Thursday, September 22, 2005

Springsteen's Devils & Dust: The Palace at 4 A.M.

By Daniel Wolff

"I want to know if love is real."

Bruce Springsteen shouted it on 1975's "Born to Run:" a declaration of his rock& roll quest. With each decade, this apparently simple question of faith and possibility has grown darker and more complex. By 1987's Tunnel of Love, Springsteen was talking about having to "live with what you can't rise above." And by 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad, he was hinting that we need to believe because, "What are we without hope in our hearts?" Springsteen's latest, Devils & Dust, pushes the issue even harder. Playing nearly all the instruments, moaning and murmuring his way across the (mostly) quiet melodies, Springsteen has gathered a set of songs that circle a central and inescapable emptiness. What if love is real—and, on some fundamental level, that doesn't change things? How do we go on?

It's not a question that lends itself to shouting. The new CD is dark, dense, and, at its core, non-verbal. Listen to its muted vocals, its droning melodies, and the first impression is that Springsteen doesn't really want to sing these songs—or ask these questions. It's the sound of a man at the edge of what he understands, who then decides to jump. In the journey (or free-fall) that follows, we seem to go places: from the battlefields of Iraq to the South Bronx to the Mexican border. But this isn't the highway full of broken heroes that Springsteen rode to fame on "Born to Run." And it isn't "Thunder Road," where—with a little faith—the two lanes could take us anywhere. No, what we're traveling here is what Springsteen calls "the skull highway." On the first cut, we're in a field of "blood and stone;" on the last, an earth "open to its bones." They are the same. We've gone nowhere. We've gone inside.

The valley Springsteen enters on Devils & Dust, is a lonesome one, and he mostly walks it by himself. There's help from producer Brendan O'Brien's swirling string arrangements, Steve Jordan's rhythm tracks that give pulse to the melodies, and some backup singing. But matching sound to subject matter, the CD is full of empty space. The individuals here are dwarfed by a landscape of "endless nothing." They have the gaunt, isolated feel of the figures of the 20th century artist Alberto Giacometti, and for similar reasons. "Wanting to create from memory what I had seen," Giacometti wrote, "to my terror, the sculptures became smaller and smaller often so small that with one touch of my knife they disappeared into dust." There's some of the same terror in these songs of Springsteen. In trying to get down to the bones of what's real, he's employed a kind of musical minimalism. No easy answers; no E Street Band; no rock&roll climax.

If that makes the new CD sound despairing, it isn't. There's an understated courage to most of the material: living with sadness is part of the job description. But it is murky. The issues Devils & Dust raises may be easier to get a handle on if you frame them in more traditional terms, the way Bill Monroe and his brother Charlie did in 1936. In a shape-note hymn played as country gospel, the Monroe Brothers asked, "What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?" In their case, it's a rhetorical question: nothing is worth the exchange. On this earth, you are, by definition, "risking your soul for the things that decay." And what you're giving up is the possibility of eternal reward.

Springsteen agrees—at least about the decay part. The CD's most graphic description of this is set in a whore's hotel room in Reno. There, as a hooker goes down on her john, he remembers a time when love was real, when a woman's smile offered "all I'd ever need." A slide guitar needles at a bed of lush strings; a tambourine taps in the background. The sadness in the music isn't just because the hooker's pleasures will prove fleeting and meaningless, but because his past love did, too. "Somehow, all you ever need," Springsteen mutters, "is never really quite enough." He slurs the dark news as if he doesn't want to admit it out loud.

But where the Monroe Brothers stood on the solid ground of their faith, Springsteen can't. The songs here are about devils and dust, "shadows and doubt." They don't move from temptation to salvation. In fact, their narratives are designed not to reach resolution. Yes, Springsteen sings "Matamoros Banks" from the perspective of an immigrant trying to swim across the Rio Grande to a better life. But as the song opens, he's already an eyeless corpse, drifting in the current. The dead man's story is over, and the beautiful, not quite resigned melody echoes that. There's no plot, no meeting across the river, only the faint remains of hope. The same is true of "Silver Palomino," where a child falls in love with a wild horse, but never gets to ride or even touch it. The most that happens is the child sees it, from a distance. Out of the guttural of Springsteen's vocal flashes the vision of the pale horse, her coat "frosted diamonds." If Springsteen's rock & roll is often cinematic, building to a climax, these songs are photographs, capturing a moment, a mood.

