Would it be career suicide for a Philadelphia sports writer to criticize THE BOSS?
Bruce Springsteen is held in insanely high regard in these parts, placed on a pedestal next to Jason Kelce and God. But part of what we do at Crossing Broad is pursue topics other outlets won’t touch, because otherwise the scene is sanitized and stale. Safe is boring. Like FOX 29, “we go there,” and in this case I’d like to share some thoughts on the most overrated performer of the last 45 years, who announced this week the dates for a 2023 European tour.
The knee-jerk reaction to any music criticism is to say “well, people have different tastes,” and that is, of course, true. Some people like death metal and some people like mumble rap. Everybody likes what they like, but saying that it ends there is not entirely true. There is objectivity in analyzing music, be it instrumental proficiency, song writing and arrangement, vocal talent, production, mixing, etc. Nickelback sold more records than Soundgarden and enjoyed more mainstream popularity, but you’re not gonna find many people who think the former was more talented than the latter.
People often point to Bruce being a great on-stage performer. “You have to see him live!” That’s all good. There’s no issue with that. Bruce always seems to deliver and doesn’t cut corners, which I believe is why his supporters love him so much. When you commit to your fans with frequent touring and lengthy setlists, it shows that you give a shit and aren’t just going through the motions, so respect to Springsteen for that. In truth, my opinion doesn’t have anything to do with those performative and ultimately peripheral topics. My take is that Bruce’s music just isn’t that good, for the following reasons:
- It has no balls. It doesn’t rock. It’s Americana without a backbone.
- Bruce is not a great singer. He mumbles and grunts and doesn’t have any range.
- It’s oversaturated. Too many unnecessary sounds and instruments.
- Way too much piano/keys/synth.
- The guitars and bass are always buried in the studio and live mixes.
- Song structure is very linear and results in repetitive passages. A lack of creative hooks and transitions. You could very easily trim 1-2 minutes off most of his tunes.
- There are too many people in the E Street Band and individual talent sometimes gets buried because there’s just way too much going on. There are four-piece bands that create more suitable layering in a live setting despite having one-quarter of the people on stage. I watched some live clips from 2013 when Bruce had 16 people up on stage. 16! You don’t need three guitar players and four dudes on the horns. Putting more than a dozen people on stage doesn’t add to the music, it detracts from the music. There is clear redundancy, unless Bruce is trying to recreate the Trans-Siberian Orchestra here.
- The saxophone does not rock. God bless the late and incredibly talented Clarence Clemons, but saxophone was not meant for Americana, folk, rock, or anything stemming from it. If we’re speaking facts here, Clemons was too good for the E Street Band.
Beyond the music being mediocre, a lot of Bruce’s lyrics tell stories specific to the era the songs were written in, and speak to an aging generation of fans. That’s why a lot of younger types just don’t relate and don’t latch on. The kids are going to listen to Zeppelin on the classic rock stations, but Bruce doesn’t really land unless your parents passed the music down to you. Also, these stories are repetitive topically and rather rudimentary. “Johnny worked in the factory but wanted to be a race car driver” or some shit. Bobby is a blue collar guy from New Jersey. It all comes from the same thematic tree.
And then you have the zealot fans who have seen Bruce 75 times and will tell you all about it, but then want to rip your head off if you dare say anything negative about The Boss:
Keep Bruce’s name out your f***ing mouth.
— Zach Gelb (@ZachGelb) May 24, 2022
I had people in my DMs telling me to fight the good fight because they were worried about badmouthing Springsteen publicly. Think about that. They might become ostracized or cancelled if they speak ill of America’s foremost troubadour. Springsteen fans make The People’s Temple look like noobs, and don’t even get me started on the sports writers who worship at the altar of Asbury Park. I’m willing to bet they’ve already booked tickets to Dusseldorf for the upcoming tour, because seeing Bruce 37 times in Philly and New Jersey is not enough.
On another note, there are so many examples of artists that do what Springsteen does, but better. Tom Petty was a fantastic storyteller who also made good music. Same with Steve Miller and his band. ZZ Top does more musically with three members than Bruce does with 16 and Bob Seger could at least hit a high note. Everywhere you look, there are instances of performative benchmarks easily being matched or cleared by others.
