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May 2, 2007

Rediscovering Bruce

Back in my day, all the indie rock bands wanted to sound like Sonic Youth. The self-consciously silly lyrics, the dissonance, the one totally cool girl who plays bass… it’s no mystery who inspired the 90’s alt-rock template. But noise and nihilism seemed a lot more appealing back when we weren’t embroiled in a number of bloody wars without an end in sight. And after two decades of a cutting edge defined by grittiness, the pendulum has begun to swing in an entirely different direction. This direction has a name: BRUUUUUUUUUUCE.

The newfound love of Bruce Springsteen in the indie world is somewhat mystifying at first, as the underground’s heroes don’t usually sign $100 million contracts with Sony. But his influence is impossible to deny. The Killers swiped his rural panoramas and warbling vocals for their sophomore smash Sam’s Town. The Hold Steady’s Metacritic-topping Boys and Girls in America was widely hailed as the best record the Boss never recorded. Multimedia artist Cory Arcangel went so far as to record glockenspiel tracks for all the songs on Born to Run that didn’t already have them. Arcade Fire’s dazzling new record Neon Bible is full of Springsteen references, especially the propulsive “Keep the Car Running” and “(Antichrist Television Blues)”, which could easily be arty outtakes from Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Come to think of it, Arcade Fire is my generation’s E-Street Band. They’re both essentially a large group of friends with a charismatic leader making rootsy music about life’s big questions. They both wear their influences on their sleeves but weave them together to create a sound that’s totally their own. And they both write hopeful, heartfelt anthems that have made them chart-toppers and tastemakers, a status that few attain.

Springsteen’s newfound relevance is largely due to the fact that my generation has only recently discovered his actual records. For most people born between 1975 and 1985, Bruce is known only for his hits, or more specifically, the middle third of his Greatest Hits: “Glory Days”, “Born In The USA” and “Dancing In The Dark”. These are good songs, but they don’t really hold a candle to the decade of fantastic work that preceded them. The generational gap in hearing Springsteen’s music is the completely unique result of a career that straddles commercialism and art like no other. It’s unthinkable to most boomers that anyone my age could’ve gotten through life without ever hearing Born to Run or The River, but it’s true. And they’re completely fresh and original when the majority of your record collection is about apathy and disaffectedness.

This new trend of tunefulness and sincerity isn’t restricted to the Boss, either. Most buzz bands used to be compared to Nirvana or Soundgarden, but Midlake usually brings up references to Fleetwood Mac and America. The innocent pop of girl groups like the Ronettes is a major influence on Peter Bjorn & John and The Pipettes. And we’re not just talking high quality stuff, as sincere cheese is making a comeback too. Did you know that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” almost cracked the top ten on iTunes last year? A couple of weeks later Barry Manilow had the number album. In 2006. In America.

In fact, Nine Inch Nails – one of favorite bands since I was 12 years old – isn’t even doing dark drones anymore. And when even Trent Reznor has ceased being goth, you know a page has turned. You see, couplets like “Just when everything was making sense/You take away all my self confidence” or “This thing is slowly taking me apart/Gray would be the color if I had a heart” sound great when you’re entering adolescence but hilariously emo when you’re a 25 year old with a nine to five job. Has anyone ever used the word “decay” so much in a #1 album? Just two years ago Trent Reznor was still writing lyrics like, “The fabric starts to tear/It’s far beyond repair/And I don’t even care,” and trying to find new things to rhyme with “forget I’m alive” and “smash it apart”. But his new record, Year Zero, is a shockingly grown up collection of politically conscious electronic punk rock with nary a cringe-worthy lyric to be heard. It may not have the scope of The Fragile or the immediacy of The Downward Spiral, but Year Zero may be the most downright creative and liberating record Reznor has ever made. It’s the work of a man with purpose, a man who believes his music has a message worth hearing. Most artists working today share that sentiment, and their music is much better for it.


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