?Boss? introduces glimpse of real world to students

Daily Princetonian, 1998-12-14, by: Ben Sirota
Bruce Springsteen?s ?roots rock? has enjoyed a tremendous national resurgence of popularity in the late ?90s. This trend is particularly evident at Princeton, where hundreds of students blast his anthemic yet poetic hits in dorm parties and eating clubs.

After Springsteen?s glory days in the mid-?80s came ?hair? metal (the classic Warrant, the sublime Skid Row) followed by grunge, the latter?s ironic blare overshadowing any gritty sentiment espoused in the Boss? songs. Whereas Springsteen?s music dealt with the day-to-day lives of common people, grunge?s brutal melancholy appealed to a deep-seeded teenage need ? complaining. Kurt Cobain?s genuine wail of anger and despair beat the Boss? pop ethos into oblivion. Then, slowly, Bruce Springsteen crept out of his imposed slumber. With a world-weary Generation X tiring of the feigned pathos of later grunge acts, teenagers recalled the honest rock of Springsteen and resurrected an icon.

Strangely like the grunge singers of yesteryear, Princeton students are generally mercurial. Academic pressure and social uncertainty cause many to fluctuate between extreme highs and lows. The Princeton experience has a way of fostering students? calm ?I can do it all? exteriors, allowing repressed self-criticism to thrive within. Depression is rampant, all-nighters produce sleep deprivation and dark circles under eyes, relationships are plunged into turmoil. But despite the woes of campus residents, many of them justified, Princetonians are privileged, financially and personally. Compared to the rest of the population?s problems, a bad grade or verbal tiff just doesn?t stack up.

The small-town protagonists in Bruce Springsteen?s world have much more to gripe about than the average Princetonian. But instead of dwelling on the haplessness of their situation ? factory layoffs, stale small-town life, broken marriages ? Springsteen?s characters live with their hang-ups on a day-to-day basis and enjoy what they do have.

Unlike Princeton, there are no panaceas in Springsteen?s world ? no spontaneous shopping sprees, sushi breaks or little blue pills can transport its inhabitants out of the constraints of their lives. There is no goat cheese from nouveau restaurants, no free beer and dancing at clubs. There are only old Chevies, steel plants and the consolation of knowing that misery is only temporary. While Princetonians often enact mini-melodramas, Springsteenians deal with difficulty by finding outlets for their frustration ? commiserating with friends, hanging out at the local bar ? or taking off on a road to nowhere in particular.

For many Princeton students, Springsteen?s blue-collar society represents the utterly foreign: a working-class culture. Like anthropology enthusiasts gleefully absorbing facts about exotic cultures, Springsteen listeners plunge into the back porches, faded steel towns and bars of Anywhere, USA. To a populace largely raised on Banana Republic and Starbucks, Bruce Springsteen songs are a reminder that there?s another, much bigger, world out there.

For all its talk of social activism and community outreach, Princeton University remains in a bubble. This capsulation has positive and negative results: Students are given four sheltered years of intellectually and socially stimulating experiences, but they may lose touch with what exists beyond Fitz-Randolph gate. Living in an insular campus with its own code of ethics and social conventions, Princetonians are fascinated with the world of tough reality, where even a flee from the claustrophobia of small-town life as in ?Thunder Road? does not assure happiness or success.

Granted, many Princetonians honestly enjoy Springsteen?s music as simply that, music. They do not think about lyrics when playing the often-misconstrued ?Born in the USA? at deafening volumes. However, others truly seem to empathize with the predicaments faced by characters in Springsteen?s songs, or laud their determined resilience. These students praise characters? working-class ideals, partially knowing that decisions they make are often due to limited possibilities, but mostly because the characters represent a ?realer? way of life.

More than respect, though, there even seems to be a sense of guilt associated with an appreciation of blue-collar life in Springsteen songs; a sense in which Princeton students subconsciously acknowledge their relatively affluent, trauma-free lifestyle and need to empathize with the less fortunate (at least financially). Partyers sing along with the lyrics, imagining themselves working in a steel plant or dragging the main, but knowing full well that they probably never will, nor would they really want to. Springsteen?s music affords an immersion in a culture that?s safe because, for most Princeton students, it is merely an idea. Princetonians do share some similarities with Springsteen?s heroes, though. Both live in very particular worlds and have an affinity for beer. And, as the Boss says, ?Everybody?s got a hungry heart.?