If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen my recent obsession with The Boss in full manifestation. It was prompted — or, rather, re-activated — when Glee used a Boss-penned song, Fire, in this week’s episode. (The Pointer Sisters may have made it famous, but The Boss does it so. much. better.) After watching Kristen Chenoweth and Mr. Shue sing their way through Fire, I began what has amounted to a veritabel odyssey through Springsteen’s collected YouTube clips. There are thousands: low-fi recordings from the ’70s, concert DVD rips, benefit performances, VH1 Storytellers, duets with Michael Stipe and Melissa Ethridge, impromptu duets with Berlin street performers.
Now, I’m a veritable life-long Springsteen fan. The tape of Born in the U.S.A. was a constant companion throughout my childhood; my brother and I would sing the titular song so loud and forcefully that it exacerbated his vocal chord condition/speech impediment. (Basically he got hoarse a lot from being really excited and using too much voice to sing/talk/be. I think that might be the most awesome speech impediment to wish upon a kid).
I have distinct memories of listening to both Human Touch and Lucky Town on my mom’s massive boom box; since I was a devoted nerdy reader of Entertainment Weekly, I knew that the double-release was both novel and risky, but what really mattered was the fact that I liked dancing in my stocking feet to 57 Channels (And Nothing On). (Side note: We only had 36 channels on cable in Nothern Idaho, so I totally thought The Boss was lying).
Now, as a kid, I never knew that Springsteen was, well, basically, sex. By the time I was 10 or so, the only thing I could consider even ‘cute’ was The New Kids on the Block. By the time I was conscious of sex, as opposed to cute, appeal, Springsteen was in his 40s — and teenagers have little appreciation for the sexy, rugged old man. In short, I had missed my window of appreciating Springsteen’s sex appeal.
After college, I underwent a classic rock/folk renaissance of sorts, finding myself obsessed with Zeppelin, old acoustic Bob Dylan, and ’70s-early ’80s Springsteen. Specifically, Nebraska. But I also rediscovered my visceral reaction to the entire Born in the U.S.A. album, amongst others. But still: no YouTube. Not back in 2005. I fell for the voice, and its dripping signification of sex and desire, but not for its embodiment.
Which is all a way of leading you to the fact that this recent detour into the vaste depository of Springsteen concern material has made me wonder how any singer can ever embody sex ever again.
In order to get on the same page as me, consider the following. All well worth your time, I can promise.
Now, each of the above videos conveys sex far more than any of the ‘official’ and highly produced videos — see, for example, the famous ‘Dancing in the Dark’ video, featuring a very young Courtney Cox:
It’s my contention, then, that the presence and ready accessibility not just of footage of Springsteen — the normal YouTube uploads of produced music videos — but of live concert footage that has activated his sex appeal for new generations — and reactivated it for those who felt that power in the ’80s.
But this is a particular brand of sex appeal — and its attractiveness deserves analysis.
1.) Springsteen’s appeal is deeply rooted in the performance of working class masculinity.
If you’re at all familiar with the Springsteen narrative, you also know that he has long signified the plight — and relief — of the working man. He sings about working men; he comes from a family of working men. He grew up in Jersey. But there’s also a particular performance of working class masculinity at work in his image. Of course, it signifies as authentic — in part because of our knowledge of his past — but we must also be mindful of the ways in which Springsteen himself (and his appearance in these videos, in publicity shots, in album covers) has helped reify what working class masculinity should look and sound like.
So look at the videos, and what do you see? Sweat, muscles, more muscles. Bandanas, back drops of American flags. Whiteness, Americanness. Power ballads….power. The musculature and sweat are particularly linked to a physique cultivated not through time in the gym, a la the boys of Jersey Shore — but from actual good hard labor. (Indeed, part of what’s interesting about the performance of ‘guido-dom’ on Jersey Shore is the ways in which it represents ethnicity — and working class ethnicity in particular — completely evacuated of actual labor and culture.)
The sweat shows that even though he’s escaped a life of hard manual labor, he’s still laboring on the stage — and earning our affection and concert dollars. He may be nicknamed The Boss, but he’s really the last bastion of the worker, and the lost American ethic he represents.
