Bruce Springsteen and the artistic necessity of cultural appropriation

The Boss’ new album will be composed of entirely culturally appropriated songs, a collection of “soul music” covers, but that is inherently a good thing.  Harold Bloom’s seminal The Anxiety of Influence reveals why all art, if not all ideas entirely, can be seen as the product of cultural appropriation.  Bruce Springsteen is just the leading practitioner in a long line including William Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Last week, Bruce Springsteen announced the release of his next album, Only The Strong Survive, a collection of what is being described as “soul music” cover songs.  “I wanted to make an album where I just sang,” Mr. Springsteen explained in a video statement. “And what better music to work with than the great American songbook of the Sixties and Seventies? I’ve taken my inspiration from Levi Stubbs, David Ruffin, Jimmy Ruffin, the Iceman Jerry Butler, Diana Ross, Dobie Gray, and Scott Walker, among many others. I’ve tried to do justice to them all—and to the fabulous writers of this glorious music. My goal is for the modern audience to experience its beauty and joy, just as I have since I first heard it. I hope you love listening to it as much as I loved making it.”  Left unsaid:  The majority of these artists are black while Bruce Springsteen is of course an incredibly rich white man.  If the success of his prior albums is any indication, Mr. Springsteen will earn millions of dollars by repackaging the works of minority artists, some of whom might not have made as much from their own creation.  Moreover, Mr. Springsteen clearly sees the decision to make this album in terms of his own artistic development, which in the parlance of the modern area must be White, complete with a capital “W.”  “I’d spent my working life with my voice at the service of my songs, confined by my arrangements, by my melodies, by compositions, and by my constructions,” he said. “My voice always came second, third or fourth to those elements…[On this new album], I put my own spin on the singing, and my team mastered and sonically modernized some of the most beautiful songs in the American pop songbook. I had so much fun recording this music.”  In other words:  This is cultural appropriation on a perhaps unprecedented scale.  It is intentional.  It benefits a white artist, and it is being done entirely in service of that white artist’s vision and career.

This is all undeniably true and I am near certain it will only be a matter of time before some progressive wokester says the same, railing about how the white man is stealing the black man’s music once again.  To me, however, this is an exciting development.  Mr. Springsteen will bring attention to these artists and their work on a scale not seen in decades.  Personally, I am familiar with some of the songs and musicians, but would never have studied them the way I will now.  It is inevitable that my exposure through Springsteen will bring me back to the originals, and help me discover even more of their work.  He is honoring these artists by covering their songs, and through his own respect for their work, his fans will generate a new appreciation.  In my opinion, this is precisely how it should be.  It is a case study in how art is supposed to work because to a large extent all art, or even ideas in general, are cultural appropriation.  We are all a product of our experiences and rare is the mind that truly creates something new.  Almost every idea we credit as new is rather an updated synthesis of what is already out there, whether the subject is music or technology.  For some reason, the modern era has an obsession with culture and the relative impact each ethnicity has had. Technology is a more clinical field, but the same principle usually applies. Steve Jobs for example didn’t invent the computer, the internet, or the cell phone.  Instead, he had a vision that combined all three technologies into a single, intuitive platform, one that is accessible to almost everyone, easy to use, and offered features that provided real benefits to people in the real world.

Turning back to culture, J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t invent the idea of fantasy literature.  He took two disparate cultural threads, a pulp fascination with short stories and novels about the mythical, and a history of epic poetry describing mythical events, and synthesized them into the modern genre of epic fantasy, for which he is now branded as (partially) a racist.  Bruce Springsteen himself can be seen as performing a similar synthesis between the folk and pop music traditions.  In one sense, he is the heir to Bob Dylan and was actually discovered by the same record executive, John Hammond.  He has previously produced an album honoring folk legend Pete Seeger, and covering traditional folk songs (The Seeger Sessions).  One need only take a cursory glance at his lyrics and their recurring themes to clearly root him in that genre, but folk music alone doesn’t account for the bombast of “Born to Run” or the bassline in “Dancing in the Dark.”  Mr. Springsteen’s inspiration also comes from the rich history of pop music, especially the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, much of which was popularized by black artists.  The new album can be seen as a means to honor and recognize that part of his musical history.  Springsteen’s legacy and subsequent influence on musicians from John Mellencamp to The Clash, and even The Killers, who he performed with last weekend, isn’t either, or.  It’s both, and the both part is what made his work new and interesting, and is what continues to make him a legend almost 50 years after first breaking onto the music scene.

