The Professor from Asbury Park

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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  • hannahm7373

    Let me begin by saying that I did not think the article was that critical of Springsteen.  Besides, not everyone has to love him.
    However, I think that you are a bit nostalgic for a world that may or may not have existed.  Yes, perhaps the ’60’s did accelerate changes in the institutions.  But, you seem to be assuming that these institutions should not have been subject to change.  There are other things that are taking the place of these things.  
    You also seem to be assuming that people are out doing whatever they want.  I don’t see that.  I see people going to work every day, often to places they do not like and that are soul-draining.  That does not sound like people are ignoring their responsibilities.  
    Particularly because I am a woman, I am very happy that things changed.  

  • Harold Fickett

    Super post.  I love that we can talk about EVERYTHING, including The Bruce, under the aspect of eternity here. 

    One of the underlying phenomena of the 60s was the presumption, on the part of the WWII generation, that the rites of passage they had experienced were still intact.  And this may have been true in parts of the country, but it was wildly untrue in California where I grew up.  Even as the children of good marriages we grew up with so little supervision that we might as well have been orphans, except for the cars and the spending money.  As a result, I do see parents–especially conservative Catholics and Protestants–keeping in much closer touch with their teens–sometimes to an excessive degree, with “helicopter parents.”   The homecoming dance in the fall at our school, for example, sees parents–including the Ficketts–running hither and yon in order to insure that our teenagers have a memorable teenage social life.  We like that there’s an available structure where we an coach our kids through their first significant dates–and that we pick them up after the dance and go have hot chocolate with them. 

    My parents knew absolutely nothing about the people I hung around with or what we did together.  They counted on the settings of the school and the church to insure that my associations were good ones.  They counted on the larger society, in a sense, to reinforce the values they held. 

    “Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”  No, all the Mr. & Mrs. Jones’s truly didn’t.  I remember the summer all the teenage girls around me decided to go without bras.  All at once and church girls and school girls alike.  Youth culture had arrived and there truly was a “generation gap,” with out parents largely unaware that society was no longer reinforcing their values but actively undermining them. 

    Now Catholic and other Christians are aware–or have no excuse not to be–that we are in a battle to form our kids in an aggressively secular society from the very beginning.  Still, there are a lots of Catholic families–even at Catholic schools–who believe that social status, money, and the life-launch platform these supply will take care of the most important things for their kids and are prepared to wink at lots of bad behavior.  Sometimes they are right and nature trumps all, in the sense of their kids making materially successful lives.  Sometimes not. 

    Springsteen’s music draws on the grandiosity of youth–anything is possible at any time–and its stalking fear of turning out to be a human zero.  It captures youth’s dreams, its nostalgia for childhood, its blind self-assertion.  And, as Dan remarks, its permanently stuck there.  To turn this into a philosophy to guide an entire life is both ridiculous and the standard fare of American culture. 

    Musical invention–like most innovation–is by and large the preserve of young people.  There are artists who keep innovating throughout their lives, but most find their idiom early and cannot escape it thereafter.  That’s just part of our nature as creatures.  You pair this with electronics (and now the digital age) and powerful marketing and distribution and and disposable income and you get a musical culture that is perpetually a youth culture.  The vein that Springsteen mines (almost always in the context of young love and sexual experience) becomes a perennial part of the American experience as generation after generation passes through it and the musicians of those generations express the feelings of youth in their music.  Pop music culture by virtue of the talent and money that drives it ends up casting the spell of Peter Pan over our society.  This is not so much an accusation or lamentation as it is an observation.  That’s just the way it is.

    It can have its place, but as Dan is arguing there needs to be a larger understanding–a true horizon of meaning–presented to young people in order for them to understand human destiny as something other than self-transformation or–as much of pop culture likes to celebrate–“self-invention.”  They need to know what it means to be made in the image of God and that their ultimate destiny rests in God.  These are realities into which we are born, not ones we choose, transform ourselves into, or invent. 

    What if we had a musical idiom–not lyrics, you understand, but a basic architecture to music–that expressed how our stories are gathered into God’s story?  The idioms matter. That’s one of the reasons churchmen, like Pope Benedict, keep coming back to Gregorian chant and the polyphony of Palestrina.  There’s a sense in those idioms of something beyond “self-transformation.”  Oddly, when you think about it, Gospel, out of which so much of rock and roll is built, has a wonderful sense of transcendence–and even the blues, the other major contributor to rock, carries limitation and tragedy in its changes.  Both of these strains were hyper-sexualized as they became rock and roll.