Bruce has a massive discography, but at this point we can take a quick trip through some of his most well-known songs and give them another shot:
Streets of Philadelphia
This is Bruce mumbling over a looped beat with atmospheric synth layered on top. There is no redeeming quality to this song. It doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no hook. There’s no transition. There’s a very slight key change a little more than halfway through. You know people in the corporate world say who “this could have been an email“? Well, this song could have been a poem. I can’t believe it won an Academy Award.
It’s jocular and catchy, right? That main lick is memorable. I even hear a decent guitar riff in there, but unfortunately it’s buried when the keys kick in at the 0:46 mark. And what’s with the tambourine and percussion block in the video? At least in the live version they let Steve Van Zandt play a guitar solo that any kid at your local School of Rock can play. I love how this song just goes on for two minutes at the end with the same lick over and over again. “Keep it rocking now!” says Springsteen, and you think someone is gonna rip into a lead or do something interesting, but no.
Born to Run
I’ve listened to Born to Run a hundred times now. This is Bruce’s least-worst song, and it’s a tune that should rock. It’s got a ton of potential. But it doesn’t rock enough. Too many keys. The saxophone lead is longer than the guitar lead. Lost potential, just like everything in the Springsteen catalogue that shows some kind of promise. Most of his songs show something but are left incomplete, which is the most frustrating bit of all of this. You hear moments of brilliance that quickly disappear into nothing because that something “extra” is always missing.
We could dive into individual songs forever, but you get the point. There’s too much going on. The biggest lesson Bruce needed to learn is that sometimes less is more, but not less to the point where it’s you, an acoustic guitar, and a harmonica with a four track. Trim the fat, but don’t trim to the point where you’re now Bob Dylan. That sweet spot was always elusive.
When I went on Twitter to rip Bruce earlier this week, I had a lot of baseball fans in my mentions who were criticizing soccer, which was incredibly strange at first. What the hell does soccer, or even sport itself, have to do with any of this? Then it clicked for me. Bruce’s fans love baseball because baseball is Americana, right? It’s their picture of the American Dream and soccer is for Communists, and they were coming after for me for something I originally thought was unrelated.
That social media experience really helps illustrate my point that it’s not about Bruce’s music and never has been. It’s about the idea of Bruce Springsteen and what he sings about. THAT is what people connect with. Who cares if the songs stink? They speak to a generation of blue collar, working class Americans, and there’s certainly value in that, but it creates this line of demarcation between musical proficiency and generational symbolism. Bruce represents Bobby from the 1970s, who had a shit job washing dishes and really wanted to pitch for the Yankees instead. That’s why if you’re a 15-year-old NBA fan, you’re probably not jiving with what Bruce wrote in the 80s. There is no interfacing. It’s like someone with an Android texting an iPhone user.
Drew Magary touched on this in the 2014 classic he wrote for the original Deadspin, titled “Why do so many sports writers love Bruce Springsteen?” –
“Bruce Springsteen is the perfect embodiment of what sportswriters want to see in the athletes they cover. He is the musical David Eckstein. He’s tough! He’s scrappy! He comes from humble roots and is self-made. He’s blue collar. He’s the first guy to get to the stadium and the last guy to leave. He runs out his pop flies. He’s loyal to his home state of New Jersey, even though he moved to L.A. for a bit and also has a house in Florida. He is every shitty, awful sports-unicorn trope amassed into a single singer-songwriter. And he writes songs that are “rocking” without anywhere being close to threatening. He is the underdog that so many sportswriters want to see in themselves, which is how they end up composing endless paeans to the sax break in ‘Born to Run.'”
The fact of the matter is that Bruce is a storyteller disguised as a musician. A bard in the wrong body. If he did poetry or spoken word instead of making music, he would be just as successful, because that’s where his strength lies. He connects with his fans because he evokes in them very specific and very strong era-specific feelings. That’s something to be commended and celebrated and it’s always been his best trait. It’s the thing his fans talk about more than anything. I’m happy to give him tons of credit for that, I just happen to think the musical vessel in which those stories are contained is totally lame. It’s like a lackluster musical phylactery of sorts.
In conclusion, let this be a calling for everyone else who dislikes The Boss and is afraid to speak up. You are not alone! Do not be ashamed. Do not let them silence you. I realize that taking this stance is risky. I could have my credentials pulled and I could be shunned by sports writer colleagues up and down the mid-Atlantic corridor. I could be cancelled… outright! <Mike Missanelli voice>
But someone has to say it. The Boss stinks.