They say you’ve never really read a David Brooks column until you’ve read one over lunch at The Palm, so I threw financial sanity to the winds and booked a table for myself and a stack of as many columns as I could print out before the New York Times’ paywall kicked in. But what really fascinated me were the crowds.
Here were titans of industry, media moguls, wealthy lobbyists and lobbyists-to-be, savoring Brooksian anecdotes about Applebees salad bars and Sam’s Club bulk toilet paper. Did it occur to them that, in fact, they were not at an Applebees, where they could dine for a week for the price of The Palm’s 14 ounce double cut filet mignon?
OK, I’ll stop there, mostly because David Brooks is too boring to parody at length. His latest terrible column is about attending Bruce Springsteen concerts in Spain and France, where he was bewildered to find that European audiences are so fond of a musician who sings about New Jersey. Of Spaniards singing along to Born in the U.S.A., Brooks wonders, “Did it occur to them at that moment that, in fact, they were not born in the U.S.A.?,” which has to be the dumbest question ever asked in the pages of the New York Times.
Bruce Springsteen’s popularity in Europe would, I suppose, be mildly perplexing if Springsteen did, in fact, sing principally about New Jersey. He doesn’t. His songs are about people and ideas and concepts and the human condition more than they are about the Garden State. Fourth of July (Asbury Park) isn’t about July 4, or Asbury Park. Racing in the Street isn’t about Kingsley Avenue. Born to Run isn’t about highway 9. The River isn’t about a damn river. Springsteen uses locations as a backdrop for his stories, and to give them detail that makes them feel tangible. It’s a common literary device that, among other things, allows writers to address broad concepts in a way that is familiar and relatable rather than abstract and bloodless. (I can’t help wondering if Brooks thinks Springsteen songs are about places that are foreign to Spaniards because the people the songs are really about -- and their problems -- are so foreign to the very wealthy Brooks.*)
None of this should come as much of a surprise to anyone who has completed fifth grade English class. It certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise to David Brooks, a professional writer who uses places like Applebees and Sam’s Club and Red Lobster as the backdrop for columns and books that are actually about people and ideas and concepts and the human condition, which is why they are read by members of the ruling elite who couldn’t possibly care less in which aisle Sam’s Club stocks the peanut butter. Or, at least, I assume that’s what Brooks’ columns are really about. I’ve read enough of them in the past to know that I’m better off reading as few of them as possible in the present. Maybe he really does write about Sam’s Club qua Sam’s Club?
A few paragraphs of armchair psychoanalysis leads Brooks to the lesson he draws from Springsteen’s European popularity:
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.
That’s a fascinating lesson to draw from the success of Bruce Springsteen, who is generally seen not as “embodying a distinct musical tradition” but as a writer and performer who synthesizes the likes of Elvis and Dylan and James Brown and Sam Moore and Woody Guthrie into one package. Listen to Kitty’s Back followed by Dry Lightning followed by Adam Raised a Cain followed by Rocky Ground, then tell me Springsteen’s identity is “formed by hard boundaries” and he “embodies a distinct musical tradition.” Listen to the four albums Springsteen released during the Bush administration -- The Rising, Devil’s & Dust, The Seeger Sessions, and Magic -- and then try to argue that his work stands in contrast to “pluralism and eclecticism.”
Basically, Brooks doesn’t know what he’s talking about. How else to explain the preposterous claim, unlike younger acts, the Beach Boys “fill stadiums year after year”? The whole column is as phony as the opening line, in which a man who just dropped $4 million on a house claims he “threw financial sanity to the winds” by splurging on airfare and a few concert tickets. (Did it occur to him in that moment that, in fact, the cost of his trip was likely far less than he gets paid for a single speaking engagement?)
Brooks’ terrible column has had one positive effect: It sparked a bit of a backlash against the unfortunate trend of people who have done a ruinously bad job of writing about politics inflicting their banal thoughts about Bruce Springsteen on a public that has suffered enough. Salon’s Alex Pareene isn’t happy about this trend. Neither is Caryn Rose (who, by the way, will soon be writing about her own experience at Springsteen shows in Europe, and who, unlike Brooks, actually knows what she’s talking about.)