Songs, then, without traditional narratives. But if you listen to Devils & Dust as a collection of character studies, you'll be disappointed. It's true that Springsteen turns each song into a kind of portrait by delivering some of the most varied and extreme vocals of his career. He sings the compulsive "All I'm Thinkin' About" in a high falsetto like the bluesman Skip James. There are Southwestern accents, the title song is gravelly with fear, "Long Time Comin'" is delivered in a cowboy shout, and the inner-city kid on "Black Cowboys" speaks in an unaccented baritone. Yet, the end result is a CD which plays as a single, seamless meditation. That's because these characters are variations on a theme: lost souls connected by their search for—as Springsteen puts it on "Leah"—"the same proof." Like Giacometti's pencil-thin bronzes, or the floating body off Matamoras, they are the material that resists and reflects and dissolves into the darkness. And that darkness is Springsteen's real focus.

Folks do connect on Devils & Dust, mostly on the up-tempo numbers. "Long Time Comin'" offers its narrator the chance to "bury [his] old soul," start a new family, and "not fuck it up this time." It's the exception that proves the rule: the CD's rock & roll song with a narrative and a real chance at earthly salvation. More often, the emphasis is on the fuck-ups. "All I'm Thinkin'" may be sung by a man who believes he's in love, but it rocks with the compulsive intensity of someone caught in a trap. On "All the Way Home," the guy delivers his come-on in the nasal voice of a loser, and the electronic beat pumps him full of false courage: a variation on Springsteen's earlier "Dancing in the Dark." Throughout Devils & Dust, finding another person is a possibility and a blessing, but it's no answer. Chanting, pulling up deep organ chords, Springsteen's traveler falls into the roses of "Maria's Bed" after forty days and nights in the wilderness. Love is real enough, but it's a temporary shelter, a resting place where the soul can gather strength before doing more time.

Given that Devils & Dust was released not long after the singer's endorsement of John Kerry, it's tempting to hear the CD as a response to that loss, or to the present political climate. But only a few of these "new" songs are recent. Many, we're told, date back a decade to when Springsteen was touring behind Joad. Some are even older. Though they're appearing in 2005, they aren't tied to a particular time or politics the way Born in the USA grew out of the Reagan years, or Springsteen's last, The Rising, responded to 9/11. Even on the title cut—where a man with a gun waits in what might or might not be Iraq—Springsteen doesn't use the situation for political purposes but to meditate on fear and what it does to our "God-filled soul." On the Joad CD, the highway was "alive;" when immigrants came across the border, there was a chance they might make it; and we were being asked, in the 1930's documentary tradition, to make moral choices ­ to stand with those struggling to be free. On Devils & Dust, there's no such call. Springsteen's got on his "dead man's suit," his "graveyard boots." From the memento mori skulls on the CD's cover to the big black curtain he sees coming across the fields, Springsteen's focused not so much on death as on the closing down of possibilities, the absence of faith.

Springsteen's music has always been fueled from a dark vein. Starting with his first and still most famous locale, Asbury Park, the singer established a vocabulary of ruined arcades and small town losers. Asbury was a death trap, the town he was born to run from, and rock&roll the way out. But even as he escaped, Springsteen saw how unlikely that was for others. Since at least Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), Springsteen has been going back for those left behind, scraping away at the romanticism of the American Dream. His audience has rallied around both the promise in his music and its stubborn refusal to accept half-truths. The dead-end return of Vietnam vets became the uniting anthem of "Born in the USA." He created an international hit out of an AIDS victim's lonely walk through "The Streets of Philadelphia." From the killers of Nebraska to the fire fighters of The Rising, Springsteen has repeatedly gone to where we hurt in order to get at what we have in common.

Devils & Dust takes the same route, examining and rejecting the comfort of easy answers, but it refuses to transcend. When Springsteen retells the Christ story, he pares away the dogma, and what's left—over a gentle, keyboard-driven, gospel riff—is a country ballad about mother love. The question of resurrection is no more important to "Jesus Was an Only Son" than the biblical record that Christ had siblings. What Springsteen zeroes in on is the nearly inexpressible hurt of a mother losing her son: "a loss that can never be replaced." In the end, Jesus asks his mother to remember the soul of the universe, but he never suggests it's a forgiving soul or one without pain. To the contrary, the song's built—both melodically and lyrically—to get to the hurt and then hang there.

Without narrative or character development, without the release of rock&roll or its humor, without the social relevance that supported The Rising, Springsteen has deliberately constructed Devils & Dust as a bare stage. Like the narrator of "The Hitter," he places himself outside a locked door, alone, trying to describe where his life has taken him. If he can only get it right ­ make his voice as battered as the way he feels ­ maybe the door will open, and he can rest a while. Structured like an old mountain ballad, "The Hitter" refuses to ornament or build, repeating, instead, like the string of bloody fights it describes. It doesn't end with the door opening but with the fighter circling yet another opponent. What he does to survive (like the gunner in the title track, like most of the people on the CD) may well kill the things he loves ­ and his ability to love. But what he's gained in this exchange is a stark beauty. Finally, he's fighting to tell the truth.

