From middlebrow rock to punk: the bridge of Bruce Springsteen

Happy icy Sunday, folks! Not even in the days of icy fog in my youth in Stockton, CA, might I have imagined that I’d be celebrating a day’s high temperature of 28F as perfectly balmy. In fleeting moments, we’re all Bostonians now.

For today’s bit, I’m digging deeper into the themes of chapter 2, “From Sgt. Pepper’s to Born to Run: The Rise of Free-Form Radio,” from Stealing All Transmissions. Free-form radio, of course, had a key role in celebrating The Beatles, The Who, and others as artists, rather than worker bees making popular music, and I suggest that Bruce Springsteen played a key role in bridging the divide between the artistic pretensions of classic rockers and the pretensions of authenticity of the punks, including The Clash.

It was in Boston’s Real Paper, of course, back in May 1974, that Jon Landau pronounced “I saw rock and roll’s future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” BSAbout the same time, Ken Emerson in Rolling Stone gave high marks to The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, celebrating the “punk savvy” of the lyrics of “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” I have little idea what “punk” might mean here, other than representations of the working class, which perhaps in 1974 were in short supply, thanks to the artistic turn of rock, led by The Beatles.

Now I’m a devotee of the The Beatles (and Springsteen), but The Beatles’ growth as musicians forged a divide between pop and rock. If they were, in 1964, a threat to youth morality (and eventually Christianity in particular, with Lennon and his “we’re bigger than Jesus now” quote), by 1967, they were regarded anew as purveyors of middlebrow art.

Following the release of Sgt. Pepper’s, Time magazine did a big feature on The Beatles, beatlesand framed the new rock in the rhetoric of the middlebrow aesthetic: “With characteristic self-mockery, the Beatles are proclaiming that they have snuffed out their old selves to make room for the new Beatles incarnate. And there is some truth to it. Without having lost any of the genial anarchism with which they helped revolutionize the life style of young people in Britain, Europe, and the U.S., they have moved on to a higher artistic plateau.”

Yes, on Plastic Ono Band, Lennon suggested that “a working class hero was something to be.” It couldn’t be him, though. And Springsteen, with his 1975 appearance at the Bottom Line, which was broadcast live on WNEW-FM at Richard Neer’s behest, solidified this feature of WNEW-FM, and–four years later–would be the source of The Guns of Brixton bootleg, from the September 21, 1979 concert of The Clash at the Palladium.

The Clash The Guns Of Brixton Back

Keep warm out there, Clash-o-philes of the north. The winds have been more biting than Joe Strummer circa 1984!


caught between rockism and a poptimistic place

Good morning, good readers, and happy All Saints Day to you all. I hope hallow’s eve allowed you to pursue transgressions of identity and bourgeois norms, which can still be found in odd forms in the west these days. Today, I have the rockism vs. poptimism archetypes on my mind, and hope to clarify the utility of these broadsides for fandom, historiography, and contemporary criticism. Today I’ll review some of the key texts, and follow-up in another post about its implications.

Twitter is, of course, good for gauging what’s trending, but twitter can be equally nostalgic, especially when it comes to music. Music in Pictures posts scores of pix from great bands from the 60s through the present day, with an aesthetic that indicates his twitter handle — “punkasfuck65” — is not nearly as stringent as you might expect. Consider The Cure, for example, an MiP fave, who were likely one of the first bands subject to the broadside of rockism when the broadside makes its debut in the English press in 1981:

“The sneers about ‘rockism’ from critics and the standard pose of many currently-‘in’ Brit bands” (Sounds, Mar. 1981).

The sneers were levied against the rise of the well-coiffed and brightly-coutured lads in the Bryan Ferry mold, too, as well as those lads who donned as much eye make-up as Siouxsie Sioux. On “To Cut a Long Story Short,” the debut single of Spandau Ballet, Alan Lewis noted in prescient terms,

“There’s nothing here that’s going to surprise anyone who’s had even a casual ear on post-synthesizer rock … It is a good record using the modern technology in a warmer, more organic way … the lead vocal [is not] the usual alienated robot wimp but a big, mature full bodied roar. This is clearly NOT the work of a bunch of out-of-work hairdressers who’ve managed to stumble through a few gigs, but a massively competent record by a band with plenty in reserve” (Sounds, Nov. 1980).

Ouch: sorry Flock of Seagulls! See-and-listen for yourself:

From the Oxford English Dictionary: “rockism (n. 2) 1. Adherence to a conventional or orthodox approach to rock music; (also) the belief that rock music is superior to other forms of popular music by virtue of its authenticity, artistic integrity, and lack of commercial motivation.”

The problem of rockism is nicely articulated in 2004 for a wide audience by Kelefa Sanneh in the New York Times, in “The Rap Against Rockism.” (You’ll need access to the Times, alas.) “The Rap” reviews the key problems: rockists’ tastes are founded upon a thousand distastes. Rockism celebrates

  • songwriting musicians (read: largely white men), rather than vocal interpreters (women, certainly, and often people of color);
  • the obscure indie band over the pop belter in heavy radio rotation (read: it’s exclusive); and
  • the political over the personal (read: The Clash over disco Rod Stewart).

No surprise, then, that it’s also about gender, racialization, and social class. Kids (and aspiring adults) who don’t have to work to pay bills have more time to seek out obscure indie poppers and rappers than those who do. Men, it seems, are much more willing to find time to do this women, if in part because the performance of the rockist attitude is almost always relational, and about the triangles of homosocial bonding between men.

The Homosocial Triangle of (Hetero-) Male Bonding

homosocial triangle -- oct 2014

The pathways for affection run from each man, through the triangulated object (Springsteen’s Born to Run, e.g.), and then onto the other man. There are no pathways for affection directly between men, since men–historically–have not communicated in this way. Yes, I’m talking heterosexual men here, who in turn exclude women from these conversations, and get to play their LPs on Saturday night, alone, in the stereophonic sweet spot of their hi-fis.

Sanneh rightly notes that “a rockist is someone who reduces rock’n’roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon.” One of the foils of the rockist has self-identified as a poptimist, and their politic has been gorgeously outlined in Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (nice review here), and in summary form by Alex Ross.

I recognize myself as a recovering rockist, and can only wonder how especially tedious I seemed to my pop comrades back in the day. My tastes and affinities are much more inclusive these days, and I’ve spent many an hour reviewing the complexity of my “guilty displeasures” over the years. Still, I wonder if there might be more choices than life as a poptimist or a rockist, and I am concerned that, in current critical circles, anything that has a whiff of rockism is reduced to a caricature and bludgeoned with the blunt instrument of poptimism.