The late, great literary critic, Harold Bloom, coined the phrase “The Anxiety of Influence” in 1973 to describe this synthesis process for romantic poetry in the nineteenth century.  In his view, no artist, however great, can be free from the influence of their artistic upbringing.  Something in them is inspired by the work they inherit from antiquity, but simultaneously feels they themselves can do something different, better.  The result is a literary tradition that looms over the artist, creating unease, apprehension, and anxiety as they grapple with their own work.  Bloom defined the process as “creative misprision.”  Essentially, he viewed artistic creation as a sort of Oedipal complex, where the father is the literary master and the son is the contemporary artist.  The son must distort the work of the father in order to create something new or innovative; those who triumph are “strong” and their works might well become part of the canon themselves.  Those who fail are “weak” for being mere derivations or inferior copies.  Bloom established six “revisionary ratios” this process could follow.  Clinamen is an obvious misreading.  The current artist follows the master up to a certain point, but then goes off in a different direction.  A story with the same beginning, but a radically different ending.  Tessera which is seen as an elaboration or an extension.  The contemporary artist accepts the work of the master, but feels there is some gap that could be filled or some aspect that wasn’t illuminated enough.  This could be a story that takes the same form, but focuses on different aspects or comes to a different conclusion based on the same set of circumstances.  Kenosis, where the contemporary intentionally shatters tradition for the sake of it, purposefully differentiating themselves and calling attention to the differentiation, what Bloom described as a “breaking device similar to the defense mechanisms our psyches employ against repetition compulsions.”  Deamonization is when a contemporary believes they are superior to the masters in some specific way, and this superiority is manipulated or emphasized to overshadow the master.  A novelist who hones in one aspect of a sprawling epic, and turns it into a unique creation of its own.  Askesis is an outright dismissal of both the contemporary and the master’s talent, a literal turning of the work inside and out saying this is not all that great in both cases.  Think of a filmmaker who takes a classic work and intentionally turns it into a low-brow comedy.  Finally, Apophrades is the “return of the dead,” when the creator openly accepts the influence of his predecessors and accepts their work as being read in the same tradition.

Bloom believed this process was inescapable.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, even the greatest writers who ever lived are surrounded by the ghosts of the past, for both good or ill.  I would go one step further and posit that the same is true of all thinkers and all ideas.  It could not be any other way.  All of us inherit, internalize, and hence must grapple with the dead.  The truly rare mind that is credited with an original idea has usually found it in the process of solving problems or answering questions inherited from the predecessors.  “New ideas” in literature are more difficult to pinpoint, but consider Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, both rightly renowned as some of the most innovative thinkers in history, both ushered in new eras of scientific inquiry that lasted more than a hundred years.  Newton’s chief insight was recognizing the correct relationships between force, mass, and acceleration, and formalizing them in his famous laws of motion.  The existence of all three and the majority of their key processes had been known for centuries, however.  It was only the relationships between them, and how they interact at both small and galactic scale that were new.  Einstein as well burst onto the scientific scene in 1905 with what has been described as a “miracle” year.  He updated Newton’s laws of motion and combined them with Galileo’s principle of relativity.  He showed how light could behave as both a wave and a particle, and he resolved a longstanding question regarding Brownian motion.  Each was revolutionary, with the impact still felt today, but there is certainly an argument that these ideas were all already out there, sometimes for a long time.  In fact, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which results in perhaps the most famous equation in the world, energy equals mass times acceleration squared, uses mathematics called Lorentz transformations which were invented almost thirty years earlier.  The original innovators didn’t know what they had until Einstein’s great insight.

