Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The schizophrenia of Bossphilia

Colin McEnroe puzzled in his blog, and on his radio show today, why people who don't like Bruce Springsteen's politics continue to show up at his live shows, only to register unique complaints like "Shut up and sing."

His questions were prompted by a discussion group about the concert at the Hartford Courant's website.

I called his show and said that I thought it was good that Bruce was able to speak to a mixed audience with his protest songs. Most protest songwriters, and radio show hosts who play protest songs, are preaching to the choir. I feel it all the time. It's been a long time since I've been able to make someone angry about something I say or play on the air. And I try.

What's more, the best protest songs are ones which you can insinuate into a listener's music-brain without them knowing there's anything political going on. The best of Bruce's songs do this well. Think of how Reagan's campaign tried to use Born In the USA (before Bruce protested) without considering that the song's persona, a Vietnam vet who feels abandoned, though he was lucky enough to be born in a land of justice and plenty. Springsteen's new album has several such songs. One, Long Walk Home, talks about the losses we've suffered during the Bush administration through a metaphor of a visit to a childhood hometown. Another, the title cut, Magic, addresses Bush administration misdirection by examining the abracadabra of a master magician.

Eve of Destruction was the first "protest" song to hit the pop charts, but certainly not the most subtle. But think about Buffalo Springfield's For What It's Worth, or Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, or Tracy Chapman's Fast Car. Even Blowing In the Wind. It's possible to sing them for days without realizing how radical they really are. And the beauty of those songs was that they were all hits on commercial radio. Commercial radio will never play any of the new songs on Springsteen's Magic, intentionally. Commercial radio shies away from anything smacking of protest, even the songs of popular artists like Pink and Neil Young.

But I point to McEnroe's own radio station as proof of the insidious nature of a good protest song. Conservative talk show host Jim Vicevich attended the Springsteen show, his first, and was captivated by the performance, and the crowd reaction. He was so taken that he played Springsteen's Radio Nowhere as an intro to one of his show segments this morning, without a trace of recognition in the irony that was obvious to listeners who know that the song is about soul-less, heartless shows like his own.

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