WARNING: In this post I am going to be critical of Bruce Springsteen. Those still wishing to speak to me at the end of it can do so via the comment box or the email on the bottom right of this page.
The South By Southwest Conference, better known as SXSW, is the enormously popular music, film, and interactive showcase that takes place each March in Austin, Texas. The keynote speaker at this year’s conference, which ended a few days ago, was pop music icon Bruce Springsteen. In his 50-minute address, Springsteen affirms the dizzying diversity of today’s pop music scene, as well as provides an account of his own musical influences. But along the way, he offers some more philosophical musings about the nature of pop music culture.
It is a strange sight to see Bruce Springsteen at a podium in a hotel conference room reading, like a professor, from prepared remarks. (He also plays some guitar and sings from the podium, but college professors have been known to do that too.) It is also a little strange to hear this now 62 year-old man, and father of three, talking in a stream of f-bombs, while also treating his audience to ribald descriptions of the sexual component of the rock ‘n roll culture of his youth.
Stranger still is the moment, at about the 10-minute mark of the speech, when Springsteen begins to lecture about the culture. “We live in a post-authentic age,” he opines. And although this comment is made in the context of a discussion of the various genres, sub-genres, and counter-genres of today’s pop music scene, I take it that the observation is meant generally. Pop music, after all, has always been about more than just the music. Springsteen himself has deliberately over the years cast his music in religious terms. So when he says that we are living in a post-authentic age, we should take him to be saying more than just how impossible it is to say which among the scads of ever-splintering pop music genres is the “true” one.
What does it mean to live in a post-authentic age? It means that the only reality is the freedom of what Springsteen calls “self-transformation.” In his flawed but provocative book, The Ethics of Authenticity, the philosopher Charles Taylor makes the case that authenticity is the defining value of our postmodern world. But he argues that authenticity must be pursued against some “horizon” of meaningfulness, some publicly-acknowledged table of values, without which the ideal of authenticity loses all significance. Whatever else authenticity is, says Taylor, it cannot merely be living however one chooses to live. One cannot live an authentic life collecting bottle caps or counting grass blades. Springsteen, despite his declaration that we live in an age of post-authenticity, may not disagree. At one point in his speech he lauds the “practical idealism” of Woody Guthrie’s folksy left politics. What Guthrie stood for clearly forms a major part of the horizon of meaningfulness against which Springsteen plies his trade (his latest single, after all, is entitled “We Take Care of Our Own”). But at the same time, Springsteen isn’t about to claim this Woody Guthrie-inspired horizon of meaningfulness as more meaningful than any other–even as he asserts the value of his notion of democratic liberalism (or soft socialism). I suppose the contradiction is resolved in Springsteen’s mind by the fact that his notion of democratic liberalism is simply the ideal of self-transformation enshrined.
All this talk about Bruce Springsteen’s philosophical views may be making you feel like you’ve just come off the Tilt-a-Whirl at the carnival down on the boardwalk. Yet it was Springsteen himself who assumed the pose of the professor. And when you think about it, the role of the postmodern college professor is not such an incongruous one for a rock star. For both roles are based upon the view that the point of human existence is the freedom of self-transformation. That one preaches the message wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches while standing in front of a classroom, and the other while wielding an electric guitar while cavorting on an arena stage, hardly matters.
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