What I meant is that many artists write with their audience in mind: “who will like this song, and who won’t?” To a point, this is positive: their audience can keep them honest. Past a point, this is negative: they can write something worse, or less honest, because they’re thinking of a faceless crowd rather than what might move any individual. The risk for the artist is “dumbing down” a song that doesn’t need dumbing down, or (over time) creating a career of self-parody. Most good songwriters find the happy medium: they write better when they balance this self-awareness with artistic instinct. Some don’t.
And all of this got me thinking about Bruce Springsteen.
I love most of Bruce Springsteen’s music, and I admire his career as a songwriter. But Springsteen’s most popular and celebrated songs are typically my least favorite, for the same reason I re-evaluated Born To Run some time ago: its bluster has always sounded contrived–and a little silly–to me. Maybe it’s the album’s production; maybe it’s lyrics like “wrap your legs round these velvet rims/and strap your hands across my engines”; maybe it’s the operatic warble–I’m not sure. Despite myself, I kept chuckling when I should’ve been cheering.
But my conflict wasn’t that Bruce wrote jive like velvet-rim-strap-engines, or that his fans unabashedly love it. My conflict was that I couldn’t hear the goofiness of those lyrics without considering the brilliance of “No Surrender,” and wondering who the real Bruce is.
Song of the Week: “No Surrender”
It revisits familiar Springsteen territory: themes of love, youth, dreams, desperation, hope, with a vague anti-authority underpinning. It’s also exactly the song that so many of his others want to be. It says–with each graceful, gorgeous, inspired couplet–what all of Born To Run writes around. No word is wasted, and no word is lazy. It’s written in simple language, but is undeniably poetic. It packages a narrative, characterization, multiple themes, and gorgeous imagery, all in an accessible pop melody and a winning execution. It’s proof that, when Springsteen wants to write a powerful, smart pop lyric, he’s as good as anyone (something proven more with every passing album).
But “No Surrender,” from Born In the USA, gets the full Boss studio treatment: a fist-pumping package, and an impersonal execution that belies the wonderful intimacy of the song itself. The Boss gave it that production because the he knew his audience would enjoy it. It would play well in an arena. His fans would expect and appreciate it.
Springsteen might be the major pop artist with the most clearly delineated dual voices: the guy writing for an audience (frequently well), and the guy writing for himself (frequently better). Unsurprisingly, Boss fans love all of it. But the Bruce songs I love most are the ones where he’s making one person’s story relate, rather than trying to write everybody’s story. Unlike practically every other successful artist, Springsteen gets smarter when he’s less self-aware.
To wit: “City of Ruins”
Or “Streets of Philadelphia”
Or “Blood Brothers”
And so many others. Bruce Springsteen: smart as he wants to be, and smart as we’ll allow.
Think on, Boss. You’ll rock anyway.