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Sunday, September 15, 2002

Arts & Letters

The Boss Rises to the Occasion

The Rising by Bruce Springsteen, with the E Street Band. All songs and vocals by Bruce Springsteen, produced by Brendan O’ Brien, Columbia CK 86600, New York, 2002.




How do you make pop music about an atrocity? It’s a tough question, and merely posing it hints at the perils awaiting anyone who dares an answer. To capture the essence of a calamity in five chords and a drumbeat is asking a lot – more perhaps than can be expected from a genre created for news flashes like “I wanna hold your hand.” Rock, bless its heart, can lend urgency to the trivial, but it also has the power to make the solemn seem ridiculous.
– David Segal, Washington Post, July 30, 2002

The Rising presents a number of difficulties for anyone who attempts to impose an interpretation on Bruce Springsteen’s latest album. Art’s ability to sufficiently address and understand the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, has been debated intensely in the aftermath of the events. In the case of rock music, the carnivalesque atmosphere during benefit concerts in the first days after the attack, and the quality of a number of songs created in response to the enormous destruction of that day (Paul McCartney, Neil Young), justify repeated skepticism about the sufficiency of popular music to respond to such collective destructive experiences. The Rising’s intense promotion through Springsteen’s continuous radio and television interviews and appearances also raises the issue of opportunism. Furthermore, the fact that the album is promoted in such a way, with all the focus on a single event of such monumental significance, makes it almost impossible for the listener to approach its songs as single coherent units of music and lyrics. The magnitude of September 11 inevitably directs one’s attention to Springsteen’s lyrics.

The argument against rock’s ability to address a disaster of such enormity is mainly conditioned by common perceptions of rock music as a confluence of slick guitar sounds, easy listening, dancing, pleasure, simple emotions, fashion, and good looks. Add to that the fact of the sheer vastness of the destruction of the World Trade Center, both from a physical and symbolic (signifier of American power) perspective, and certainly it seems that what is needed is a reaction that is larger than life in scale. Whether we talk about a memorial or the redevelopment of the site, the adjective that continually comes to mind is big. Far beyond the destruction of the towers and the consequences on a symbolic level, what brings the attack back to the level of incomprehensibility is the enormous loss of thousands of human lives, of thousands of working men and women. Rock songs, as Lester Bangs has argued brilliantly, can attain illumination through a mere 2-3 minutes of combined mental and musical processes, and thus express in a single moment their compassion for despairing and suffering characters. From blues to folk, the songs of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, and Bruce Springsteen champion intimately the lives of common people.

Last month, David Bowie was interviewed on National Public Radio about his new album, Heathen. Asked to discuss the significance of the songs’ lyrics, Bowie referred to them as mediocre poetry, which outside the frame of a song does not really convey any important messages. For Bowie, what distinguishes his songs is sonicness, the overall effect of the use of sound over lyrics. If you allow yourself to read first and then listen to the songs in The Rising, you’ll end up experiencing a rather fragmentary collection of songs. As Dave Marsh argues in counterpunch, “Most of what’s been written about The Rising mentions the music only in passing but sets these lyrics down as poetry and they aren’t very interesting. As statements about 9/11 or 9/12, you could even call them evasive.”

Let’s start at the end of The Rising, and in particular with the penultimate song, “Paradise.” “Paradise” is sung by a suicide bomber about to explode his deadly existence in a marketplace, with the expectation of attaining paradise, as well as by another character, also longing to meet a loved one in paradise. The song is structured in such a way that, after the first verses, it is difficult and up to each listener to distinguish which of the two characters is singing. The face upon which the sun falls on the last verse can be that of either character, suggesting that the illusion of attaining paradise by means of death applies equally to both perpetrator and victim. Death obliterates both equally. During the ceremonies for the anniversary of September 11, George Bush said that the victims of the attacks had not died in vain. But they are gone forever, dust to dust, and – in that very real sense – they did die in vain, in the same way that the terrorists died in vain seeking the false illusion of paradise. The song is constructed brilliantly. Springsteen’s voice never changes melodically throughout the song, conveying sonically in this way that the vanity of a false paradise applies equally to both characters. The emotions remain the same for both. There are only two repetitions throughout the song, “And I wait for paradise,” which define the singer’s vision for the listener.

“The Rising” is the album’s focal point. In 4.45 minutes, it encompasses the enormity of the event and its aftermath. The song begins slowly, anticipating the steps of someone slowly going up the stairs of a building, and then the first verse is over and the music and Springsteen’s voice take off, in pursuit of a direct emotional response to an incomprehensible act that is just concluded. The actual events of September 11 (the attacks on the World Trade Center and its collapse) occurred in a very short period. As the first verse ends, and the music begins to subside and give its place to a sound much bigger and abrasive, we are suddenly confronted with the enormity of what waits ahead: reacting, accepting, and making sense of what has just taken place. In Salon, Greil Marcus has grasped better than anybody else how perfectly “The Rising” has caught the mood of what actually happened.

The song is at once enormous and simple, an act of will and a ready-made. It has room in it – room for the dead and for those who mourn them, for those who care and those who don’t, for those who believe they can’t be touched and those who already have been. It may be that the song actually has room for the enormity of the event it means to enclose. It may be that the song speaks the language of the event…the language of people trying to make sense of it, to translate it, to at once accept and resist its reality.

“Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” and “You’re Missing” present a set of fundamental experiences and emotions so plainly that they are too overwhelming to comprehend. The music and lyrics are so ridiculously simple and familiar that they cry for people to dismiss them – which people have done:

I’m waitin’, waitin’
on a sunny day
Gonna chase the
clouds away
Waitin’ on a
sunny day
(“Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”)

Shirts in the closet,
shoes in the hall
Mama’s in the kitchen,
baby and all
Everything is everything
Everything is everything
But you’re missing
(“You’re Missing”)

Bruce Springsteen has always been able to understand, and communicate better than any other musician, the fact that life is so fundamentally simple that it is utterly impossible, indeed too overwhelming, to comprehend. The words above are spoken so plainly, and the music matches them so perfectly, that it becomes very difficult for the listener to experience the unsettling effect, and enormous violence, carried in them. To follow Springsteen as he moves through these two songs is to trample upon the reality of how paralyzing and overwhelming the enormity of what happened at the World Trade Center on September 11 was – and remains.

The Rising is not a perfect album. It does sound very long at certain moments, and there are some songs that, to put it simply, are not very good. But it is arguably the most perceptive and compassionate reaction that I have yet experienced to September 11. It helps enormously that the legendary E Street Band is back. Springsteen’s new producer, Brendan O’Brien, has also made the guitars the focal instruments of the album, creating in this way a physical, immediate, and emotional sound of electricity.

What has troubled people most about The Rising as a response to September 11 is that the moment of the album’s commercial release signified its entrance into the realm of entertainment – which, according to this view of things, is utterly inappropriate for dealing with the World Trade Center attack. There is much to recommend this sensitivity. Without any doubt, the commercial release of the album instigated an avalanche of talk-show and radio interviews, and guaranteed the transformation of the songs themselves to elevator and supermarket music, as well as bar and arena (Springsteen concert) entertainment material. That is all true. But let’s be honest with ourselves. Everything about September 11 became entertainment the day after the disaster – sober entertainment, but entertainment nonetheless. For the last year we have become utterly infatuated with the disaster and everything associated with it.

A police car and a screaming siren –
A pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete –
A baby wailing and stray dog howling –
The screech of brakes and lamp light blinking –

That’s entertainment….
– The Jam, “That’s Entertainment,” Sound Effects

In addition to being a co-founder of greekworks.com, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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