Bruce Springsteen Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bruce Springsteen 1949–

American songwriter and musician.

To many critics and fans, Springsteen represents both the culmination of the best attributes of twenty years of rock and roll and the genre's brightest hope for the future. In many ways his words and music are a return to the basics of popular music, but Springsteen's understanding of the classic themes of rock and his dynamic stage presence have added a new dimension to the form.

Springsteen's lyrics are probably his most notable achievement. Not unlike short stories in their ability to evoke strong imagery, character, and setting in a limited space, they prompted critics to compare him with Bob Dylan. Initially a complimentary estimate, this statement became a drawback in Springsteen's early career, causing his struggle for recognition as a performer with an original approach. His first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey, was especially criticized for its excessive wordplay. Some critics feel the lyrics, which often drew from personal sources, were contrived and lightweight, although as a whole the album was well received for its exuberance and imagination.

The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle is considered a more complete and serious album than its predecessor. Although the songs appear autobiographical, Springsteen universalizes places and people familiar to him from the small town of Asbury Park, New Jersey. His cast of characters risk everything for the chance to grab a moment, something that is truly their own. The album is most often faulted for its sentimental, romanticized portrayals of street punks and their lifestyles. However, its controlled passion and musical fusion of rock, folk, soul, and jazz were considered positive steps forward in Springsteen's artistic development.

Some critics have called Born to Run a perfect rock album due to its evocative imagery and powerful music, which was stylistically reminiscent of the best of Dylan, Van Morrison, Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," and the Phil Spector sound. Although the themes of joy, frustration, and rebellion were sometimes thought to be over-developed, Springsteen's exhilarating style gave fresh new meaning to the often hackneyed subjects of teenage dilemma and release. An extensive advertising campaign was launched for the album's promotion which emphasized critic Jon Landau's statement in Boston's The Real Paper: "I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." The forcefulness of the campaign prejudiced many people, some of whom had never heard Springsteen's songs, and Springsteen's reputation was considered overblown. It has only been recently that Springsteen has been accepted as a major artist.

Springsteen's recording career came to a standstill in 1976 when he and then-manager Mike Appel filed a series of lawsuits against each other. He did not release another album until 1978. The cathartic Darkness on the Edge of Town reflects the pain and bitterness Springsteen felt about these lawsuits. Darkness concentrates on more adult themes, such as despair and disillusionment, than did the earlier albums. It has been called strained and repetitive, lacking in the spontaneity that characterized those works. However, it is often considered Springsteen's most mature statement, one which dramatically shows his tenacity and strength.

Springsteen's greatest appeal to young people is perhaps his ability to relay accurately his understanding of their problems, dreams, and desires. His works also show his honest empathy with the young person's need for freedom; as a chronicler of their hopes and wishes he has become, for many of them, the symbol that these dreams can be realized.