In Cameron Crowe’s documentary about the making of the Elton John/Leon Russell album The Union, John talks about his expectations for the record, admitting that his platinum days are probably behind him, and that now he just wants to make a good album and spend some time with an old friend. As it turned out, The Union got good reviews, was nominated for a Grammy, and sold well worldwide. Still, John’s candor and self-awareness is refreshing, because it can be hard for some pop stars to accept that their time has passed. During the heyday of VH1’s Behind The Music, the most painful part of every episode was never the moment when the members of Styx or Journey started sniping at each other, but the moment when their cobbled-together lineups touted some bland, overproduced new album as “the best thing we’ve ever done.” A positive attitude is all well and good; but there’s something desperately sad about the delusions of the wannabe famous and the formerly famous.
For a heartening counterpoint, see Bruce Springsteen, whose 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball, came out yesterday after several months of steady promotion. I have no idea how well Wrecking Ball is going to do, but if the pattern of the last decade or so holds, the album should at least go gold in the U.S., and will probably sell millions more worldwide. Springsteen and his E Street Band will be touring, too, playing stadiums that will more than likely be full. Somehow, in an era when straight-ahead, veteran rockers can no longer count on radio or MTV to support their music, Springsteen still sells. He’s not moving units at superstar levels any more, but Columbia Records sure isn’t going broke by being in the Bruce Springsteen business.
What’s The Boss’ secret? Quality is a factor, sure. Like Neil Young, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan, Springsteen still puts out good records, full of original songs that are true to his signature sound while showing a willingness to explore new musical ideas. And as a touring act, The E Street Band remains a powerhouse. I’ve seen Springsteen in concert twice—in 2000 and 2009—and while both shows were great, the second show was remarkably better. The man seems to be picking up momentum in his 60s.
But let’s be honest: Even though my early impression of Wrecking Ball is that it’s Springsteen’s best since the ’80s, I still have to admit that if I were to rank all the albums, Springsteen’s entire ’70s and ’80s output would come first, followed by Wrecking Ball, and then the ’90s and ’00s records. While 2002’s The Rising and 2007’s Magic (the latter of which I’d slot right after Wrecking Ball) include an impressive number of top-tier Springsteen songs, there’s also a lot of filler on both; and I’m not going to pretend I regularly listen to more than a song or two each off of 2005’s tedious Devils & Dust or 2009’s goofy Working On A Dream. (I do like the 2006 folk-punk exercise We Shall Overcome a great deal, but since that album’s mostly covers, I tend to file it alongside the live albums in my head.) In my opinion, Springsteen isn’t exactly making masterpieces these days. I’m a Bruce-booster, so I’m glad his music still sells, but I can all but guarantee that there’ll be much better albums than Wrecking Ball this year—maybe even by musicians from Springsteen’s generation—that won’t sell as much in 12 months as Wrecking Ball is likely to move in its first week.
There are multiple reasons why Springsteen has hung on in a market that’s generally hostile to oldsters. One is that he’s never been an ostentatious, overbearing figure on the pop music scene. There are plenty of rock stars who’ve taken their brief moment in the spotlight as a personal validation, and thus as an excuse to become free-spending egomaniacs. Those are the ones whose declining sales and significance become hard to watch. They don’t have the “it’ll be what it’ll be” attitude that Elton John showed in The Union; instead, they seem to really need the accolades (and perhaps even the money) that aren’t coming their way anymore. Springsteen’s always been more about communicating—and communing—than about living high. He’s a powerful enough performer that he could easily tour every year and cash in on his back catalog, like a Jimmy Buffett* or a Steve Miller. Instead, he still works hard on his albums, using the studio to document the world as he sees it. And then he tours, to promote the albums and continue the conversation that the albums are meant to start.
Springsteen also tries to stay current musically, without losing his core musical identity (or embarrassing himself). In recent years, he’s appeared onstage with popular younger acts like The Gaslight Anthem and The Arcade Fire, and the videos of those performances have been posted on YouTube and then on various hip music blogs. This is nothing new for Springsteen either. In the late ’70s, he was collaborating with Patti Smith, and talking up Suicide, the Ramones, and The Clash. He experimented with electronics in the ’80s and ’90s (and again on Wrecking Ball), not because he was looking to make hit records by cashing in on the latest trends, but because he’s genuinely fascinated by the possibilities of the technology.
That embrace of technology has extended to the way the entire Bruce Springsteen organization has approached promotion. A lot of musicians from Springsteen’s generation (and the generation immediately before) survived the rapid changes of the MTV ’80s because the audiences for classic rock and album rock radio were substantial, and because MTV was looking for the legitimacy conferred by playing videos from the heroes of the Baby Boom. The result? Hit records by the likes of John Fogerty and Robbie Robertson. In the ’90s, though, the concurrent waves of modern rock, teen pop, hip-hop, pop-country, and electronica—all bolstered to some degree by the more democratizing SoundScan method of tracking record sales—left veteran rockers without much space on the airwaves to let fans know what they were up to. And now that the audience is even more fragmented, and the traditional distribution channels have been radically transformed, it’s even harder for the old guard to get their music out to the people most likely to enjoy it.
What Springsteen has done with Wrecking Ball though is similar to what he’s done with his last few albums: He’s used the Internet and network television shrewdly to do the job that radio and MTV used to do. In the weeks leading up to the release of Wrecking Ball, the Springsteen team has allowed various websites to host streaming tracks from the album, which have then been linked to by other websites. Springsteen has never granted a lot of interviews—trust me, I make my pitch every time he has a new album out—but the few interviews he consents to tend to be substantive and high-profile. Last week he sat down with Jimmy Fallon for an entire episode, at the end of Late Night’s “Bruce Springsteen week,” which saw him performing two songs from Wrecking Ball on Monday and two more on Friday, with Kenny Chesney, John Legend, and Elvis Costello each doing gorgeous Springsteen covers with The Roots on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Those performances were then much discussed online the next day, with the performances passed around via Twitter and Facebook and blogs.
To some extent, this is a variation on the relationship between MTV and older rock stars in the ’80s: Springsteen’s leveraging his status as a high-profile “get” for a talk show into extended promotion for his latest project. But it’s that kind of hustle that consistently brings in six-figure opening-week sales. His label and his PR team know they have an asset in Springsteen’s scruffy charm and fiery stage presence, and they put it to use.
More to the point: Springsteen doesn’t waste those opportunities. The four Wrecking Ball songs that Springsteen performed on Fallon were all electrifying, making a strong case for the album as a whole. And then he wrapped the week by jamming with The Roots on “The E Street Shuffle,” ending with a studio full of fans leaping for joy in front of the cameras while the band riffed furiously. It was exhilarating few minutes of television, the video of which burned up the Internet all weekend. It’s hard to imagine a better pitch to old fans and new, who’ll now be more likely to open up their wallets and give back to The Boss.
* Things aren’t always as they seem, though. Before I started writing this piece, I assumed that Buffett probably didn’t record that often, and that if he did, that his new records didn’t sell much. In fact, Buffett released four studio albums in the ’00s, one of which went gold and one of which went platinum. And in the ’90s, all five of Buffett’s studio albums went either gold or platinum. So he clearly knows what he’s doing.