Bruce Springsteen and the Universality of Self-Loathing

Categories: The Upsetter

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One way Bruce Springsteen is becoming a lot like the American Psychological Association is how he's assumed special authority over what you and I call our bad times. The medical community does this by coming up with words like neurosis and limerence, whose lasting impact is to trivialize basic human experiences and feelings. Bruce does much the same thing, though a little more stealthily, by giving interviews to The New Yorker's own boss, David Remnick, in which Bruce discusses his life-long depression.

Christopher Victorio
Here's Bruce on how self-loathing fuels artistic creativity:

"Look, you cannot underestimate the fine power of self-loathing in all of this," Bruce says. "You think, I don't like anything I'm seeing, I don't like anything I'm doing, but I need to change myself, I need to transform myself. I do not know a single artist who does not run on that fuel. If you are extremely pleased with yourself, nobody would be fucking doing it! Brando would not have acted. Dylan wouldn't have written 'Like a Rolling Stone.' James Brown wouldn't have gone 'Unh!' He wouldn't have searched that one-beat down that was so hard. That's a motivation, that element of 'I need to remake myself, my town, my audience' -- the desire for renewal."

These are valuable and, in their own way, brave insights by a great songwriter and performer. In the above quote, Bruce enlightens us on a number of things:

1. (Good) artists don't tend to be easily pleased with themselves.
2. Bob Dylan wrote "Like a Rolling Stone."
3. James Brown sometimes went "Unh!"
4.The Boss can be a bit of a bummer.

But where Bruce's words begin to ring false is the point at which he seems to suggest artists have special claims on self-loathing and existential yearning. Has Bruce ever seen an H&M during peak business hours? (Dumb question, I know.)

Or how about a less extreme example: have you ever stolen a peek at the other people in your bank line? Two things immediately stand out: most of them are not in the music industry and every one of them is ensconced in a world of fear and regret (yes, ensconced -- as Kurt Cobain sang, there's a "comfort in being sad," a strange and passive sense of safety). You can read it on their faces. Bruce knows this. Most of his best songs are about it. Take "Thunder Road":

The screen door slams
Mary's dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that's me and I want you only
Don't turn me home again
I just can't face myself alone again
Don't run back inside
Darling you know just what I'm here for
So you're scared and you're thinking
That maybe we ain't that young anymore
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night
You ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright
Oh and that's alright with me.

Substitute Roy Orbison with a DVD set of Downton Abbey and "magic in the night" with "gourmet beef jerky" and this opening verse could read like any poor soul's inner text message. Maybe even yours.

Rock stars' sighs might be backed by larger marketing budgets than ours, but we suffer all the same. Whether we're in the studio slaving over our next hit record, or on our video game console doing whatever it is the people in the apartment above me do every night of the week, I suspect it's not self-transformation we're after -- it's self-surrender. The sane among us want to extend beyond ourselves. We want to cease being but one trivial entity among seven billion others. We'd like to lose ourselves -- to something, to anything. But the problem is, this is very hard to do. So trying and failing for most the day makes a lot of us quietly, though thoroughly, restless. Not just those of us who flex enough drive to achieve notoriety as rock star.

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I haven't gotten to read the full piece yet (a week behind in my New Yorker reader), but wondering where you get that Springsteen claimed that artists have a monopoly on self-loathing. All he's saying is that it's a sufficient (though not necessary) condition for creating. The quote you excerpt only says that the general public shouldn't discount the role that self-loathing plays in the creative process. He doesn't say that self-loathing always leads to that level of creativity, or that non-creatives can't be self-loathing. Only that self-loathing is a significant element of the psyche of the creatives who output at his (and Brando's and JB's, etc) level(s).


As for the Van Zandt quote, again, not seeing anything but what's excerpted, I can only guess SVZ was just referring to Bruce's working-class hero/zero stories, and Bruce was now a mega-star with a movie-starlet wife (the first wife)...easy to see why Bruce would question being able to write authentically about the kid with a union card on his 18th birthday. 


In a way, SVZ is discounting Bruce's ability to work his specific angst into a universal, the way that the artist connects to people not sharing that specific space, and saying that the only worthwhile Bruce is the "Thunder Road" Bruce. But again, without reading more, hard to say where SVZ is coming from.

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