The arrival of widespread musical movements–like Elvis Presley in the '50s, the British Invasion in the '60s, punk in the '70s, or hip hop in the '80s–tend to reflect key changes in society. All of the above eras are tied to cultural revolutions, politics, and protest, so what does it say about life at the end of the '90s that we live in a time with no defining musical trend? How does this decade of rock 'n' roll fit in with the 40 years that preceded it? Does it fit in at all?
In 1980, the Ramones released the Phil Spector-produced End Of The Century, the band's first album to be fairly branded a failure. Uneven though it was, the record did remind rock 'n' roll listeners, then faced with squiggly new-wave synthesizers and increasingly poofy product, that punk wasn't so much revolutionary as retro-revolutionary. One of that album's key tracks, after all, was the blatantly nostalgic "Do You Remember Rock And Roll Radio?"
The Ramones, which started playing in the early '70s, overtly recalled Spector's girl groups, hearkening back just a few years to the already-fading days of The Ronettes, Darlene Love, and The Crystals. By the mid-'70s, most popular music had become so listless, pretentious, and benign that bands like the Ramones seemed revolutionary by simply embracing the recent past with an almost puritanical fervor.
Critic Greil Marcus, the ever-reliable embodiment and aftermath of the collision of rock 'n' roll romanticism and academia, described upon its release Bruce Springsteen's Spector tribute Born To Run as "a '57 Chevy running on melted-down Crystals records." That was 1975, around the time of both the Ramones' vinyl unveiling and New York Dolls' creative peak, and the year Bob Dylan released Blood On The Tracks, his last masterpiece until 1997's Time Out Of Mind. It was also a breakthrough year for Springsteen: In 1975, he appeared simultaneously on the covers of Newsweek and Time. The publications sensed something in the 26-year-old that at the time only a modest number of followers already understood. The Ramones and Dolls were kids' stuff, meaningful as much for what they weren't (overheated and overproduced radio rock, flimsy Top 40) as for what they were (pure, almost primitive rock 'n' roll). Springsteen, though, had substance. No cynical slacker, he was also ambitious, and in 1975 he began to fulfill those ambitions.
Yet while the press looked to Springsteen as some kind of rock 'n' roll savior, he was, much like the Ramones, less a harbinger than a throwback to what had come before. Critic Jon Landau, who would later produce and manage Springsteen, wrote after seeing the singer perform in Cambridge in 1974, "I saw rock 'n' roll's future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen." But he may as well have said, "I saw rock 'n' roll's past manifested in the music of Bruce Springsteen." Springsteen merged the poetry of Dylan, the presence of Presley, the invigorating leadership of James Brown, and the power of Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound all at once. He was the embodiment of rock 'n' roll because he borrowed from some of rock's best, but there was something more. In his new book, It Ain't No Sin To Be Glad You're Alive: The Promise Of Bruce Springsteen, Eric Alterman writes, "It's as if Bruce is playing on the home court of every icon of rock history, on the one hand paying his respects but on the other deepening their achievements and daring all of us to believe again in the entire collective enterprise." The tendency of writers to shower Springsteen with hyperbole is nothing new: The New York Times once wrote that "if there hadn't been a Bruce Springsteen, then critics would have made him up."
But that idealism has been rooted in something real, a universal experience felt by those who see Springsteenboth now and then. Landau's famous 1974 review is generally left at just the famous line about "rock 'n' roll's future," but he continued: "On a night I needed to feel young, [Springsteen] made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time." Now, 25 years later, he's doing it all over again for an audience accustomed to rock 'n' roll swindles like the constantly resuscitated Rolling Stones. But what, exactly, is different about Springsteen? What allows him and his band to reconnect with fans as if no time has passed at all?
Current stardom aside, Springsteen took off strictly on a grassroots level. His song "Born To Run," one of the greatest anthems rock has produced, actually peaked at #23 on the charts. It wasn't until 1980, five albums and hundreds of concerts later, that Springsteen had his first Top 10 hit with "Hungry Heart," a song he had originally written, not entirely coincidentally, for the Ramones. The success of "Hungry Heart" and the ensuing tour behind The River set the stage for Springsteen's superstar success throughout the '80s, as he became one of the era's most popular performers and enduring icons.
