Bruce Springsteen's new CD The Rising is the pop music media event of the season, even driving Michael Jackson's war with the Devil from the papers. The Boss rocked a TV audience of 6 million on NBC's Today show and has reclaimed the cover of Time magazine—which he famously copped, along with a simultaneous Newsweek cover, 27 years ago. Back then, he was declared the future of rock 'n' roll. These days, he represents its past.
Why all the fuss about what turns out to be a mediocre record? For one, Springsteen is a hero to the late baby boomer generation that has reached decision-making dominance in both the production and consumption of mass media. After his decade or so in the market wilderness—for the past 15 years, his CDs elicited little response from fans—he's ripe for the sort of career reconstruction project that Americans love so much. (Despite F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous quip about there being no second acts in American life, there's nothing we love so much, as Ozzy Osbourne could attest.) And Springsteen, the self-styled hero of the American Working Man, does have the marketing clout of the Japanese megacorporation Sony behind him.
But the biggest news hook for Bruce's comeback is the biggest news hook of our lives: 9/11 and its aftermath. Springsteen's new CD is "the first significant piece of pop art to respond to the events of that day," says Time. Some might remember that Neil Young wrote, recorded, and released "Ohio," his famous song about the 1970 murder of Kent State students by National Guardsmen, within a month of that tragedy. Young was only a little slower with his blunt, patriotic "Let's Roll" in the wake of 9/11, getting it on the airwaves by December. It took Springsteen almost a year to deliver his more epic, album-length take on the tragedy and its emotional aftermath.
But all the time spent punchin' the studio clock by Springsteen and his reunited E Street Band mates didn't help. The subject matter turns out to be too big for Springsteen. On albums such as The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle and Born To Run, he made his reputation by combining big spiritual issues with the quotidian details of the lives of shiftless kids and blue-collar workers. The characters in his songs desperately sought sin and redemption, love and transcendence through cars, guitars, and petty schemes to make a better life. He was best at crafting something epic out of the everyday—at making a couple of kids on a motorbike resonate with Wagnerian grandeur. Ironically, when confronted with the epic tales of heroism and loss of 9/11, his gifts fail him.
The most obvious key to where The Rising fails is in the very stuff of human life: names and places. Springsteen is famous for his old songs, which are full of specific characters like Crazy Janey and Wild Billy, Bad Scooter and the Magic Rat, Jimmy the Saint and Rosalita, Mary and Eddie and Terry. This cast inhabits places like E Street, Flamingo Lane, 10th Avenue, and 57th Street. There are no such details in The Rising. One could come up with excuses for this: Perhaps Springsteen is underlining the very absence caused by 9/11 by making the characters blank ciphers with no characteristics but bravery and loss? But it leaves the songs feeling uninhabited, empty, an artistic failure.
Springsteen has shown us he can be an observant writer. So his biggest problem with the topics he takes on in The Rising is that he doesn't know the people about whom he's trying to write. The formerly shiftless kid who haunted the decrepit Jersey shore town Asbury Park did know (or at least was more convincing about seeming to know) the likes of "Born to Run"'s desperate roamer and his darling Wendy.
The Time story goes into great detail on the reportorial work that the Boss put into The Rising. Springsteen went so far as to make phone calls to the spouses of some 9/11 victims after he learned that some of the dead had (unsurprisingly) been fans of his. That was a sweet and touching gesture. But as "reporting" it didn't add much to the new album, unless this out-of-touch inhabitant of Rumson, one of New Jersey's (and the country's) wealthiest enclaves, required corroboration to know that normal people's homes have coffee cups on the counter, shirts in the closet, and pictures on the nightstand. That's the closest this record gets to specific details.
Springsteen suffers the inescapable dilemma of the hugely successful pop star: His wealth and fame necessarily isolate him from the emotional realities of his audience. By the late '80s, his rabid audience—whose fealty was largely based on Springsteen's insights into the lives of blue-collar workers and the disenfranchised—knew it. The Rising is clearly his attempt to win his way back to their hearts.
But he's too far away, and no amount of phone conversations with the bereaved will bring him closer to his old world. His 1978 tune "Racing in the Street"—about guys proving their manhood after their shitty jobs by dueling in souped-up cars—delivers more truth and sorrow than his many songs here. That's even though The Rising is about more emotionally charged topics, such as firemen bravely entering the doomed towers and people missing those lost in the horrific crimes of 9/11.
Springsteen is an interesting case as a rock and pop performer. His growth and maturity have, arguably more than any other such artist, mirrored those of a typical American man's life. He started as a smartmouthed street punk with a gift of gab and an observant eye; he didn't seem much different than the lowlife characters he sang about. Then he began dreaming of escape from the straitened circumstances in which such street punks inevitably find themselves. Then, even as he left that world behind, he became the bard of blue-collar work and its disillusionments. (Now and again he took brief intellectualized side trips into the world of Woody Guthrie, after his manager Jon Landau got him reading books.) Later, the travails of adult love obsessed him.
Now we find him in late middle age, trying to reunite with the sources of his youthful vitality (the E Streeters' presence doesn't help a bit) while still bearing the weight of age and experience. He comes on like an old blowhard who has something important to tell us about huge abstractions like Faith and Hope.
But he doesn't, really. As The Washington Post's David Segal correctly notes in his review of The Rising, "Rock, bless its heart, can lend urgency to the trivial, but it also has the power to make the solemn seem ridiculous." The nightmare of 9/11—certainly the most solemn public event of our lives—seems too big, too present, to be captured on a compact disc.