This past week has been a rough one for Bruce Springsteen in terms of female and feminist critique, with two high-profile critical pieces making a splash on the Web. While those authors raise valid points, we felt the need — as women, feminists, and Springsteen fans — to provide our own input as to just why it is that Bruce Springsteen’s music appeals to us.
This past week has been a rough one for Bruce Springsteen in terms of female and feminist critique, with critical pieces by Lucy Jones in The Telegraph and Rebecca Bohanan at Jezebel.com making a splash on the Web. While those authors raise valid points, we felt the need — as women, feminists, and Springsteen fans — to provide our own input as to just why it is that Bruce Springsteen’s music appeals to us.
One thing that we can stand behind is this: Bruce Springsteen does not exclude the female experience in his music, nor does he objectify or degrade women. Springsteen’s narrators speak from realism; they speak of reality and unfortunately, there are realities involving depictions of gender roles and treatment of women that feminist listeners may not find satisfying.
But Springsteen usually does an excellent job of weaving and acknowledging the intricacies of female reality, too, in a way that can only be construed as sensitive to women, while not necessarily being empowering or idealistic, as his speakers often exist in a world that simply is not either of those things.
Springsteen doesn’t frequently dive into the female psyche, although on the occasions that he does, his success is varied. There’s a reason why “Car Wash,” about a woman in a dead-end job, remained unreleased until "Tracks"; on the other hand, the first verse of “Paradise,” with its point of view from a young suicide bomber, is easily one of the most fascinating and chilling narratives of his career (and this would be true no matter what the gender of the narrator was).
Even in songs where Springsteen is not writing specifically from the perspective of a woman, he does not seem completely oblivious to his female characters’ worldview. “The River” comes from a male perspective, but we know how Mary feels, too — or at least, how the narrator perceives Mary to feel: “Now I just act like I don’t remember / Mary acts like she don’t care.”
For the most part, though, the perspective in Springsteen’s songs is male. It is a feminist idea to realize that, as a man, he cannot possibly fully express the female experience from a female viewpoint. To fault him for not attempting to do so more often is unfair and illogical.
Springsteen’s most recent critics don’t seem to consider the fact that Springsteen has speakers situated all over the spectrum of how people treat women. Some of his speakers know life isn’t easy for the women in the songs: “She stares off alone into the night / with the eyes of one who hates for just being born.” And others recognize the patriarchal society women exist in: “Into a row of houses she just melts away / like the scenery in another man’s play.”
Page 2 of 2 - Springsteen’s speakers still have some sense of reverence or mystery when it comes to women, and while some may see that as distancing or separatist or problematic, it is a difference that sets him apart from the rest of his contemporaries, in terms of a male’s treatment of women in rock and roll. Not all of the women in his songs are romantic interests, and not all of them exist to serve men, and that really can’t be said about a lot of rock and roll music.
And — talk about being set apart from contemporaries — it is important to note that Springsteen is still making music in the era of Big Sean’s “Dance (Ass),” Tyga’s “Rack City,” and even Taylor Swift's seemingly harmless but often misogynistic country-pop tunes. While there is certainly nothing wrong with analyzing Springsteen’s music from a feminist standpoint, critics should acknowledge that his nuanced brand of poetry is nowhere near as problematic as a large majority of contemporary popular music is.
However, in the end, this is what it comes down to — Springsteen’s music is not about men and women, it is about people as a whole. Universal themes and transcendent emotions are not just buzzwords that are thrown around; in Springsteen’s music, they are real. And that does not need to be gendered.
Springsteen’s biggest concerns: the reality of the American Dream, how to carry sins, making a meaningful life as an everyday person in a dark world — these are all things that each listener has a specific interpretation of, their gender included on a purely personal level.
The American Dream Springsteen presents is much more multi-faceted than just “a man providing for his family,” as over simplified by Bohanan in her Jezebel piece. It wrestles with more ideas of purpose, and being, and making a life on American soil beyond providing for a family, for men and women alike. Springsteen presents faceless, genderless universal struggles through the vehicle of his various characters and speakers.
This sounds basic, but most fans know firsthand of its genius. For now, Springsteen’s solid female fan base is more than enough proof that he’s doing something right, and we hope he continues to do it for years to come.
Laura Pochodylo is a student at Knox College and Sarah Wexler is a student at New York University. For more from these writers on this topic, visit blogs.wickedlocal.com/springsteen.