What's With Conservative Springsteen Fans?
What's with the spate of conservative Springsteen fans? Today, it is David Brooks reporting back from his tour with the Boss through Spain and France. The column is actually not that bad. It's several notches above what we have lately come to expect from Mr. Brooks. He mercifully spares us any false dichotomies, although we do get treated to a new word from child psychology: "paracosms." And I have something to say about that.
Although Brooks appears to be very familiar with Springsteen's body of work, he still approaches a Springsteen concert much like a British anthropologist in Borneo. "Don't these Spaniards know that they were not, in fact, born in the USA? Why do they sing along as though they were? I know. Paracosms!"
When we are children, we invent these detailed imaginary worlds that the child psychologists call “paracosms.” These landscapes, sometimes complete with imaginary beasts, heroes and laws, help us orient ourselves in reality. They are structured mental communities that help us understand the wider world.
Of course, Springsteen has created a landscape filled with shut down strangers and hot rod angels, broken heroes and fat cat villains. But David Brooks doesn't allow himself to be immersed in this world. What does Mr. Brooks know of taconite, coke, and limestone, or smokestacks reaching like the arms of God into a beautiful sky of soot and clay? He knows nothing about that. It doesn't speak to him at all.
The job of a lyricist or a poet is not to tell you what happened, but to get you to feel what they feel. If you are creating your own paracosm, this happens automatically. But if you are creating a paracosm for others' enjoyment or edification, your task is get people to enter into your creation and experience it as their own. When Springsteen sings about the Ghost of Tom Joad, he's putting you under a bridge with hot soup on a campfire. You are supposed to go there, to be there. You are not supposed to stand back aloof and wonder why Springsteen appeals to people who have never been homeless, living out of their car.
If an artist fails to get any appreciable number of people to enter their created universe, they'll be a failure. But that's obviously not the case with Springsteen, whose European fans are described by Brooks as "two standard deviations" more frenzied in their devotion to the Boss than their cultish American counterparts. Springsteen is a rousing success as a poet, lyricist, and musician. Yet, it appears Mr. Brooks cannot really get it. His interpretation of Springsteen's success is totally detached. And it's hopelessly pinched.
It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.
What Brooks is saying here is that Springsteen is very consistent and that he stays with certain themes, musically and lyrically, and that he has created a kind of narrative, much like J.K. Rowling did with the Harry Potter books. There's definitely something to this observation, but it completely misses about 99% of Springsteen's appeal. Using Brooks' analysis, we could change the content and characters of Springsteen's universe from working class America to the boardrooms of corporate Europe and nothing essential would be lost. As long as the artist was speaking from experience and was honest and consistent, the paracosm could be just as effective and the artist equally successful.
Even if we stipulate that such a hypothetical artist could exist and could be wildly successful, the fan base would be much different and the types of emotions evoked would be completely dissimilar.
I have heard it said that conservative comedians are not funny because they punch down instead of punching up. The same would be true about an artist who sang about the troubles of corporate CEO's. Springsteen's newest single is called, "We Take Care of Our Own." Of course, the point is that we increasingly fail to take care of our own. There's a moral element to everything Springsteen does. It's about the sheep and the goats. If Springsteen gives us the "tortured Catholic overtones" of celebrating your nineteenth birthday with a union card and a wedding coat, he also insists that we be judged by what we did for the "least of these." Did we give the hungry something to eat and the thirsty something to drink? Did we give the stranger hospitality? Did we look after the sick and give clothing to the poor? Did we visit people in prison?
If we didn't do those things, then Springsteen brings a judgmental and condemning eye. Springsteen is in that same prophetical line. His appeal is Biblical, which is a little more universal and profound than a child's world of make-believe.
I have one final observation. Brooks was amazed at the spectacle of Spaniards singing, "I was born in the USA." True Springsteen fans were more amazed at the spectacle of conservatives doing the same as if that song were patriotic. The song tells the story of a young boy who got in trouble with the law and was shipped off to Vietnam. His brother was killed there. When he got back, he got a job at a refinery where the management was not understanding. The Veteran's Hospital was unhelpful. Ten years after returning from the war he's in a nowhere job, heading nowhere, and living in the shadow of the penitentiary. He's a "long gone Daddy in the USA." Spanish unemployment is at 25% right now. Is it possible that a good number of those chanting Spaniards were actually more aware of what they were hearing than David Brooks?