    A pop cultural musical idiom with a sense of transcendence–that’s a challenge waiting out there for a new generation of Christian musicians.  This does not mean, I’m at pains to say, just taking what’s on offer and adding the Jesus emo of nasally white boys.  It’s the fundamental challenge of how the music itself–as music–is constructed.  I can envision such a wonder.  Perhaps before I die I’ll hear it.      

  • Daniel McInerny

    I don’t think it’s nostalgia to say that families, to take one example, were generally in a healthier condition sixty or eighty years ago, and that this state of relative health was a good thing. Is there really something that we would want to take the place of the family?

    Of course there are many people who, despite their musical interests, go to work each morning to support themselves and their families. My comments were aimed at the philosophy of pop music as Springsteen understands it, a philosophy that encourages a dangerous freedom of self-transformation even as it sings the praises, in Springsteen’s case, of the common working man and woman. 

    Women have certainly gained some social advantages in the past fifty years, many of which are genuinely beneficial to them and to the wider society. But I for one cannot be happy about all the changes that have affected women in this time period. Access to abortion-on-demand being the most notorious “change.”

  • Daniel McInerny

    I think I learned more from your comment, Harold, than from writing my post. Thank you! Very astute observations. And I like your thought about a new governing “architecture” for pop music. I have no idea how to pursue this thought, but I believe it worth pursuing along the lines of your analogies to chant and Palestrina. There are elements in the pop music of the last fifty-plus years that are so promising, but it all seems to tend toward the innocuous–even for Dylan and U2. Maybe electronic instrumentation is part of the problem? Maybe it’s the distribution and marketing mechanisms?…

  • cindy

    I thought Springsteens message was BRILLIANT! Self transformation is not a dangerous freedom in my mind. It is living in the present moment and hopefully as one lives they grow up and are able to live in the moment.
     Bruce is a poet and a musician that is empowered by something greater than himself. He speaks from his heart.
    Abortion on demand???? Well I gues it is better than being stoned to death for coming up pregnant and unmarried!!!!!!
    Birth control is not abortion my friend and the family unit will survive only if we start TAKING CARE OF OUR OWN!!!!

  • hannahm7373

    I’m not sure what you mean by healthier families.  Less divorce?–Yes.  That does not necessarily mean healthier.

    I am also wondering why, when I mention that I’m glad things have changed for women, you go right to abortion.  Did I say anything about abortion?  Most women do not get abortions.  Yet, progress for women apparently automatically equates with abortion.   I’m not getting into an argument about abortion.  However, your comments along with what is going on in various states makes me question about whether or not there are certain people who want to to see women back in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant and are just using the abortion issue to drive us back there. 

  • hannahm7373

    I also want to comment on “…encourages a dangerous freedom of self-transformation even as it sings the praises…of the common working man and woman.”  I think that Springsteen admires, in some respects, the people that force themselves to get up and go to mind-numbing jobs to do what they need to do.  After all, his father seems to have been one of those people.  He also recognizes that the rest of us depend on those people–to build our homes, clean our streets, make the cars, etc. That does not mean that he wanted that life.  And, he’s made that life for himself.  I don’t know what your problem is with that?  He works, he makes money, he takes care of his kids, he helps out the community.  He engaged in self-transformation to find a way to stay true to himself and his obligations to his family and community.  I don’t know what type of family you came from, but I don’t see that you are in a traditional type of job, either.  Obviously, you must have went through some type of self-transformaton yourself. 

  • Daniel McInerny

    I have no problem with hardworking folks…I have no problem with self-transformation as long as it is linked to moral responsibility…I have no problem with respecting the genuine rights of women. What I do have a problem with is a certain notion of self-transformation that is lauded in at least some of Springsteen’s songs, and in much of popular music, which encourages us to do what we like whatever the consequences. Listen to the lyrics, for example, of Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.” That kind of “self-transformation” I find to be dangerous.  

  • Hannahm7373

    “genuine rights of women”
    What are these “genuine rights” and who gets to decide?