Is Springsteen still the boss?

The legendary rocker is still on a roll, but his music may mean less to new listeners.

August 29, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

When Bruce Springsteen and the E St. Band roll into Washington's MCI Arena on Tuesday for the first of three sold-out shows, I'm sure that fans will be expecting an electrifying evening. I'm equally sure that Springsteen and com-pany will meet those expectations, delivering the sort of energetic, uplifting, joyful performance that has made this tour the season's hottest ticket. And I'm sure everyone in attendance will feel they got their money's worth and then some.

I'm just not sure how much any of that means.

What, exactly, do Springsteen and the E St. Band represent as we near the end of the century? When the gruff-voiced singer burst into stardom in the mid-'70s, appearing simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek, his ascension marked a new vitality in American rock. His live shows -- frenzied marathons that left fans exhausted and doubters converted -- seemed to mark a grass-roots rebellion against the hollow theatrics of heavy rock (Alice Cooper, Kiss) and the empty glamour of the Southern California scene (Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles). Catching him in concert back then was like going to a revival meeting; not only did you come away feeling as if you'd been saved, but you were eager to spread the gospel.

By the time Springsteen had his first genuine pop hit -- "Hungry Heart," in 1980 -- he'd added another layer of significance to his image, taking on the mantle of the working-class rock star. Springsteen identified with the average Joes he wrote about in such albums as "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "The River," and the pride and compassion he poured into those musical portraits had great resonance in an age of corporate greed and yuppie excess.

Even when his popularity peaked, in 1985 with the much-misinterpreted album "Born in the U.S.A.," Springsteen continued to occupy a singular place in the rock pantheon. Never mind that some fans waved flags in patriotic fervor, oblivious to the betrayal and loss described in the Vietnam veteran's story at the heart of "Born in the U.S.A."; forget that there were corporate down-sizers who pronounced themselves big fans of "the Boss" and his blue-collar aesthetic. No matter how much mass popularity threatened to turn Springsteen's message inside out, his passion, integrity and intelligence kept those songs from ever seeming like cartoons. Somehow, his ideals remained inviolate, and that made the music matter all the more.

A new world

But that was 15 years ago, and much has changed in the world of pop music. It isn't just that the wave of Springsteen's popularity has long since crested, ebbing to mere double-platinum for albums such as "Human Touch" (1992) and "Greatest Hits" (1995) after moving some 15 million copies of "Born in the U.S.A." Some of his impact evaporated as well, a victim of changing tastes and evolving musical styles.

Part of what made Springsteen's music seem so welcome in the '70s was that it had both roots and blossoms -- that is, it played off the power of rock and roll tradition, yet still sounded modern, up-to-date.

Where other rockers pursued styles that were trendy or shallow, Springsteen looked to what remained vital from the music he grew up on. That's why it hardly mattered whether he was describing a whole generation's restless energy in "Born to Run" or simply ripping through an adrenalized cover of Mitch Ryder's "Devil in a Blue Dress" medley; Springsteen invariably turned to the bedrock of rock and roll verities and built upon that foundation.

In that sense, he anticipated the sort of musical reformation that punk and new wave would bring about, but his music got back to basics without becoming mired in anger, nihilism or anti-social behavior. It was no wonder he attracted such a flock of true believers.

Today, however, such rock and roll fundamentalism seems almost quaint. Turn on the radio, and the only way you'll hear a backbeat as simple and unrelenting as the one Max Weinberg uses to power the E St. Band is if it's an oldies station -- excuse me, a "classic rock" outlet. Modern pop moves to a different beat, one that draws more from the slippery syncopations of hip-hop than the four-on-the-floor punch of rock and roll. Even mosh-pit heroes like Limp Bizkit and Korn have more in common with Run-D.M.C. than with Mitch Ryder.

Springsteen seems to know this and, indeed, has made accommodations in his own music. "Streets of Philadelphia," his biggest single in the last decade, is driven by precisely the same sort of beat used by everybody from Beck to the Backstreet Boys. But "Streets of Philadelphia" was a one-off, a song written for a movie and unaccompanied by an album of complementary material. Springsteen may well be able to march to a modern drummer, but if his recorded output is any indication, he'd as soon not.

More than oldies

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