During a recent visit to Chicago, some friends and I got into a debate over Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. One friend argued that the album’s theme of economic disparity felt fake due to Springsteen’s status as a multi-millionaire: “He hasn’t been close to struggling since The River.”
True, Bruce Springsteen is one of the world’s most famous rock stars and The Wrecking Ball Tour is sure to be one of the top grossing tours of the the year. There probably is some truth that Springsteen hasn’t struggled with money since The River which was recorded over 30 years ago. But those struggles stayed with him, and will always be a part of his songwriting. As he pointed out to Jon Stewart in a recent issue of Rolling Stone: “We talk, we write, and even as late in the day as I am, we experience so much through the formative years of our life. That never goes away.” Jay-Z says something similar in his book Decoded: “If you get that into your head that somehow you’re exceptional, then you’ve created some distance between where you are and where you’re from…”
While Springsteen is far removed from the struggles that form the basis of Occupy Wall Street, he has sung about these struggles before. The songs that form Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska deal with these issues. Because he is now finically secure, does that mean he should drop these songs from his set-list and stick to songs that conform to his current life-style? What would a Bruce Springsteen who sings about sipping wine out of a chalice sound like? There would be cries of selling-out, for sure. At this point in his career, Springsteen has a certain image to up-keep and no matter what you think of his political views, if he sang about how great his life in his mansion was, that would seem more hollow.
I know several Springsteen fans that love him and respect him, but find his views a bit questionable. But to them, he still makes great rock and roll and still go see him every time he comes to town. In the same vein, you could argue that The Sex Pistols’ ancharchistic view of the world is a bit simplistic, but Nevermind the Bollocks remains one of the greatest albums ever recorded.
Personal lives and art do not, and should not have to line-up exactly. According to James Joyce, In a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in order to be a true artist, the “artist prolongs and broods himself as the center of an epical event…the narrative is no longer personal.”
According to Joyce then, Springsteen is actually closer to true artistic integrity of the economic issues by being removed from the narrative he is referring to. Perspectives in a particular song do not have to take one’s own experiences into account in order to them to work. Mick Jagger is certainly not the Devil (though some have argued that point) but “Sympathy for the Devil” is an engaging portrait of the Prince of Darkness. Are we really to believe that he (Jagger) “rolled a tank and held a general’s rank while the Blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank”? Similarly, Johnny Cash never murdered anyone but that doesn’t make his proclamation that he “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” any less chilling.
Springsteen’s themes on Wrecking Ball might not be to one’s particular taste. But because Springsteen is a millionaire doesn’t make it any less authentic. He (Springsteen) is not the “Jack of All Trades” who “will mow your lawn, clean the leaves from your drain”. But for many listeners, they will identify with themselves in the song.
If “economic issues” trump everything in art, therein lies a problem. If we, as listeners start to dictate what an artist should be talking about in a particular song or album, then we start to go a slippery slope. It could start with economic issues, but where does it stop? In a way, it becomes a form of imposed censorship on the artist. And any form of censorship on art isn’t good for anybody.