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Born to Be a Cliché: Why We Don’t Care That Bruce Springsteen Is a Phony

Plus some other random thoughts about Netflix’s ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

Lots of American men want to be Bruce Springsteen — including Bruce Springsteen. Early on in Springsteen on Broadway, an intimate two-and-a-half-hour concert filmed over two nights this summer as part of his current residency at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, the iconic musician admits to the crowd that he, a man who has written dozens of songs about working-class life, has never had a steady job or set foot in a factory. In fact, before this residency, he’d never worked five days in a row.

This admission is an early indication of Springsteen on Broadway’s agenda, which is to strip away the 69-year-old performer’s mythic stature in order to explain the impulses and insecurities that made him Bruuuuuuuce — a beloved cultural figure, a generational spokesperson, the Boss. But as always with Springsteen, the striving for authenticity comes with additional layers of mythologizing. In this often incredible special, he shows us how “Bruce Springsteen” the superstar is different than Bruce Springsteen the kid from New Jersey. If his whole public persona is a scam of a certain kind, he’s crafted it magnificently.

The Broadway show, which opened October 2017 and wraps up the day before this special premieres on Netflix, is drawn in part from Springsteen’s 2016 memoir, Born to Run, which was praised for its honesty about the singer’s difficult relationship with his father and his battles with depression. Springsteen on Broadway is no less candid: The performance features Springsteen alone on stage with a guitar and a piano, telling the seated audience stories that segue into classic songs like “Thunder Road” and “Born in the U.S.A.” Like VH1’s Storytellers series — which Springsteen appeared on back in 2005Springsteen on Broadway means to be a guided tour through the songwriter’s creative process, explaining the inspirations behind his music.

Veteran music critic Greil Marcus recently wrote about Springsteen’s eternal appeal, specifically how it factors into Springsteen’s Broadway residency. “One thing worth knowing about Bruce Springsteen is that he has an unparalleled ability to put people at ease,” Marcus wrote, later adding, “The audience is invited in to a scripted, staged reverie, and despite the presence at any show of people who’ve been before and know just what moments they’re waiting for, you don’t get the sense that this is canned, timed or even rehearsed. It doesn’t seem spontaneous, but rather thought through, as if any situation being described, sung, played or acted out could, on any given night, be done somewhat differently by Springsteen, or feel differently by anyone there.”

Now that I’ve seen the Netflix special, I understand exactly what Marcus is talking about. Unlike other superstars of the 1980s — Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna — Springsteen never evinced much interest in branching out into acting. So what’s remarkable about Springsteen on Broadway is that, in a sense, he’s playing a part. He’s Bruce Springsteen explaining to us how “Bruce Springsteen” came into being, but even Bruce Springsteen himself is a kind of character in this concert special. He tells each of his stories as if it’s the first time, and there are moments during the show where he pauses, like when you’re telling a buddy a personal anecdote and you can’t quite recall the chain of events right. He gets emotional talking about how his distant father acknowledged late in his life that he wasn’t such a great dad. As long as you don’t think about the fact that, by the time he taped this special, he’d been performing this show — and telling these same stories — for months, you’d swear all of this was completely spontaneous.

That might make Springsteen on Broadway sound like a hustle or a deception, and in a way it is. But as Springsteen warns us early on in the show, his whole act has been a kind of illusion. He even calls what he does as a performer “a magic trick,” acknowledging the unspoken pact fans have had with him — not to mention the chief reason why his detractors loathe his earnest regular-guy proclamations. Even at his best, Bruce Springsteen has been something of a phony — or to be more charitable, an artist who’s always been reaching for his next big statement.

His breakthrough 1975 album Born to Run married the small-time dreams of downtrodden characters to the grand musical flourishes of heroes like Roy Orbison. Some of his finest albums — Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love — are conscious efforts to turn everyday experiences or mindsets into definitive statements, with Springsteen speaking in the voice of the common man. Truth is, he’s always been playing characters, and the connection he has with his audience has been forged from an agreed-upon understanding that he’s singing for us.