And the truth is, he can't. "It's impossible," as Giacometti once put it, "to paint a portrait." The artist's solution was to leave his work incomplete: faces emerging from half-erased lines, figures whittled to their essentials. That way, he hoped the struggle, at least, would show: fresh and unprettified. Springsteen leaves his vocals rough, his melodies unadorned, and his lyrics suggesting what can't be said. The result is a gorgeous, uncompromising CD. If its central mystery and hurt remain impregnable, the fierceness of Springsteen's pursuit grows more beautiful with every listen. In the end, that's what Devils & Dust testifies to: that pursuit. "The content of any work," critic John Berger wrote of Giacometti, "is not the nature of the figure or head portrayed but the incomplete history of his staring at it."

This story first appeared on the CounterPunch
Web site.

Monday, September 19, 2005

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hear a Child

By Danny Alexander

In this era of inflamed cultural anxiety and renewed culture wars, it’s hard to imagine a more necessary book than Gerard Jones’s Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes, and Make-Believe Violence. One of his key strengths is that Jones listens to what kids have to say, unlike the political pundits who give lip service to protecting them. Aside from skewering the lazy thinking (and bad science) that has shaped most liberal and conservative perspectives on culture, he also offers indispensable insights into the distinct ways boys and girls make use of the culture, often reaching conclusions that fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

After Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’s hidden sex scene made national news, Hillary Clinton held a press conference comparing video games to cigarettes and tobacco, spouting the same tired assumptions Jones’s book should have lain to rest. In response, he agreed to answer a few questions:

In Killing Monsters, you go to great pains to show why studies on the effects of media violence are, to say the least, misleading, and you make a strong case that video games are the least likely cultural culprit when it comes to real violence in society. Last March, likely 2008 Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton joined culture warriors Joe Lieberman, Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, asking for $90 million in federal funds for research on the effect of the Internet, iPods, and other electronic media on children. What hopes do you have that this research will yield more objective or thoughtful results than past studies?

Basically none. Whenever there’s a call for new studies, it’s always from the same people: politicians or advocates who want evidence that certain types of entertainment cause certain types of problems. And they always turn to the same researchers, who are even more invested in demonstrating the presence of the same “negative effects.” After all, their livelihoods, sometimes the existence of their schools’ entire social science departments, depend on reliably delivering the same anxiety-provoking data for the same politicians and foundations. It’s a combination political maneuver and boondoggle, just like Bush demanding “more intelligence” on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and connection to al Qaeda. More studies, more quotable people assembled to say exactly what they’ve been asked to say.

I’d love to see some real research done on this subject, but that requires asking questions that no one’s asked in 80 years of social-science “research” on entertainment.
1) What might be the positive effects of this media? (Not just, “Does this increase hostility?” but also, “Does it increase boldness, self-confidence, social connection, the desire to take right action?”)
2) How do the effects of “violent entertainment” compare to sports fandom, academic pressure, social competition, patriotism, religious zeal, and the many other factors in life?(e.g., anecdotally it certainly seems that more large-scale violence is inspired by holy texts and national causes than anything make-believe; but no one ever puts entertainment in a larger context.)
3) How do we explain the fact that instances of crime, violence, and other antisocial and self-destructive behavior keep dropping even as media use increases and media violence becomes more frequent? All the research I see is “bubble research.” The numbers make sense within the bounds of the study, but they’re never reflected in real life. (As contrasted with, say, the cigarette/cancer connection, which clearly showed up in real-life statistics and then was backed up by lab studies.) Can it be that the increase of aggression recorded by so many studies somehow results in a decrease of genuine acts of violence? There are hypotheses to explain such a phenomenon, but the usual gang of researchers and politicians never wants to look at it. Heart doctors study the “French Paradox.” Will social scientists ever study the “Media Paradox”? I’d love to see it happening, but it won’t come at Clinton and Brownback’s urging.

Why don’t arguments like the ones you make in Killing Monsters get more media play?

The commercial news business is owned by the same companies who produce the entertainment, and they know that consumer confidence in their news product is tenuous. Producers and journalists are afraid that if they seem to be coming out in favor of the company’s entertainment products, they’ll lay themselves open to accusations of shilling for entertainment at the expense of accuracy. I’ve talked to enough reporters about this personally, usually right after they’ve interviewed me, to say this with some confidence. It’s the same reason educated, left-leaning journalists are so susceptible to being bullied by conservatives.

