Boss class

The Guardian, 2005-08-30, by: David Cohen
Bruce Springsteen was not a big fan of education and, for a long time, teachers didn't think much of him. Now he's the subject of a three-day symposium, writes David Cohen
Bruce Springsteen had this to say about the value of his education in a 1984 song: "We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school." If the absence of scholarly interest in this college dropout over the 32 years since he released his first album is anything to go by, educators have repaid his lack of enthusiasm in kind.

Springsteen may have known how to get students rocking, but to their professors he was just another singer, albeit one with a fondness for check shirts and writing songs about the toiling masses who push and plead.

Not any more. On September 9, hundreds of scholars will gather at Monmouth University, in the 55-year-old singer's native New Jersey, for a three-day conference on his place in history.

The first-of-its-kind symposium is expected to attract more than 150 papers exploring Springsteen's influence on US literature, sociology, religious thought and politics. Academics will debate his impact on America's memory of the Vietnam war, and its higher education curriculum.

Scholarly gatherings that focus on popular entertainers are not an entirely new phenomenon on American campuses. The flourishing of cultural studies, which began in the 1980s, has proved a boon for aspiring Leavisites in the rock'n'roll domain, who were last seen in such numbers when Stanford University hosted a symposium on Bob Dylan in 1998.

Conference organiser Kenneth Womack finds it "really inexplicable" that it has taken until now for Springsteen's iconic status to receive academic recognition.

"When I figured out this was the first broad-based academic activity to do with Bruce, I was kind of shocked," says Womack, an associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University in Altoona, who has spent the past couple of years planning the event he has named Glory Days.

Womack's own paper hints at what's in store. Entitled Bruce Springsteen and the Politics of Nostalgia, it will trawl through a number of the better-known female characters in the Springsteen oeuvre. Coming along for the academic ride will be Sandy, Wendy and the ever-present Mary, not forgetting the "barefoot girl sittin' on the hood of a Dodge/drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain", who made her appearance on the 1975 track Jungleland.

"Although she comes in many guises, she's the female face at the heart of the sociocultural nostalgia that structures Springsteen's sense of pastness throughout his work," the paper's abstract explains.

Womack will "discuss the nostalgic imperatives in Springsteen's songs that allow us to enjoy a perspective towards the past as an archetypal paradise - a seductive space in which we can fulfil our collective longing for the illusory wholeness that lives in our memories and our dreams".

Karl Martin, chair of the department of literature, journalism and modern languages at California's Point Loma Nazarene University, will weave together Springsteen's fabled auto-imagery with that used by the southern Gothic author Flannery O'Connor.

Martin's theme could turn out to be one of the conference's more intriguing ones, because, in some quarters, it's become as much a cliche to mock Springsteen for his lyrical fixation with motor vehicles as it is to link Leonard Cohen with late-night angst in dreary bedsits.

For Springsteen, argues Martin, "the car represents a set of values, a certain way of looking at the world, and it's something that ha changed as his music has matured, too. He's no ordinary songwriter, that's for sure."

Samuele Pardini - a visiting assistant professor of comparative literature at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and one of only a handful of non-American academics to be taking part in the gathering - is another who will be playing the female name game.

In particular, the Italian plans to look at Springsteen's lyrical fondness for young women called Mary, in the light of the heritage they share.

According to Pardini, Springsteen "subverts a male-dominated, Italian-American Catholicism in order to subvert a national identity historically marked by the gender and racial conflicts of its class-divided society and to affirm the plural identity of an equal, and therefore free country".

Deep words. But depth is not the attribute most readily associated with Springsteen songs, even the ones studded with appearances by "the archetypical Catholic Mary". And what is there to say about Dancing in the Dark other than to point out that, in the video, its singer appears to experience a few problems dancing with the lights on?

Yet not all of Springsteen's work is so easily dismissed. Long a chronicler of the blue-collar American experience, he moved to exploring full-blown working-class tragedy three years ago with the release of The Rising, a surging eulogy to those who lost their lives and loved ones in the "empty sky" of 9/11.

Anthony Esposito, an assistant professor of communication studies at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, will cite The Rising as he argues for the assimilation of the Boss into mainstream US academic thought.

The son of a factory worker himself, Esposito - who was born and raised in the midwestern city of Youngstown, celebrated by Springsteen in a composition of the same name on his terse 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad - found a kindred spirit in a singer "who writes about a lot of the people I grew up with".

"And that to me, still, is the exceptional thing about Bruce Springsteen. He writes about ordinary things and ordinary people in an extraordinary way," says Esposito.

As a student back in the early 1980s, Paul Fischer, now an associate professor of music studies at Middle Tennessee State University, was employed to guard Springsteen's dressing room at several Chicago concerts. And Donald McLeese, an associate professor at the University of Iowa's school of journalism, first saw rock'n'roll's future up close and personal when he interviewed Springsteen in his role as music writer for the Chicago Sun-Times.

For all the promised papers on women at the conference, female faces appear to be in short supply among the academic crowd.

"On the face of it, I guess he doesn't seem to have a bunch of songs that would attract women's rights activists," says Denise Green, who is down to offer a feminist review of the scholarly literature on Springsteen's music.

But, she adds: "I would definitely say that his women characters do tend to be a little more empowered than is commonly thought." Green, a librarian at the University of Illinois at Springfield, makes a point of listening to Springsteen's albums on the car stereo "whenever I have to psych myself up for a boring meeting".

What would the performer himself, who learned more from a three-minute record than he ever did in school, make of the fanfare?

"To be honest," Esposito admits, "I think he'd find some of it ridiculous. But maybe, hopefully, he'd be proud of it too."

Of academic interest

? The State University of New York offers a course on Bruce Springsteen as part of its political science programme.

? Donna Luff, a lecturer in social science and health at the University of Sheffield, is planning to publish work on female Springsteen fans.

? Springsteen's earliest US shows in the late 1960s, as part of the band Steel Mill, were at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

? A constitutional law expert at the Widener University school of law in Pennsylvania, Randy Lee, organised the first and only Springsteen university course for lawyers, The Lawyer as Poet Advocate: Bruce Springsteen and the American Lawyer.

? Springsteen's balding piano player, Roy Brittan, is known as The Professor.

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