I fulfilled a long held ambition last week – seeing Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band live in concert. It lived up to all expectations. And then some, in a three hour virtuoso performance.
Shortly after I read David Brooks’ New York Times column on what he took from watching Springsteen in Europe. It contained this pearler:
The oddest moment came midconcert when I looked across the football stadium and saw 56,000 enraptured Spaniards, pumping their fists in the air in fervent unison and bellowing at the top of their lungs, “I was born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A.!” Did it occur to them at that moment that, in fact, they were not born in the U.S.A.?
FFS. How do you get paid good money to write that? I doubt European audiences have any trouble recalling their place of birth. Sometimes they just like a good tune.
Brooks then riffs (sic) off this observation to develop a theory of how we need imaginary worlds (‘paracosms’) and how the best imaginary worlds are those based on the local and the power of the particular.
On Open Culture, Dan Colman endorses that interpretation but also adds the idea that Springsteen’s appeal is based on transcendence – “his ability to transcend his own music and embrace the universal spirit of rock ‘n roll.”
I don’t think we should over-intellectualize our personal passions, though Springsteen is very interesting when he talks about creativity and remix culture, something Brooks ignores with his opposition to “pluralism and eclecticism.”
But there is something we can learn about storytelling from this. The opposition of local/global, particular/universal that structures Brooks’ and Coleman’s readings both misses something and inserts too much for my liking.
I think many fans outside of New Jersey identify with Springsteen because the personal and social concerns he writes and sings about. These are points of intersection with the audience, links between us and the narrative, moments of possible identification. They aren’t structured by geography. They reflect recognisable experiences. To develop compelling stories we don’t need to rely (in Brooks’ terms) on the geography of our past, or, in Colman’s formulation, invoke a universal spirit. We just need (and here Brooks’ is right) to have a commitment to be credible and distinct, and offer stories that can connect in one way or another.
And sometimes those connections can be utterly prosaic. After all, when you live through an English summer that produces storms like this, who could not get something from someone singing this:
Photo: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, Stadium of Light, Sunderland, June 2012 / David Campbell