The focus on content and taste is also a great distraction from potentially larger arguments about the effects of new media per se or the political implications of the media and their messages. People who make decisions in the mass-media business know that no assaults on violent, sexy, or bad-taste entertainment will actually make any significant differences to their profitability. Everyone in the mass-media business knows that these flurries will happen and all you have to do is toss a couple of products to the wolves, slap on some new warning labels, and maybe pull back on the shock value a little bit. If you can redirect the argument from “I don’t want my kids disappearing into an iPod” to “I don’t want my kids listening to all that violence and obscenity on an iPod” and then tell them, “Now it’s easier for you to keep them from listening to all that violence and obscenity,” the larger questions about whether they should be listening to iPods in the first place get shelved. The furor over Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is good for video games as a whole, because if you can make it the demon and then show that it’s been dispatched, the rest of the games in the living room look more innocuous.

Clinton’s Senate re-election campaign received more entertainment industry donations than that of any other senator. My guess is, based on what we’ve seen in the past, the industry will continue to support her despite her taking such stances. Why do you think the industry is unwilling to stand up for itself on these issues or help educate itself and the public on the positive side of controversial ideas and violence in particular in cultural play?

People in the entertainment industry are always willing to sell out their own. HUAC found far more friendly than hostile witnesses. When the comic-book business was in danger of being destroyed in the early 1950s, people in newspaper comic strips and “wholesome” comic books rushed to the Senate hearings to say, “We’re not like those sleaze mongers. Attack them but leave us alone.” Supporting a senator who attacks Grand Theft Auto is a perfect way to cast oneself as a “responsible” member of the entertainment industry.

The people who support Clinton also know that she’s not going to go after their products. Attacks on “violence” and “obscenity” shift easily according to what the attackers needs to happen. In 1996 Bob Dole railed against “violent movies.” Then Schwarzenegger threw a few million dollars into the pot and offered to show up at rallies Suddenly Dole was praising Arnold’s movies as “depictions of heroism,” the kind of action movie we should have. Ignoring the fact that Raw Deal and Total Recall were among the nastiest movies ever made—not only in the intensity of their violence but in the sadism of their protagonist and the twistedness of their messages.

The same with mainstream sitcom producers or record companies who support Clinton. They know her attention will always be on more marginal, easily isolated entertainers that won’t turn out to be very important as contributors or fundraising hosts.

Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas argues that cultural anxiety is a tool used to push right wing agendas. You make the point that much of this cultural anxiety comes from a fear of the future and projection of our fears onto our children. Do we have as much to fear from our fantasy culture as we have to fear from the effects of this cultural anxiety Why do you suppose political progressives are so resistant to the kind of critical thinking you try to model in Killing Monsters? (Maybe that’s two questions)

First, yeah: the culture of anxiety is far, far more pernicious to children and adults than anything we’re likely to see in our make-believe. I think entertainment has very little power if we say “someone made that up to shock us” and “it doesn’t matter.”

As for progressives...I think it’s mostly just that they feel they have to steal as many issues as they can from the right without compromising the core progressive issues that they need to stick to. They figure they’re not going to lose any votes (or at least any likely votes) by yelling about violent video games and rap songs, but they might by seeming to be “soft on family values.”

Underlying that is the elitism of educated progressives. They still see themselves as having to take care of less well-educated people, which means that their reliance on upper-middle-class standards of taste and the research of people with PhDs will always be seen as more “correct” than the direct experience of kids, teenagers, immigrants, and lower-middle-class or working-class people who comprise most of the audience for the entertainment attacked. This is one reason that attacks on shows like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under never get much media traction, and why the heat always goes toward rap music and pop of the Britney Spears ilk but rarely toward alternative rock. Poor people don’t partake in it, so they’re not as worked up about it; and educated elites “get it,” so they ignore or deflect criticism, imagining that their children won’t be affected by it. The basic progressive model is that “those people” are being led astray by crass (probably right-wing) profiteers, and we liberals need to protect them from themselves.

What’s more dangerous, violent video games or politicians who have problems distinguishing between video game violence and reality? Clinton has consistently supported the Iraq war and is now pushing for an increase in the size of the Army by 80,000 troops. How do you suppose such hawkishness compares with fantasy media in terms of aggravating real world violence?

I think killing real people is a bigger problem than killing badly animated pseudopeople on a computer screen. And I think arguing from the Senate floor that America should be sending its young men and women to their deaths for a disastrous colonial venture is more likely to distort our thinking about violence than watching superheroes fight in a cartoon.

My one hope is that the costs of real war will help Americans remember (maybe for longer this time) that real violence isn’t fun and exciting, and you don’t get a happy ending after two hours. Hawks like Clinton may help us that way.

Jones’s 2004 book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book will come out in a soft cover edition in October. Dave Marsh called it, “by far the best book about comic book history I’ve ever come across. Best written, best told, most informed, best at seeing the big picture and grasping the little details essential to frame that picture.”