But never before Springsteen on Broadway has he so publicly commented on that tacit agreement we have with him. If anything, he invites us to notice the artifice, commenting a couple times, “That’s how good I am,” when drawing a distinction between his lived experience and the world he’s created in his music. It’s something he also notes in his autobiography when discussing his marathon concerts with the E Street Band and the depression that has plagued him most of his life. As he puts it, “During the show, as good as it is, as real as the emotions called upon are, as physically moving and as hopefully inspirational as I work to make it, it’s fiction, theater, a creation; it isn’t reality.”

As someone who has spent a lot of years listening to Springsteen’s music, loving much of it but also rolling my eyes at his corniest tendencies, I found the Netflix special to be an almost perfect distillation of everything that’s tremendous about the guy, but also a bit tiring. The performances are frequently terrific, and the stories he tells are deftly weaved glimpses into crucial snapshots of his formative years — though you may wince a time or two by how conveniently tidy his endings are. (Springsteen isn’t a man for whom any quotidian incident doesn’t come bearing a snazzy life lesson, perfectly timed narrative beats and a wry twist.)

Both in his tales and his tunes, Springsteen communicates a way of being in the world — in his public and performing life, he’s more like a collection of qualities than an actual human being. In his autobiography, he’s upfront about this: “Of course I thought I was a phony — that is the way of the artist — but I also thought I was the realest thing you’d ever seen.” And Springsteen on Broadway magnificently illustrates how the Boss’ reality overlaps with ours.

Springsteen’s core themes have plagued many men: a fear of commitment, the worry of not being able to live up to your dad, an internal grappling with what it means to be a man, the surrealism of fatherhood, the anxiety of aging, the realization that your best days are probably behind you. Those are all clichés, but Bruce Springsteen’s brilliance is in making them feel like the truths you live with. The stories he tells in Springsteen on Broadway are universal enough that they could be anyone’s. We all have difficult relationships with our parents. We’ve all had big dreams. We’ve all fallen in love. If Springsteen’s act is a magic trick, it’s an indication why we love magic tricks. Deep down, we know they’re illusions — but let’s all play along anyway so we can have some fun together.

Here are three other takeaways from Springsteen on Broadway

#1. Bruce Springsteen’s acting credits are sparse.

I mentioned above that Springsteen acts, sorta, when he embodies these different characters in his songs. But while watching Springsteen on Broadway, I tried to recall any actual acting roles he’s had. I knew of one — later, I realized that there was another.

Most probably remember his cameo as himself in 2000’s High Fidelity, where he gives advice to the lovelorn, music-obsessed Rob, played by John Cusack. Here’s Springsteen:

It was a bit of good fortune that Cusack got the Boss to do it. As the actor told The New York Times around the film’s release, “We had this idea to have Rob have this conversation with Bruce in his head. Of course we never really thought we’d get Bruce, we just thought putting him in there would make a good read for the studio and get them all excited. But I had met him socially, so I thought even though he’s going to say no, I may as well call him and throw the Hail Mary pass and get it over with. And he kind of just laughed at the idea and said, ‘Send me a script.’ So when we finished shooting, we wrapped around 2 a.m., flew to New York, and taped him in his studio for an hour the next morning.”

It’s a funny, small role. But it wasn’t until I checked out his IMDb page that I became aware of the fact that he also appeared on Lilyhammer, a TV drama about a New York gangster who moves to Norway. Springsteen is in one episode, playing Giuseppe “Joey the Undertaker” Tagliano. This isn’t the entirety of his performance, but here’s a taste:

If you don’t remember Lilyhammer, it starred Steven Van Zandt, better known to lots of folks as Little Steven, a member of Springsteen’s E Street Band. Van Zandt directed the episode that costarred Springsteen, later explaining how he got Bruce to do it: “He trusted me for years as his producer. Now, it’s another step of the relationship, trusting me as his director. … He did great.”