Perhaps William Shakespeare comes closest in literature, an author who Harold Bloom himself once argued “invented” the modern human.  By that, he meant that Shakespeare gave his characters an inner life that was not present before, and has since taken over the world.  Today, we talk in terms of our thoughts, feelings, motivations, the voice in our head that urges us onward to ends good or ill, but there is precious little in the literary tradition that indicates anyone conceived of people this way before the Shakespearean monologue.  The classic writers of antiquity generally saw us as moved by outside forces.  There was a god that represented almost every emotion, and characters would fall under the sway of one or many, motivating them forward without a real sense of freewill or an inner life (please check out this post on how the recent film, The Northman, can be seen as Hamlet without freewill).  Events happen to people rather than because of people.  Shakespeare changed all that with characters that listen to themselves and do things for their own free will, and in doing so he invented almost every modern storytelling trope and character archetype from the sitcom to the action movie, from the pensive thinker who worries over every decision (Hamlet) to the get-it-done at any cost leader (Henry V).  Shakespeare, however, would be considered a plagiarist by today’s copyright standards.  As many have remarked, we can credit him with perhaps one original story, The Tempest.    The rest of his works are all based on history or some other source material, from either England or the broader European continent, generally adapted to his needs quite radically, but adapted nonetheless.  If he were writing today, he’d be the subject of endless lawsuits.  He was a cultural appropriator without equal, and is the greatest writer in the English language, if not ever, because of it.

Bringing us back to Mr. Springsteen.  In a college term paper, I described him as the man who single handedly saved the world from disco, and asked if he could also show us how to save ourselves from ourselves.  I have long viewed him as the singular songwriter and musician of the modern era, but it is virtually impossible to fully separate him from his predecessors and contemporaries because he appropriated and absorbed them all.  We can see each one of Bloom’s “revisionary ratios” in his work.  Clinamen, intentional misreading:  Though he was marketed as the heir to Bob Dylan and the record executives believed he was going to be a folk-phenomenon, he insisted on “plugging in” from his very first album and asserting himself as a rock musician contra-Dylan himself.  Tessera, elaboration of previous works:  He expanded and revised the rock tradition to cover more complex themes and characters, adding an epic feel to the ins and outs of ordinary life, a world where graduation gowns lie in rags at your feet and the highways are haunted by the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets.  Kenosis, an intentional break with the past:  After his biggest commercial success, Born in the USA, Mr. Springsteen broke with the big sound he was known for popularly, and recorded a rhythmic, intimate, and emotionally intense album in Tunnel of Love.  Daemonization, a counter to what is already considered sublime:  Mr. Springsteen has parodied himself and other artists who have romanticized every aspect of the modern experience.  “Queen of the Supermarket” can only be read as a humorous counter to his previous work, where the traditional Springsteen character secretly worships a woman who works the checkout counter like an angel.  Askesis, a diminishment of his own work and the tradition he works in:  2019’s Western Stars represents some of the consistently best songwriting from the latter half of Mr. Sprinsteen’s career, and yet it exists outside the rock tradition entirely.  The inspiration was an almost forgotten California pop sound from the 1960’s popularized in songs like “Rhinestone Cowboy.”  As Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes put it, the album “evokes country-tinged California pop from the Sixties and Seventies, sounding like nothing [Springsteen]’s done before.”  Apophrades:  What better way to bring about the “return of the dead” than recreate classic soul songs as he has done before with classic folk songs?

In other words, Springsteen is the greatest musician of his era for the same reason as Shakespeare:  He is another cultural appropriator par excellence, and we should all be thankful for it.

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