The musculature — tight t-shirts, blue jeans — is sharply reminiscent of that of young Marlon Brando. I realize this might sound odd — especially if you haven’t seen Streetcar or On the Waterfront. Of course, Springsteen emanates far more pure joy in expression than Brando ever did; indeed, Brando often looked as if every move, every word, caused him physical and mental anguish. When Pauline Kael first saw Brando in the stage version of Streetcar, she lowered her eyes, embarrassed for him, as she thought he was having a seizure. Her companion had to shake her and say ‘no, he’s acting.’ Sometimes I feel the same way when I watch Springsteen in some of these videos, especially in the ’70s, such as the one for ‘ He’s either seizing or singing or about to die — and that’s pureness of effort and exultation that links the two.
Marlon Brando was also portraying working class characters whose lives were marked by pathos and the despair that accompanies a way of life that has begun to fade….and Springsteen sings about the selfsame ideas. Brando alienated much of Hollywood when he first arrived, not only because his acting style was so different, but because he dared to wear blue jeans and white t-shirts on the streets. And in the 1970s, when much of the music scene was still characterized by glam, disco, or Robert Plant jeans zipped up with a pair of pliers, the Springsteen image was just as foreign.
Which is all to say that the attractiveness of Springsteen, like the smoldering attractiveness of young Brando, is rooted in a physical and artistic manifestation of the life of the working class man, in all its shades of pride, pathos, and cultural history.
2.) The videos drip with authenticity.
Back to the videos in particular. Springsteen did few ‘staged’ music videos. Instead, the vast majority of those found on the YouTubes are concert and other live footage. He’s famous for offering long prologues for his various songs in which he details the backstory that led him to write/contemplate the issues of each song. (The prologues are, at least in part, what helped make the Live ’75-’85 recording the first concert album to debut at number on on the charts). Such ‘real life’ stories obviously authenticate both the music and the artist, further reinforcing Springsteen’s own connection to his equally authentic working class visual image.
There’s also the issue of charisma. I’m thinking specifically of the ‘Fire’ video, but it’s really all over the place. It’s what makes Springsteen Springsteen — and helps him rise above all other rock performers of this particular era; it’s what still motivates fans to pay upwards of $100 for crappy tickets for tours promoting his recent (mediocre) albums. Charisma, to oversimplify the theories of sociologist Max Weber, is what helps us, as lowly non-stars, feel better about allowing those in power be in power. When someone has charisma, we’re much more okay with ceding authority, giving money, being ruled in whatever way. Springsteen’s charisma thus adds to his attractiveness — but it also helps elide the fact that he is, by no means, working class — and hasn’t been for a very long time, and profits off of our perception and nostalgia for that particular brand of authentic working class masculinity.
3.) The videos evoke intense nostalgia.
There’s certainly a nostalgia for youth at play here, especially when these videos are contrasted with the ones of the (still quite agile and handsome yet notably much older) Boss. Such nostalgia is compounded by that for the working class, which been near-wholly decimated over the last forty years. But the videos also evoke a form of technological nostalgia — for a far less mediated time, when such footage, and liveness, and image seemingly couldn’t be faked.
I’m thinking specifically of the video for ‘Prove it All Night,’ which you can watch below. Warning: IT MAY BLOW YOUR MIND. (A special thanks to Evan for sending this my way at the height of my binge). As one commenter put it, “This video should absolutely be promoted to the YouTube home page.”
Are you looking at that lo-fi greatness? The counter on the bottom of the screen? The pretty crappy — but still weirdly incredible — sound? Cell phone cameras take crappy videos everyday; a random browse through the basement of YouTube would reveal millions of them. But there’s a very particular videographic aura to this sort of aura — one that I’m sure Lucas Hildebrand could break down for me — that underscores the fact that we will never again live in a time that manufactures this quality of video for public consumption. The lo-fi-ness reminds me of my childhood, and, similar to my visceral reaction to an Apple IIe or Speak-n-Spells, I’m wistful. Nostalgic for technological simplicity.
Of course, 20 years from now, we’ll be looking at early cell phone photos with the same sort of wistfulness, and we need to continuously critique what, exactly, we’re being nostalgic for, and what says about how we’re (mis)remembering the past. With that said, the particular format, condition, and aesthetics of these videos — and the way that they bolster both the authenticity of the performance and Springsteen’s virility — is tremendously powerful in this particular cultural moment.
I’m curious, then, as to what sort of artifacts will (re)activate the sex appeal of today’s celebrity idols — will it be concert footage on YouTube (or something like it), or will it be something else entirely? Recall that in 1977, when ‘Prove it All Night’ was released, no one could have fathomed a system by which ten minute clips of video were uploaded and made available for hundreds of millions to watch at will, for no cost. In 2020, can I get a hologram of The Boss to sing me I’m on Fire? Well alright then. He’ll be pure sex forever.