Is it just me, or is the critical consensus surrounding Bruce Springsteen beginning to unravel? In a Balkanized world of ’zines and microgenres—where pop music, to paraphrase Elvis Costello, is less like a charging elephant and more like water running everywhere—an artist known for his broad appeal and seeming centrality can hardly remain the big deal he was in 1975 or 1984, when the idea of a “center” still held meaning. Much of Springsteen’s perceived relevance stems from a songwriting method problematic in a hyperaware, fragmented age—those suggestively nonspecific vignettes about regular Joes and their problems, that self-consciously mythopoetic voice, the obvious (therefore “universal”) symbols. When Springsteen’s fellow Jerseyites The Wrens released The Meadowlands last September, more than one critic contrasted its personal, detailed portraits of dreams lost to the workday with Springsteen’s—and the Boss ended up losing.
But, ah, one objects: the songs. What about them? “Born To Run” is still exhilarating—a titanic matchup between Phil Spector, ’40s Hollywood composers, and Dylan in ’66—and twenty-one years of lo-fi folk laments haven’t made “Atlantic City” less convincing. Now psychologist and freelance moralist Robert Coles argues for the resilience of Springsteen’s canon by recording a variety of listeners’ reactions to his songs in Bruce Springsteen’s America.
Although Coles has written powerfully about issues ranging from school integration to child moral development, his contributions to this book come off as the weakest—sanctimonious and longwinded. The chapters in which Coles lets his subjects talk, however, may convince readers that Springsteen’s music still deserves attention: a cop wonders about the Boss’s portrayal of law enforcement; an English teacher recalls the time “The E Street Shuffle” led to a class discussion educators dream of; a businessman argues with Born in the U.S.A., while his wife asks, “Where are all the female narrators?” Movingly, a grandmother describes breaking down to “If I Should Fall Behind.” None of the essays reduce to a simple “loved it/hated it.”
Of course, anyone’s lightly edited thoughts can be hard to follow, and much of the subject matter seems uninteresting. Only the novelty of the format, appealing to buried curiosity about how non-music-nerds think, keeps one reading. And by the time you’ve noticed the speakers’ various similarities—apologetic about their extensive vocabularies (as if that’s something of which to be ashamed); generally beginning their conversation with the same line “This guy, this fellow Springsteen”; and prone, like Springsteen himself, to fetishize the word “American”—you start to wonder how genuine the very conceit is. Why do these interviews sound so similar, and why do they all seem to conform to sentimental academic stereotypes about how Real Americans think?
I can’t imagine this book finding much of an audience beyond Springsteen fans and Coles’ audience. I like, however, the way it sketches two opposite roads music criticism could, and perhaps should, take: more books pairing respected authors with pop stars—John Updike and Deerhoof! Gore Vidal and Rufus Wainwright!—and more creative avenues by which nonprofessional reviewers can interact with music, and benefit the rest of us with their thoughts. A book of better interviews, from folks not normally paid to have opinions about such things but who do so out of love and interest, would not be something to wave away.