This week has been tough on obviousness. There are the subtle implications of the Supreme Court's Arizona rulings and the murmurs of its coming Affordable Care Act rulings. Both make Mitt Romney and the Romney campaign mention words until reporters disperse in frustration. "WE SAID WORDS THAT ARE SYNONYMS WITH POLITICS. PLEASE GO AWAY."
They say you've never really seen a Bruce Springsteen concert until you've seen one in Europe
Nobody says this.
so some friends and I threw financial sanity to the winds and went to follow him around Spain and France.
I know! Crazy, right? Remember when you and your standoffish lesbian roommate (who you never got along with before) got drunk and pledged to save up to tour Europe together... and then you did? (Financial IN-SANE, GIRL!!!) Anyway, remember how you totally got to know each other better than you ever did at home? It was just like that. But Dave did that with Business Class seats to Spain, and the trip didn't destroy his savings and actually only cost about 1/4 of what he earns for a month of vomiting onto the New York Times.
Also, (rips latex mask off) he WAS your lesbian roommate.
In Madrid, for example, we were rewarded with a show that lasted 3 hours and 48 minutes, possibly the longest Springsteen concert on record and one of the best. But what really fascinated me were the crowds.
"Aside: Spain—really? Where are the tacos? If Mexico can perfect those, I don't really get why the homeland isn't on the ball. Almost made me want to run for the border! In a train car I rented!"
Springsteen crowds in the U.S. are hitting their AARP years, or deep into them. In Europe, the fans are much younger. The passion among the American devotees is frenzied, bordering on cultish. The intensity of the European audiences is two standard deviations higher. The Europeans produce an outpouring of noise and movement that sometimes overshadows what's happening onstage.
1. "Two standard deviations"? Stop throwing away insights, Mr. Brooks, this is a fluff column! Nobody expects you to double the research you use in your economics columns!
2. It's easier to be a frenzied fan at a concert and jump around and risk injury—especially if you're an old person—when you know you have universal health care and are not subject to a screaming abortion of a private-insurance death-profit complex.
Here were audiences in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula singing word for word about Highway 9 or Greasy Lake or some other exotic locale on the Jersey Shore. They held up signs requesting songs from the deepest and most distinctly American recesses of Springsteen's repertoire.
In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs! Waterloo Sunset! A big picture of Battersea Park as an album cover!
The oddest moment came midconcert when I looked across the football stadium and saw 56,000 enraptured Spaniards, pumping their fists in the air in fervent unison and bellowing at the top of their lungs, "I was born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A.!"
I HAVE NEVER SEEN A ROCK CONCERT. I AM WEARING HOUNDSTOOTH UNDERWEAR.
Did it occur to them at that moment that, in fact, they were not born in the U.S.A.? How was it that so many people in such a faraway place can be so personally committed to the deindustrializing landscape from New Jersey to Nebraska, the world Springsteen sings about? How is it they can be so enraptured at the mere mention of the Meadowlands or the Stone Pony, an Asbury Park, N.J., nightclub?
Maybe it's just lip service. Like when the Ronald Reagan 1984 campaign used "Born in the USA" without any awareness of the song's content outside of the chorus or of Springsteen's growing anti-ownership politics. Oh, shit, that wasn't the explanation you were going for.
My best theory is this: When we are children, we invent these detailed imaginary worlds that the child psychologists call "paracosms." These landscapes, sometimes complete with imaginary beasts, heroes and laws, help us orient ourselves in reality. They are structured mental communities that help us understand the wider world.
Okay, thanks. What's cool about someone like David Brooks is not only that he thinks he's stumbled on some earthy American understanding of rock and roll by hopping on a transatlantic flight to Iberia to catch a Springsteen concert, but that he also understands that Springsteen isn't some "American" thing. He's flown over, spent a day, then flown back, and what really makes Springsteen cool is trans-nationally marketable/fungible corporate terminology.
We carry this need for paracosms into adulthood.
"Mecha-Reagan can save me from Taxmonstro!"