Still, the sheer tally of ticket sales is only one example of how history seems to have repeated itself with Springsteen's return to arenas alongside the venerated E Street Band. In 1999, many of the most popular acts didn't even seem to be trying, coasting on the fact that the ephemeral nature of contemporary Top 40 will work to their advantage as long as they keep their profile up in any number of feverishly obsequious media outlets. As was the case in the mid-'70s, pop appears near an all-time low. Now that the decade is all but over, who can stomach the prospect of future compilations collecting the best '90s pop had to offer?
Some big differences between Springsteen then and Springsteen now: Unlike his popular peak from around 1978 to '88, the country is experiencing an unprecedented boom. America is not coming off a divisive disaster in Vietnam, a nation-scarring scandal in Watergate, a weakened economy under Carter, or the callous public policies and Cold Warring of Reagan. The Gulf War was as close as America has come to a casualty-free major military exercise (for Americans, anyway), fought in newsrooms as much as on battlefields. Recreational drug use has gone up, but hard drug use has gone down. This generation's Watergate, the Lewinsky affair, went largely mocked by the American people. The economy is currently strong. Is it possible that disposable pop is merely a reflection of good times?
With unemployment low and the stock market still soaring, maybe people don't want to be challenged. Maybe people don't need music that makes them feel like they can surmount life's challenges. Most pop music, both on the radio and on the sales charts, poses no questions and promotes few messages, because there's not much to react to. Irony and empty earnestness is all pop appears to have going for it. Maybe it's this vacuum of meaninglessness that draws kids to the vapid big business of bubblegum pop, the vain preening and empty posturing of much commercial hip hop, and the fashionable nihilism of hard rock: Millions of dollars in marketing provide the missing meaning. "We know you so well," savvy corporate businessmen seem to be saying, "so buy it because you're supposed to. Wear it because you're supposed to. Care because you're supposed to. Don't care because you're not supposed to."
Springsteen's current tour arrives at just the right time to remind people how effectively rock 'n' roll can give meaning to the moment. Though his music is clearly of another time, both in sound and in substance, his songs of triumph and escape must strike some sort of chord to evoke a successful response in such a passive, passe environment. It's ironic that the epiphany of a middle-aged Springsteen comes when all his old haunts have new corporate names: the United Center, Continental Airlines Arena, CoreStates Center, MCI Center, Staples Center. Yet his performances have proved just what a reliable brand name he is, one that represents a true connection with fans and not just a leering, desperate reliance on customers.
Following the end of a 10-year break from his band and a career-spanning rarities set, Springsteen's 1999 return seems like a victory lap. He's done virtually no interviews and given no indication as to what the conclusion of his tour might mean. But there's little question what the tour itself means. From city to city, Springsteen has offered very little stage banter, but each night has featured an extended corny preacher spiel in the middle of his minor but invigorating rave-up "Light Of Day," concluding with an emphasis on "the power, the passion of rock 'n' roll." It's been a nightly routine on his tour, but it doesn't come off as a mere act. Sweating, jumping, and screaming, at 50 Bruce Springsteen means what he says, working the sold-out crowds until every last spectator is convinced. He's not just preaching to the converted; he's preaching until everyone's converted. He's renewing faith in the rock 'n' roll weary.
The Ramones obviously jumped the gun with the title of End Of The Century. But now it really is the end of the century, and Springsteen's 25 years of musica body of work heavily indebted to the 25 years of music made before itis still more vital than most of today's pop music. It's not an intellectual exercise. It's not a cynical post-modern deconstruction of the American myth. It's the manifestation of one man's love of the music that made him who he is today. If Springsteen's endurance and excitementhis ability to make 20,000 fans at a time forget the other nostalgia tours and passing trendsis not proof of the power and passion of rock 'n' roll, what is? The prevailing mood of the '90s turns out to be cynicism, yet Springsteen's return shows that there is a way to curb cultural malaise. By bridging the past into the present, we might yet find a way to make the future of pop music palatable.