Still the Boss: Springsteen and The (Re)activation of Sex Appeal

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.

10 Responses to “Still the Boss: Springsteen and The (Re)activation of Sex Appeal”

  1. Linde says:

    This is so amazing! Thanks for breaking the icon down for me. I also had a YouTube binge after watching that Glee episode. The Fire video just made me realize how much sex he must have been having back then, and ya know, good for him.

  2. JessieBrewer says:

    I was a senior in high school when the BTR album was released. Bruce was the catalyst of many sinful impure thoughts for this good little Catholic girl.

  3. mabel says:

    I like that you bring in that last video, because it also speaks to a nostalgia for an older kind of fandom… of circulating bootleg videos and cassette tapes. It’s also interesting because I think you privilege Springsteen here as an authentic subject, despite your analysis of the constructedness of that authenticity. (And I absolutely do something similar because i too adore Springsteen and am not quite sure how authentic his performance of authenticity is… I think its more authentic than many people give him credit for, but I’m still wary.) My point about that however, is in terms of thinking about what kind of nostalgia there is for Springsteen. Is it linked to the 80s and “Hot Tub Time Machine”-style nostalgia? Or more closely to the 70s and “Almost Famous”-style music/fandom/etc.? And where does that sex appeal fit in temporally?
    I also like this post because it really interestingly and productively combines your extensive background/context of film-based star studies with music stardom.

  4. Two things: first, have you seen Springsteen’s Kennedy Center Honors tribute initiated by fellow Jerseyite (and major fan) Jon Stewart? It aired much earlier this year, but surely it’s online somewhere. You’ll appreciate it, I know.

    Second, I’ve never been a huge fan of The Boss — sure, I have about 20 of his songs on the ol’ iPod, but that’s about it — however, I was quite impressed with his exhibit at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not sure if it’s still there, but it was quite a collection (t-shirts, jackets, hats, sheet music, gold albums, the actual desk where he penned most of his songs). And the theatre there looped his VH1 Storytellers episode all day; hearing about how he created “The Rising” always blows me away. What a song.

  5. Alyx Vesey says:

    Oh, Bruce. Wrap your legs round these velvet rims and strap your hands across my engines, indeed.

    I loved looking at the bootleg concert footage and thinking about the clips in relation to lost or antiquated technology, thus positioning YouTube as an archive.

    As an aside, I was just listening to Nebraska. Who would have known that spinning “State Trooper” on the hi-fi would get me in the mindset for M.I.A.’s “Born Free”? Both borrow heavily — one through influence, the other with sampling — from proto-punk legends Suicide.

    Also, I agree that the Boss represents a bygone working class masculinity and hadn’t thought about his image in relation to Brando (or in opposition to the Guidos on Jersey Shore).

    In addition to projecting a sense of authenticity, I believe he’s also legitimacy personified in rock culture. Like many male solo artists — Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Joe Strummer, and Bono coming immediately to mind — Springsteen is not only is a “voice of the people” who can be called upon in times of turmoil (remember how “My City In Ruins” provided a catharsis for 9/11 and created another spike in his popularity?). He’s also a possessor of rock’s cultural credibility, always called upon whenever popular music needs to historicize and validate itself (Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame inductions, for example).

    Going back to Brando for a moment, though, I’d also like to argue how the Boss’s rugged masculinity potentially feminizes itself. Again, I think this takes place onstage, where Bruce is famous for objectifying his body and sacrificing himself for his grateful audience during performance (note: this also suggests a commonality between Bruce and Iggy Pop, punk’s pioneer power bottom). The Boss’s objectification also asserts itself in a more obvious way, via the iconic ass shot cover for Born in the USA.

    I don’t mean to suggest that objectification is exclusively the domain of the feminine, but as women and girls’ bodies are traditionally treated as sites of spectacle in media culture, I think the Boss’s performative masculinity, which relies much on the fetishization and offering of his body to fans, complicates matters.

    Finally, I want to acknowledge “Red Headed Woman,” which he wrote for wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa and is pure sex. It’s particularly interesting for its celebration of cunnilingus (i.e., kneeling and “tasting” a red headed woman). Rock music is littered with subtle and explicit references to fellatio. It’s nice to hear from a man willing to get on his knees.

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  7. Amy says:

    Ain’t nothing mediocre about The Rising or Magic, two of his most recent albums. There especially isn’t anything mediocre about his newest album, The Promise, with 21 unreleased tracks from the Darkness era.

    The funny thing is, lots of fans would categorize HT and LT, the albums you cited as favorites, as mediocre. I wouldn’t, but plenty would.

    Other than those quibbling points, I agree with you: Bruce is One Sexy Beast.