It's a paradox that the artists who have the widest global purchase are also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes.
This isn't a paradox at all, and it isn't even true at all. If you are massively successful, listened-to and identified-with, your location becomes synonymous with you, if you make that location a concern. The Beatles are Liverpool. Jefferson Airplane and the Dead are Bay Area. On the other hand, some bands and artists are wildly influential while being geographically null. Springsteen IS Jersey, but he's paradoxically American. Pink Floyd are English, but they're so clinically distant that, apart from agonizing over WWII, their classic albums might as well exist nowhere. Led Zeppelin are internationally Zep.
Millions of people around the world are ferociously attached to Tupac Shakur's version of Compton or J.K. Rowling's version of a British boarding school or Downton Abbey's or Brideshead Revisited's version of an Edwardian estate.
That's the problem. Those are fictional. Bruce Springsteen is from New Jersey, where he is from. But props for namedropping Tupac and muddying the waters with someone who attended an east coast art school and then lived in Marin.
Millions of people know the contours of these remote landscapes, their typical characters, story lines, corruptions and challenges. If you build a passionate and highly localized moral landscape, people will come.
Or make them up and draft them into service of some privileged-idiot economic point that still isn't even on the horizon in this essay.
Over the years, Springsteen built his own paracosm, with its own collection of tramps, factory closings, tortured Catholic overtones and moments of rapturous escape. This construction project took an act of commitment.
You have misspelled "Tom Waits," and it took an effort that was confirmed by 1980.
The most interesting moment of Springsteen's career came after the success of "Born to Run." It would have been natural to build on that album's success, to repeat its lush, wall-of-sound style, to build outward from his New Jersey base and broaden his appeal. Instead, Springsteen went deeper into his roots and created "Darkness on the Edge of Town," which is more localized, more lonely and more spare.
Shit. Who would listen to that? *cues up Plastic Ono Band* No famous person can strip down their shit and survive. *picks half of Elvis Costello's discography* It's unlistenable. *notices Leonard Cohen* Something else about being stuffy. *hears Adele's "Someone Like You"* I didn't mean spare in terms of instrumentation but rather something else I redefined just now...
That must have seemed like a commercially insane decision at the time. But a more easily accessible Springsteen, removed from his soul roots, his childhood obsessions and the oft-repeated idiom of cars and highways, would have been diluted.
You mean like the "Hungry Heart" single? Oh, that doesn't jibe with your point? Nevermind.
Instead, he processed new issues in the language of his old tradition, and now you've got young adults filling stadiums, knowing every word to songs written 20 years before they were born, about places they'll never see.
Yeah, rock and roll is pretty amazing. None of these conditions are related to rock and roll but rather globalization. And localization. Which is globalized. Via rock and roll.
It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity.
Apart from every single thing you've just said that militates against it via common sense.
If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.
The Beatles adored Stax and Motown records. Paul McCartney considered James Jamerson a God, while John Lennon thought both Booker T and Steve Cropper were inspirational. Both came to emulate Dylan. All were consciously/semi-consciously ripping off Chicago, Delta, Tennessee and St. Louis blues. Incidentally, if Malcolm Gladwell's business-retreat "team building" horseshit is to be believed, The Beatles' confidence and cohesion was molded by being in Hamburg. Amongst the foreign GERMANS. Theories. Geographic determinism. Soul determinism. Social determinism. R&B determinism. Determinism-via-globalization. Travel around the world and come back to be defined by B-grade-editorial-shitheap determinism.
(Maybe this is why younger rock bands can't fill stadiums year after year, while the more geographically defined older bands like U2, Springsteen and the Beach Boys can.)
WHY ARE YOU STILL USING WORDS AT ALL.
The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice:
Ahahaha, thank you. You've done enough.
Don't try to be everyman.
Oh my God, you don't realize that you're talking to yourself.
Don't pretend you're a member of every community you visit.
You really don't.
Don't try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community.
Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.
Just mention your own huge-ass house and piles of money for writing this shit again.