Sunday, November 29, 2009

Springsteen on a Sunday

This is more properly a David Brooks on a Sunday. But he's not cool, hence the Springsteen tag. Brooks is smart. And he's a good writer. He tends to be more conservative than I am, but he writes thoughtful articles that come from a variety of sources. So we will use his love of Springsteen to highlight his writing.

In a column this week, Brooks writes about emotional educations ( This "second education," Brooks maintains, is more important to our long term happiness and doesn't come through traditional educational channels. It is essentially a cultural education and comes to us through exposure to popular music, movies, and from our friends and family.

I like this, mostly because it justifies my near obsession with certain forms of music and the hundreds of dollars I have spent on itunes. I have certainly had my share of formal education through traditional channels, but I am also deeply invested in this "second education" as well. And if Brooks is right, then this has been a good investment.

Brooks' primary instructor in his second education was Bruce Springsteen. He writes about the religious experience that accompanied hearing a Springsteen album on the radio. know these people, these who count their spiritual/cultural awakening to a Springsteen album or concert. My good friend and colleague, John Ogren, recently travelled from St Paul to the Meadowlands to take in two nights of Bruce. That would make four Bruce concerts in the last two years, one of which he took his two young boys, to initiate them in this formative world. (Brooks also writes about taking his kids to their first concert). I am not one of these people. Bruce is well represented in my itunes, and I think The Rising is one of the most significant cultural responses to 9/11 out there. But he lacks a sense of irony for me. His music is too earnest, and that often results in cheesy.

Brooks admits as much. Springsteen majors in anthems, not irony, in victory and defeat, not so much in meaning or lack thereof in life. And this is where I think Brooks is on to something. Many who comment on popular culture from a "Christian" perspective look for biblical allusions, or points made in songs that might support a Christian teaching or lesson. These are for me often superficial and pointers at best to deeper resonances. Brooks talks about Springsteen's world.

"What mattered most, as with any artist, were the assumptions behind the stories. His tales take place in a distinct universe, a distinct map of reality. In Springsteen’s universe, life’s “losers” always retain their dignity. Their choices have immense moral consequences, and are seen on an epic and anthemic scale.

There are certain prominent neighborhoods on his map — one called defeat, another called exaltation, another called nostalgia. Certain emotional chords — stoicism, for one — are common, while others are absent."

This universe is funded by many sources. But the issue is the world writ large, or universe, imagined in the body of material. Good artists have both a definable and thickly articulated world (this is why Dylan on a Sunday works for so many weeks). Brooks thinks his second education at Springsteen's feet allowed him to see his life through a different world. As he points out, the characters in Springsteen songs are not typically "about a middle-age pundit who interviews politicians by day and makes mind-numbingly repetitive school lunches at night." Still, Bruce's map of the world "has worked its way into my head, influencing the way I organize the buzzing confusion of reality, shaping the unconscious categories through which I perceive events." A second education, a very formative education.

In this sense, music is both important and necessary. And asking what kind of world is being imagined by an artist is important and necessary.

1 comment:

happytheman said...

Thanks again Mark, lot of emotions came up reading this...