opponent would not be "better than that," but I find it interesting to note that Springsteen didn't claim that Obama had been better than that, either. Echoing the words of We Take Care of Our Own, he just said we need to be better than that, and left it there.

The national election was on November 6, 2012. Springsteen's man won. One month later, he threw himself in to a project to polish off some incomplete songs, just as he had 8 years earlier. The lead-off track, the title track for the new album, was written by Tim Scott McConnell. It includes these lines:
I wanna have a wife, I wanna have some kids
I wanna look in their eyes and know they'll stand a chance
In my initial reaction to this latest release, I struggled to find an "arc"for it.

To some extent, that is still true. But it seems not all that different than what he told John Pareles about his reaction to 2004. A couple weeks, then "onward and upward." From defiant high hopes, to a plea to keep on dreaming, together.

all photographs (except album cover): Matthew Orel