David Brooks Views The Masses From His Skybox
Given what a colossally bad idea it is for a columnist like David Brooks to write about a performer like Bruce Springsteen, this could have been a lot worse. Having said that, it’s still pretty bad. Let us count the ways:
“They say you’ve never really seen a Bruce Springsteen concert until you’ve seen one in Europe, so some friends and I threw financial sanity to the winds and went to follow him around Spain and France.”
Look, if you and your friends are a bunch of ridiculously wealthy Americans visiting Europe in the midst of its worst economic crisis since the one that sparked World War II, you don’t get to play the “throwing financial sanity to the winds” card…especially after you just bought a $4 million house with “vast spaces for entertaining”.
“Here were audiences in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula singing word for word about Highway 9 or Greasy Lake or some other exotic locale on the Jersey Shore.”
And Paul McCartney has audiences all over the world who’ve never been to Liverpool but sing word for word about Penny Lane. Heck, in 1981 Queen filled a Buenos Aires stadium with Agrentinians who knew every word to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. This is what fans of pop stars do.
“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.?”
If we didn’t have another six months of David Brooks’ columns to look forward to this year, I’d go ahead and declare this the winner in the “Stupidest Rhetorical Question Of The Year” contest. Even though I wasn’t there and Brooks was, I’m reasonably confident in asserting that all 56,000 Spaniards in that audience know where they were born.
“How was it that so many people in such a faraway place can be so personally committed to the deindustrializing landscape from New Jersey to Nebraska, the world Springsteen sings about?”
(Warning: bad, pretentious, psycho-social analysis coming soon.)
“When we are children, we invent these detailed imaginary worlds that the child psychologists call “paracosms.” These landscapes, sometimes complete with imaginary beasts, heroes and laws, help us orient ourselves in reality. They are structured mental communities that help us understand the wider world. We carry this need for paracosms into adulthood.”
And there it is.
“It’s a paradox that the artists who have the widest global purchase are also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes. Millions of people around the world are ferociously attached to Tupac Shakur’s version of Compton….“
Apparently that’s the millions of people around the world who, like Brooks, are under the mistaken impression that Tupac grew up in Compton and not New York, Baltimore and Oakland.
“It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.”
And here (I think) is Brooks’ big point: that by remaining true to his Catholic, working-class, rock-n-roll roots in Freehold, NJ, and not becoming a rootless cosmopolitan “citizen of the world”, Bruce Springsteen became a fabulously successful worldwide musical phenomenon.
Unfortunately for Brooks and his thesis, this requires an almost willful ignorance of both Springsteen’s life (marrying a Hollywood actress, moving to Los Angeles, sending his children to a fancy private school) and music (Incident on 57th Street, Streets of Philadelphia, The Ghost of Tom Joad, You’re Missing to name a few).
Also unfortunately for Brooks’ thesis, Springsteen’s musical tastes are among the most voraciously pluralistic and eclectic in popular music. In his keynote speech at this years South By Southwest Festival in Austin, he repeatedly made an argument for rock and roll, and popular music that was as wildly inclusive as imaginable: “I’d like to talk about the one thing that’s been consistent over the years, the genesis and power of creativity, the power of the songwriter, or let’s say, composer, or just creator. So whether you’re making dance music, Americana, rap music, electronica, it’s all about how you are putting what you do together. The elements you’re using don’t matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing it. There’s just doing it.”
Brooks has a closing, parenthetical dig at today’s young musicians. “(Maybe this is why younger rock bands can’t fill stadiums year after year, while the more geographically defined older bands like U2, Springsteen and the Beach Boys can.)”
Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that Springsteen didn’t even play stadiums until he was in his mid-30s, Brooks also apparently doesn’t know that the Dave Matthews Band and Coldplay (among others) are filling stadiums this summer, that rappers like Jay-Z and Eminem fill stadiums when they tour, as do singers like Beyonce. (Oh yes, there’s a four-years-old-and-counting depression that’s hit young people particularly hard. That might cut into size of the paying audience for younger bands too.)
“The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.”
Give Brooks credit: he recognizes this is “pious advice”. Like most self-consciously pious advice, it’s worse than bad; it’s incoherent. Being “distinct and credible” without making an attempt to understand and connect with others is a recipe for disaster. And for better or worse, we live in a real “globalized community”, not an artificial one.
There may be a useful kernel of advice—the proverbial acorn found by a blind squirrel—in Brooks’ admonition to “go deeper into your own tradition”. As a Toronto-born Jew who attended an Anglican choir school in New York City before graduating from a Main Line high school outside of Philadelphia, he might consider taking it himself. Maybe he could start with Amos.