I’ve been resisting the urge to write my own “hey, everybody, shut up about Bruce Springsteen” piece for a long time. Mostly because its hard to do without coming across like the kind of Nirvana fan who got really upset when Smells Like Teen Spirit made the band famous (a mindset I generally find tedious, and that I couldn’t defensibly adopt in any case, given that I was about two months old when Born to Run was released) and also because I’ve written enough fairly banal words about Mr. S that I’m not the ideal messenger here. But I’ve also read enough pieces about Springsteen to know that most people who write them shouldn’t, an understanding that has greatly limited my own output on the topic (hard as that may be for some to believe.)
But, since the topic has been broached: If you’re the kind of dilettante who thinks Bruce Springsteen writes primarily about places and is defined by “hard boundaries” and “distinct musical traditions,” or the kind of political writer who somehow manages to think it is hypocritical for a rich person to care about the poor, please, do everyone a favor and shut up about Bruce Springsteen. You’re doing enough damage to America already.
While we’re on the topic: There’s really no need for further stories about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie being a Springsteen superfan even though he doesn’t share the musician’s policy preferences. It’s been done. It’s boring. It’s Chris Christie’s favorite kind of story, to judge by the frequency and enthusiasm with which he grants interviews on the topic, and it’s generally a good idea to take a politician’s enthusiasm for the story you’re writing about him as a sign you might be doing something wrong. And, while I won’t say someone isn’t a “real fan,” I can’t help noting that Chris Christie, a notoriously prickly person, encourages reporters to ask him questions during Bruce Springsteen concerts, which is not the behavior you’d expect of someone who is both deeply attached to the music performed at said concerts and generally willing to tell people to go f--- themselves. Also that Christie’s attempts to bully Springsteen into doing his bidding and eye-rolling at Springsteen’s worldview suggest a certain lack of respect for the artist he claims to be so fond of. Christie may well like all the pretty songs and like to sing along, but that isn’t particularly interesting -- and his words and deeds suggest there isn’t much else there, except an eagerness to use Springsteen as a political prop.
Of course, Christie isn’t the first person to stumble upon that particular tactic, or the last. Springsteen is the favorite prop of comfortable media elites who earn massive salaries by carrying water for the plutocracy but want to appear sensitive to the plight of the the common man. And I don’t just mean acknowledged conservatives like David Brooks -- I mean people like Brian Williams and the late Tim Russert who make great and frequent shows of their appreciation for Springsteen in between “news” reports beating the drum for cuts to the social safety net, which they always seem to prefer to tax increases for uncommonly wealthy people like themselves. By wearing their Springsteen fandom on their sleeves, they seem to cling desperately to whatever shred of gritty, populist cred they can get their hands on. The only question is who they’re trying to convince: Their audience, or themselves?
If that seems like unduly harsh mind-reading, well, maybe it is. But until a Brian Williams explains what, exactly, it is he likes about Springsteen and reconciles that with things like his own on-air adoption of nonsensical conservative arguments against economic stimulus and deck-stacking against health care reform (to pick just two examples) it’s hard not to be cynical. If someone kept telling you how much they like Ayn Rand, but consistently advocated punitive taxation on the wealthy to pay for massive government programs, you’d be a little cynical about the constant Rand praise, wouldn’t you?
Now, liberals have been complaining about conservatives appropriating Bruce Springsteen’s image in aid of a thoroughly anti-Springsteen agenda since George Will’s famously clumsy attempt at doing so on Ronald Reagan’s behalf in 1984, if not longer, so it probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that I’m not particularly fond of a Chris Christie or David Brooks doing so. Here’s something that might: I’d like to see the Democratic Party give it a rest as well. Springsteen’s music has been the default campaign music for Democratic politicians for eight years; it’s time to move on. First, because it’s become rote and stale. More importantly: The modern Democratic Party’s economic agenda is a bit too close to the Reagan-era policies Springsteen has long excoriated for his music to be credibly played at their rallies. There are few people who should feel more chastised by a song like We Take Care Of Our Own than Democratic politicians who embrace -- or at least fail to resist -- an austerity agenda that ensures that we don’t, and who stand by as organized labor is gutted on behalf of corporations. Instead, they play it at their campaign stops. Enough.
Want to read something about Bruce Springsteen that isn’t terrible? Try Marc Dolan’s new book, Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ’N’ Roll. I’m only about 20 percent finished, so I can’s offer more than a qualified endorsement at this point, but it’s a serious, detailed, well-researched and well-written work.
* Brooks’ wealth does not, itself, indicate that he is out of touch with struggling 99-percenters. But his wealth, combined with reliably pro-plutocrat policy preferences, suggest that he doesn’t understand what life is like for those who aren’t fabulously wealthy. Or that he’s just incredibly selfish.