Witnessing a Bruce Springsteen gig is like watching a game of football. It demands commitment, comes with a sense of sweeping drama – the pause, the rebuild, the surging of forces – and lasts as long: three hours on the dot. It’s also loud and relentlessly optimistic. But the fervor is far from spontaneous, for this is a flawless theatrical presentation. Unlike in football, the outcome is known from the start: everybody wins. The precise lighting cues, the sheer number of personnel, the range of instruments, Springsteen’s seemingly impromptu forays into the crowd, sometimes right to the back of the stadium – all of this demands weeks of preparation on a sound stage, with the entire rig assembled. The magnitude of what’s involved is mind-boggling. So is the cost.
The band swarms on stage, house lights up, then it’s straight into a string of anthems, each a tale of triumph over multiple adversities, be it loneliness, social injustice, war, sexual betrayal or any combination of these. As each song’s climax is reached, a new version of the drama emerges, laying out the doubts and disappointments of common experience only to have them swept away by Springsteen’s uplifting exhortations.
Rock is meant to be euphoric. Audiences arrive with a level of expectation that no other theatrical form can meet, and the stakes at a Springsteen show are at fever pitch. His concerts are nothing short of evangelical. The group routines, the swaying bodies and the choreographed unity of purpose recall gospel.
There is something else at work here. Springsteen’s songs document a life writ so large as to be heroic. Since 2001, he has managed to fuse his own emotional experience with that of an entire people. Set against the template of America’s story, his imagery has become pointedly political, a deliberate reflection on the triumph and tragedy of empire.
The audacity of this idea is uniquely American. In music culture, no other nation would willingly grant an individual this level of credibility. Of course, the notion that he is hero-worshipped as such does not detract from Springsteen’s genius. His songs have given Americans a narrative that has helped explain the often violent contradictions of their society. Americans crave redemption and providing it is a role Springsteen has willingly embraced. Their story is more dramatic than anybody else’s. And so is Springsteen’s.
If, as they say, success in rock ’n’ roll is about imagining the zeitgeist ahead of time, then Springsteen’s genius lies in his overwhelming self-belief.
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