I’m old enough to remember MTV when it was a music channel and not the purveyor of orange-skinned Jersey douchebags and self-absorbed teenage mothers. Imagine my glee to find out there’s such a channel now as Palladia, a high def network that provides the best in music.
I was delighted to stumble across Springsteen’s performance at the 2012 Hard Rock Calling festival, staged in London’s Hyde Park.
Bruce opened his London set with a song called “Thunder Road.” “Thunder Road” is the first track of his legendary 1975 album Born to Run, and it was never a radio hit at all. In fact, Springsteen never had a top ten radio hit until “Hungry Heart” came along in 1980. Hit or not, every single Springsteen fan knows “Thunder Road” by heart, can recognize its opening harmonica note, and can sing along with it word for word. It’s in our bones. The novelist and former New Yorker pop music critic Nick Hornby immortalized the song in his anthology of great rock ditties, Song Book. It’s a classic bit of Americana, all about leaving your dead-end town behind and pushing forward for a better life. It contains his timeless imagery of cars and dirt roads and railroad tracks. In short, it’s quintessential Bruce Springsteen.
I’ve heard “Thunder Road” literally hundreds of times in my life. Maybe thousands. I’ve had the words memorized since I was 16 years old. And, so had the 100,000 people in that crowd. They sang along. They knew all the words. In crowd shots it was evident that the people who’ve been so very moved by Springsteen’s artistry are of every age group and kind. People held onto each other as they sang. It was so very clear that this song and these words had impacted them in such a significant way. My eyes welled. They well up again as I am typing this. This simple rock and roll song is an anthem about hope and dreams, and it has in measures large and small changed all our lives.
There are people who will say that Bruce Springsteen is just a pop singer, nothing more. They’d be wrong. To his fan base, he is iconic. I’m pretty sure being called an icon would make him uncomfortable, but there’s no question that Springsteen has crafted his body of work to speak to his audience, to communicate to them in a meaningful way over a long career.
I can’t speak for other people who read this site, but at various times in my life (especially when I was a teenager) I was made to think that my passions were silly and frivolous. Often, I would be made to think this by people who were very well intentioned; teachers, parents, etc. Sometimes, that feeling has carried on over into my adult life.
I moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting and screenwriting and whatever other trouble I could get myself into. I have to admit, there are times that the judgmental part of me looks at the things I love and the things I want to make my life’s work, and it makes me feel like I should be ashamed for loving them. That I should be more passionate about, say, banking than I am about the films of Terrence Malick. That I should get a real job and have a 401K. That I should put away childish things and join the pied piper into suburbia.
I think in some ways it’s worse for those of us self-proclaimed geeks who love genre material. Our pop culture is the lowest man on the pop culture totem pole. People say it’s great to be a devoted reader, but you really should be looking at something more worthwhile than Neil Gaiman. It’s fine to be watching Downton Abbey but not so great to be a fan of Doctor Who. In the early days, comic books were viewed as literature for people with stunted IQs, and nothing Alan Moore can do will ever, ever change that perception. Sci-fi, fantasy, and all their pulpy brethren are still seen as red headed step-children, worthy of the contempt of people who consume quality art. Was Skyfall one of the ten best movies of the year? You bet your a-- it was, but where were the real Oscar nominations? Quentin Tarantino is one of the world’s great living artists in his field, but he is continually derided as just a hack who never fully emerged from the grindhouse. For me, it’s been genre material that was my gateway into other art forms. It was a movie that kick started my interest in modern art. Exploitation cinema was Taratino’s gateway to Goddard.
Here’s my point: pop culture matters. Specifically, our pop culture matters.
It matters a lot. It doesn’t just offer us a form of mindless entertainment. It enriches our lives. At its best, it can inspire. It can change the way we look at the world. In the 1960s, the X-Men were not just a bunch of comic book heroes. They represented the burgeoning civil rights movement of the era. And, in the hand of an openly gay filmmaker, the last 15 years have seen those same characters used to enlighten the struggle for gay equality. For my money, X-2 is still the best gay themed film of all time. When Ian McKellen says, “You’re a god among insects, let no one tell you otherwise,” that is crazy powerful, especially for kids for whom unfettered school bullying is still a daily ritual. Buffy Summers taught us that high school was hell, both figuratively and literally. The crew of Battlestar Galactica gave us a brilliant commentary on the war on terrorism and then, halfway through the series’ run, flipped the world upside down, so our heroes were now the suicide bombers. Minds were blown.
Last spring, actor Tom Hiddleston wrote a piece for the Guardian in the UK. In it, he argued for superhero films to be seen in the most legitimate light. He wrote, "But, superhero films offer a shared, faithless, modern mythology, through which these truths can be explored. In our increasingly secular society, with so many disparate gods and different faiths, superhero films present a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams, and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out.”
Our art, ladies and gentlemen, is great. It has richness and depth and merit. It has all the qualities of history’s finest art. It is valid. As Holly Hunter said in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, "It’s bona fide."
Let no one tell you otherwise.