On The Beat
Just finished watched Scott Pelley's 60 Minutes interview with Bruce Springsteen, which I thought was pretty good. There have been so many recent cock-ups on the program-- such as Katie Couric's shameful chat with John and Elizabeth Edwards (which was nothing but Couric putting on her stern Mary Poppins face and parroting GOP talking points) and Clarence Thomas's promotional blurb of an interview (to say nothing of Dan Rather's damning allegations in his recent lawsuit)--that I did watch the segment while holding my breath, waiting for that moment when the correspondent would play gotcha with the Boss. And there was one of 60 Minutes' patented "some people will say..." moments (I love that phrase, because it allows you to put any unverified point after it under the guise of faux populism), when Pelley said, "Some people will hear this album and say, 'Bruce Springsteen is no patriot.'" But Springsteen parried the dunderheaded simplicity with ease, talking of the need to speak uncomfortable thoughts, to be "the canary in the coalmine" in a time when a place one loves is under assault. The question I'd ask about Springsteen's work is: how do you talk?
I've been listening to Springsteen's new album, Magic, and I think it's pretty good, although like Shamus, I'm going to have to hear it a few more times before I give it the slobbering reception it's received from so many critics and commentators: at least for now, it lacks the grandeur of Born to Run or the chiaroscuro shading of Darkness on the Edge of Town and Tunnel of Love (it's way better than The Rising, though). What fascinated me going through it the first time was the disjunction, for me anyway, between what I was hearing and what I'd read in advance reviews and interviews, nearly all of which spoke of the album's lyrics, and their blending of the politically acute with the fizzily personal. All of which might be true, but what I heard was something more akin to the Ben Stiller impersonation above-- the way Springsteen's voice blended into the mix of guitars and Clarence Clemons' wailing sax, how words would be stretched and slurred and musicalized, into that inimitable Springsteenese, where the meaning is conveyed by the sound rather than the word. Sure, "Long Way Home" might be a grand indictment of the current administration, but how on earth could you tell? That's a compliment, by the way-- I've always loved the mise-en-scene that Springsteen and the E Street Band have created, and I think there's some kind of lesson in there for blogging, which can be its own kind of crafting of the idea-as-pop-single: compact, imagistic, conveying its thoughts or themes through a rush of color and style and personal voice. Jeff blogged a bit about this today, in the context of thinking about the new Todd Haynes Dylan film:
My biggest critique of composition and interpretations of how to teach writing has been the lack of attention to such relationships. The blog has provided one of the best new media approaches to generating such relationships. By its nature - my daily/semi-daily writing space - the blog foregrounds the relationship. I write this post for a reason. I write because I have a relationship with what I want to write about.
The Haynes film will disturb for reasons the blog might disturb writing teachers. When it comes to celebrity films, we want the biopic. We want Ray. But Ray is not a film that produces or maintains a relationship between writer (filmmaker) and audience. Ray represents all the biopics that are generic; the celebrity did this, the celebrity did that. These are the canonical moments we recognize as relevant. In writing, pedagogy wants this kind of writing. The obvious. The stated. Otherwise, the writing will be eccentric, ramble, drift, establish moments that seem out of place, get facts wrong, be imaginative and illusionary. I will guess Haynes’ film does all of that. Methods on relationships do such work...
Still, I can’t help but remember that the generic adjective often attributed to writing, what we call “academic,” works hard in its many manifestations to deny the relationship. So-called academic writers do write from the position of the relationship. Yet, many writing teachers don’t teach from the position of the relationship. We call the writing teacher’s response: the thesis. The thesis is not a method. It is a way to deny the relationship between writer and subject.
Ironically, I think this desire for the thesis is what both Springsteen's critics on the right and his fans on the left have in common: unintentionally or not, reducing him to an easily managed idea: "Bruce is hero/villain, patriot/scourge," with each new album either a target or a teaching text. Springsteen's laughing response to Scott Palley's question of, "You're rich, why are you doing this?" was more like Jeff's definition of blogging: "What else would I do?, he asked. "You got any clues?" And later, in what we might read as a manifesto for online writing: "Every good writer or filmmaker has something eating at them, right? That they can't quite get off their back . And so your job is to make your audience care about your obsessions."