Thursday, March 15, 2012

Springsteen, Women, and why artists are always looking in from outside

Here's a blog post responding to a blog post about a blog post. I love the internet!

Monica D'Antonio over at X Rated has an excellent essay about Bruce Springsteen's song presentations of men and women. Read it as well as the original article by Rebecca Bohanan ("The Only Three Women in Bruce Springsteen's Music"), which sparked Monica's analytical fury.

Then, because you have an hour of your life reading 3 articles about Bruce Springsteen, consider my additional thoughts here (with very inadequate summaries of Bohanan and D'Antonio):

Rebecca Bohanan acknowledges that Springsteen's a man and is thus entitled to write about men; but she accuses him of stereotyping females as saviors, objects, and/or goals. She cites lyrics (many of which are from 70s/early80s). She says she's a huge fan of his music, but that he's writing about a male type that's 50-60 outdated; and his women are barely present.

Monica's analysis (why didn't you read it, fool?) does an excellent job of citing lyrics to contend that Springsteen has plenty of male-female relationships that are about friendship; she also points out that the damaged men are often unhappy regardless of what the women do, which I'd like to expand upon a bit.

With music and poetry, people often fall into the trap of equating narrators with the authors. Some singers/poets invite that merging; others exploit that mistake.

I contend that Springsteen is not even writing from HIS perspective in most of his songs (especially once he achieves commercial success -- you think he's really knocking girls up, robbing banks, working at factories, etc after BORN IN THE USA?)

I reiterate, first, that the artist always views the world from the outside. Thus, they are from the world but disconnected. That disconnection comes before the artwork can flourish. The art is as much an escape as getting into a car and driving to a new town (and then writing songs about the old town). But there is a difference between the man who yearns of a chance to drive away from his burdens and sadness and the artist, who truly escapes but still suffers -- as the Marxists of the Harlem Renaissance learned, the working class doesn't have time to write stories and poems and songs about their own plight if they are working 12 hours a day. The artist is privileged in that they have opportunity to create, power to create, or the will to sacrifice time to create. This does not make the artist a better human being than a man or woman who works, raises kids, etc; this simply makes the artist an artist. The artist chooses the nontraditional path -- the chance to communicate something, but still suffer.

Remember: the artist is always outside looking in.

Springsteen, an artist writing from the outside of a world he knew first hand, is writing about a perspective that still exists, despite what Bohanan wants to admit. The alienated male stuck in ideas/communities does seem socially and politically 50-60 years out of date, but one cannot wish it away. It still exists. Nor can you fault the artist for shining light on it, unless they seem to be celebrating the suffering or championing the old ideas. Springsteen is not championing the class struggles of the men he sings about; at worst he's not writing songs about the class struggles of women. But is that really worth criticizing him for? (Consider: would he be able to satisfyingly represent the female perspective? maybe. Or, more interestingly, would Bohanan critique a singer who sings about the pain of racial divides? Even better, why isn't she critiquing Bruce for focusing on white men?)

According to Bohanan, these songs miss the opportunity to champion her ideology that men and women can achieve both happiness and equal power in relationships. I happen to agree with that ideology. But -- and this is what irritates me about her article -- not all men and women think that way! Springsteen is singing about the men that don't think that way; or, more accurately, he's singing about the men who are discovering that they don't think that way, but don't know how else to act!

Springsteen sings about these men and women and, while he champions their ability to survive, he never cheers the culture that allows their situations to exist! (As Monica points out, Springsteen doesn't seem to think their outdated/traditional perspectives will lead to any type of happiness.) It's a career-spanning critique: the struggle of men raised to accept traditional gender roles, struggling in near poverty (and worse). And maybe he's a Romantic, but Springsteen seems to think that Love (yes, with a capital L) still exists and can make the pain bearable.

It's here that I'm reminded of a quote from James Baldwin's story "Sonny's Blues," where the narrator confronts his brother Sonny about his (Sonny's) heroin addiction. They begin to talk about what's really important to them -- the nature of surviving in post-War Harlem when drugs and music offer a way out for guys like Sonny who cannot achieve middle class success/happiness.

"But there's no way NOT to suffer, is there Sonny?"
"No. There's no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem--well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you're suffering for it. [...N]obody just takes it!"

Springsteen's men use love the same way Sonny uses jazz and heroin -- they still suffer, but they feel like they're doing something if they don't suffer alone. In the climax of James Baldwin's classic story, the narrator watches his sober brother play piano with 2 of his friends and the connection amongst the musicians is foreign (to the narrator) but beautiful. It's the thing that will keep Sonny alive, even if he suffers. Springsteen is talking about the same thing, as far as I'm concerned. Love, even if it can't cure suffering, makes suffering bearable. Love makes the working class man, who's brought up with the traditional male gender role of silent suffering provider, feel less alone.

Bohanan basically comes across as an elitist citing sexism when she misses that Springsteen is a class critic.

Does Springsteen focus on the way class destroys men more than women? Yes. Are there female artists who focus on the way class destroys women? Yes. Do we need one artist to do both? No. Bohanan would have done better to find the complimentary artist that highlights the struggle of working class women, instead of blaming Springsteen for doing something he clearly hasn't been trying to do!