The Dilettante

He Should Have Played “The Wrestler”

Bruce Springsteen misreads the national mood in his halftime performance.

Bruce Springsteen

“Is there anybody alive out there?” Bruce Springsteen blues-shouted to an audience of tens of millions of presumably catatonic football fans, by way of introducing a 12-minute medley of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” (fan favorite), “Born to Run” (signature anthem), “Working on a Dream” (Please Proceed to Checkout), and the obligatory and eternally unfun romp known as “Glory Days.” Springsteen has evolved, in the 35 years I’ve adored him, from an acquired taste that almost no one acquired to America’s favorite karaoke act. (Is it possible to enjoy Springsteen’s music without fantasizing that you are Bruce Springsteen?) Having grown older with Springsteen, one would hardly begrudge him the need to play the Bridgestone Halftime Show at America’s pseudo-event extraordinaire. It is, as he put it, a “promotional outlet” not to be denied.

I love Bruce for the simple reason he is, from all appearances, a social phobe and a depressive. (Takes one to know one.) He may have been faking it for all these years, but he shrinks like a failing soufflé in the presence of an interviewer, and, in general, he speaks with the tiptoe pedantry of the unsure Everyman. Springsteen, the shy Jersey kid who comes alive only as a stage hound, first hit the big time during an energy crisis—of oil embargoes and, as legend has it, Carter-induced malaise—to which his four-hour shows were seen as an animal corrective. I’ve always admired him more, though, for his ability to bring down the room and was disappointed when he went for the Full Ya-Ya from the opening bars of “Freeze Out.” Bruce mugged, pranced, japed with the Big Man; he brought in a gospel choir and did a Pete Townshend windmill; he even winked at Daniel Boorstin by closing with “I’m going to Disneyland.”

Nothing will ever compete for sheer tone-deafness with Paul McCartney playing a zealous Super Bowl rendition of “Live and Let Die” at the height of the Iraq war.  But Springsteen would have put America on its ass—its mind shortly to follow—had he strolled out with a Martin and played “The Wrestler.” (And how about a nice “This one’s for Danny,” aka Danny Federici, the recently deceased keyboardist who was with Bruce for more than 40 years?) The national mood is sober bordering on a galloping panic. Lively as he was, I wouldn’t say the Boss did much to either banish or capture it.

The Springsteen persona was originally intended as a stand-in for a blue-collar working class living in an insular white ethnic neighborhood and working a job on more or less permanent offer from an industrial economy. He was the poet of their decline, but he’s moved away from that specific community of origin as his persona has evolved into a bit of general-purpose kitsch Americana. Not coincidentally, Springsteen has flogged more and more a highly abstract idea of “community,” one centered around Bruce Springsteen. “It’s not just my creation at this point,” he recently told the New YorkTimes, referring to the Springsteen iconography’s debt to its fans. “I wanted it to be our creation. Once you set that in motion, it’s a large community of people gathered around a core set of values.”

Pardon me if I don’t hear a note of true reciprocity in these words. Springsteen concerts, when I first attended, were Atlantic Coast joy fests for a small community of like-minded fans. To discover that many other people share a taste for something oddball is a source of true shelter from the agglomerating powers of the mass. A Postmodernist would scoff and say nothing has changed, that Springsteen was always only merchandise. True, but in every possible way, Springsteen holds himself out as a force against such Postmodernist sophistication—on behalf of meaning, sincerity, and authenticity! As media outlets reported, the field seats for the halftime show were filled with extras, a crowd of “excited fans,” as the cattle call put it, to be seen dancing and clapping by the real audience, the 90 million sitting at home. * I’m glad that my oddball favorite from middle school has become a zillionaire and a living legend. But watching him play the Super Bowl, I couldn’t help saying back to my flat screen, “Is there anyone alive in there?”

Correction, Feb. 3, 2009: The article originally indicated the extras were compensated for their work as “excited fans.” They were volunteers. (Return to the corrected sentence.)