The Boss Turns 60 – And Still Connects with NJ

Next week, on the auspicious sounding date of 9-9-09, the release of The Beatles: Rock Band music video game will dominate the conversation in the music world.

Two weeks later, another significant event will take place in the music industry, this one involving a well known entertainer from the Garden State:

On September 23, Bruce Springsteen will turn 60.

If you have trouble envisioning the Boss as a senior citizen, take a look at this month’s AARP magazine, where Bruce is gracing the cover. Or listen to his latest album, which includes an ode to the Queen of the Supermarket, a song inspired by a shopping trip he took with his wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa.

Despite the number of candles on his birthday cake, Bruce Springsteen is years away from becoming an old man. Since April, Bruce and the E Street Band have been on tour, filling huge arenas and performing long, energetic sets that belie his age. He has sold more than 1.5 million concert tickets this year, including tickets for five upcoming shows at Giants Stadium, where he will be the final musical act before the stadium is torn down.

One of the reasons Bruce remains immensely popular today is that, unlike so many artists who have risen to success from humble beginnings, he has not lost touch with his roots. As we all know, Bruce’s roots are right here in New Jersey, but as a multi-millionaire whose concert venues have included a Super Bowl halftime show and presidential inaugural festivities, how does Bruce Springsteen keep in tune with his New Jersey working-class roots?

This is a question I decided to explore for a presentation at Glory Days, an academic symposium that takes place later this month at Monmouth University. I constructed a timetable that lists, on a yearly basis from 1972 to 2009, Bruce’s age, the albums he released and the significant developments in his life, both professional and personal. Then I added to each year information about the major developments that occurred in New Jersey, expecting to find a relation between the changes in Bruce’s music and the changes taking place in the state.

However, I found little to suggest that Bruce’s music had been influenced by any of the major news stories that occurred here over the past 35 years – other than The Rising. But while the impact of 9/11 was felt heavily in New Jersey, it was event that far transcended the Garden State. In other cases, when there were major news events in New Jersey, they do not appear to be reflected in his work.

For example, during most of 1990 and 1991, a “tax revolt” against the $2.8 billion in tax increases enacted by the Florio Administration and the Democratic legislature was an ongoing news story.  For Bruce, however, it was a time for family matters. In 1990, he and Scialfa had their first son. In 1991, they married and had a daughter. It was not a particularly prolific time for him musically.

In 1994, New Jersey became the subject of national stories when 7-year old Megan Kanka was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a sexual offender living in her Hamilton Township neighborhood. The tragedy led to the passing of “Megan’s Laws” all over the nation, requiring law enforcement authorities to make information available to the public regarding registered sex offenders.  But while New Jersey was leading the way in enacting the law, Bruce was in California, where he and his family lived for a few years before returning to the Garden State. He released no albums in 1994, and 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad was inspired by a book about America’s underclass.

A decade later, New Jersey found itself in the national spotlight again when then-Governor James McGreevey announced that he was gay and was resigning from office. The news involving Springsteen and politics in 2004 was more national when, for the first time in his career, he took a public role in a presidential campaign, performing in support of John Kerry’s candidacy. Bruce was even more active in the Obama campaign last year, but in his home state of New Jersey, he has never gotten involved – at least not publicly – in any of the gubernatorial campaigns that have taken place over the years.

How then has he kept such close ties with his fellow New Jerseyans? Why does he continue to sell tickets to Giant Stadium shows at record paces? Why do New Jerseyans who rarely display pride in their state cheer when he spits out a lyric with a reference to the Garden State? Why do New Jersey teenagers still naturally relate to Springsteen songs written years before they were born?

Perhaps, it is because working-class New Jersey families have more in common with the messages of Bruce Springsteen’s songs than they do with the news that makes headlines. Sociologist Herbert Gans has suggested that there is a gap between the type of news that is reported and what is actually of importance and interest to the citizenry. Gans contends that the media covers news in a “top-down” manner that over-emphasizes powerful government leaders. “To whatever extent journalists view themselves as reporting for the democratic citizenry, they cover the news from a citizen’s perspective only in a limited fashion,” he explained in his 2003 book Democracy and the News.

Springsteen’s music provides the “citizen’s perspective” that Gans feels is lacking. For example, New Jerseyans gain a better understanding of the dire economy from the characters and the stories in Springsteen’s songs than they do from reading news reports filled with numbers, percentages and statistics.

Bruce is not the first musical artist to fill such a role. During the 1960s, protest music served as an alternative media outlet, providing information and raising questions that were absent from mainstream media. Springsteen’s music performs a similar function, albeit in a more subtle manner.

This may explain not only why he has managed to remain relevant to New Jerseyans for so many years, but also why from time to time – on websites, on signs displayed at his concerts and in casual conversations among those who form the backbone of New Jersey – there are suggestions that Bruce should run for office in his home state.

The Boss was indeed born to run, but perhaps the role of reporter is more appropriate for him than any elected office.

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