Hail the Boss: why Springsteen still matters

I have long loved Bruce Springsteen’s red-blooded rock hits, but, until recently, I had never thought of these songs as anything more than a guilty pleasure. Only in more recent years have I realized that, to paraphrase a Barbra Streisand tune, I have nothing to be guilty of.

Now, of course, we all know Springsteen’s a rock star. But, in honor of the man’s birthday, which occurred last week, I also wish to convince you that he is a genius.

Both he and his fans acknowledge that his two greatest influences are Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. Wisely avoiding a wholesale imitation of either, Springsteen has long placed himself firmly between the two, drawing on Dylan’s haunting poeticism and strident social activism as well as Presley’s intensely charismatic singing style and knack for a knockout melody.

Springsteen fuses the best attributes of these geniuses to create a style all his own, a combination of depth and accessibility that makes his music achingly alive.

Take perhaps his greatest hit, “Born In The USA”: with an indelible snare drum beat and that obscenely catchy chorus (“I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the U-S-A!”), it is often considered one of the great patriotic rock songs, and is popular at barbeques and football games throughout

the land.

The only problem? It is not patriotic at all. A cursory look at the lyrics, which mourn the singer’s friend who died “fighting off the Viet Cong,” reveals that this is actually a scathing anti-war anthem. Every jubilant chorus is deeply sarcastic.

Another excellent example is “I’m On Fire.” With a boom-chicka-boom melody and a warbly chorus about a pretty girl, the sound is classic Elvis. But, as Springsteen starts to sing about the Dylan-esque  depression that comes at night to “cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my soul,” it becomes clear that the song is less about the singer’s love for the lady and more about his existential despair.

It is sublimely wrenching, one of the great sad songs in popular music. And, like almost all of Springsteen’s work, it is situated beautifully at the corner of singer-songwriter and rock, introspective without being navel-gazey, catchy without being inane.

In recent years, Springsteen has evolved musically. He’s expanded his topical and melodic palates, recording everything from an acoustic ode to a sex worker, “Maria’s Room,” to “Wrecking Ball,” a gospel-inflected celebration of the working man. And yes, it knocks the intolerable Miley Cyrus song of the same name out of the park.

But perhaps what matters most are the ways Bruce hasn’t changed. He still releases a few great albums each decade. He is still extremely generous to his fans, putting on spirited concerts that run in excess of three hours. And, most importantly of all, he keeps his gaze fixed on our troubled but promising nation, examining it with a rocker’s ear and a poet’s eye. Happy birthday, Boss. You may be 64, but we still need you all the same.