We’ll let you be the judge.

#2. Okay, seriously, for the last time, “Born in the U.S.A.” is not a rah-rah song.

In Springsteen on Broadway, the singer tells a story about being affected after reading Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran who told of his harrowing experience in the war. (Kovic’s story was turned into Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning film.) Springsteen’s memories about the book — and of later meeting Kovic — segue into a stripped-down, angry version of “Born in the U.S.A.” that has none of the full-band euphoria heard on the album of the same name.

This stark rendition may surprise causal listeners, but longtime Springsteen fans know that he’s been bedeviled by “Born in the U.S.A.” since it was released in 1984. The reason: People have frequently missed the criticism of America at its core, mistakenly believing that the song was a patriotic salute to the U S of A. As a result, Springsteen has spent decades trying to explain to people that this wasn’t his intention.

A few years ago, Politico ran a piece from writer and professor Marc Dolan, who published Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll. The Politico essay retraces the history of people getting “Born in the U.S.A.” wrong, but it also argues that the confusion around the song’s meaning ultimately inspired Springsteen to become politically minded. Most know that Ronald Reagan used the song on the campaign trail in 1984, which annoyed Springsteen, but Dolan notes that Springsteen had only voted once in his life to that point. (He would have been 35 at the time of the 1984 election.) It was Reagan’s appropriating of Springsteen’s message for his own purposes that caused the musician to look more critically at politics — and to include them in his music.

“[I]t wasn’t until the 1990s that Springsteen really became a political singer,” Dolan writes. “As he pursued a more sporadic solo career, he educated himself, became a more politically aware human being, opposing anti-immigrant initiatives in California, where he was living at the time. Starting with John Kerry in 2004, Springsteen eventually began endorsing candidates, most notably articulating Barack Obama’s vision during the 2008 election — for precisely those ‘swing’ segments of the U.S. electorate that might be most disinclined to vote for him.”

That transformation plays out as well in Springsteen on Broadway: The earlier segments focus on songs about young lovers and other dreamers, while the later sections are given over to his later, more politically conscious tracks like “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “The Rising.” Next time you listen to “Born in the U.S.A.,” remember that it’s not a pro-America song: It’s a deeply sobering track about how the country failed its Vietnam veterans. And also remember that, maybe, Reagan’s coopting of the song probably opened up something in Springsteen that’s been crucial to his career ever since.

#3. Hey, Bruce Springsteen, it’s a fastball, not a speedball.

It’s something that’s bothered me for more than 30 years. Born in the U.S.A. is a great album — I still think it’s Springsteen’s best — but one element of the song “Glory Days” still annoys me to no end. In the first verse, he talks about going into a bar and running into an old friend, who used to be considered a talented pitcher. (Things didn’t work out for the guy, who was actually inspired by someone Springsteen used to know.) The irritating part? These lines: “He could throw that speedball by you / Make you look like a fool, boy.”

That’s not what it’s called. It’s a fastball, not a speedball. Nobody calls it a speedball. Isn’t Bruce supposed to be a man of the people? How could he get that wrong? “Speedball” is the kind of thing a dork would say. C’mon, Bruce.

By the way, I’m not the only person who noticed this. Baseball sportswriter Joe Posnanski devoted a 2012 column to Springsteen, and he also takes issue with the whole “speedball” thing. But he also mentions, “I will say I have had numerous Springsteen experts explain why speedball works better than fastball in that particular case. I don’t really remember the reasons, which probably gets at the heart of how I feel about that argument, but I do remember they were adamant.”

I’m not buying it. Springsteen is a big baseball fan. “Fastball” and “speedball” have the same number of syllables, so he didn’t do it because of rhythm or timing. What the hell?

That’s also what the Nashville rock band Vista Blue is wondering. They even wrote a song about it, appropriately titled “Hey, Bruce Springsteen, What’s a Speedball?” It’s only 43 seconds long, but it gets the point across. We want answers, dude.