Sunday, November 7, 2010

Springsteen Class

I was MIA in this blog for most of October as a result of a convergence of personal and professional demands. Most lovely among these was substituting as instructor for two weeks in a freshman seminar at The College of New Jersey. I already am teaching one freshman seminar class (on the topic of "Music and the Natural World"). Here though, I was asked to fill in for two sections of the course, "The Lyrics of Bruce Springsteen as Literature." I live in Asbury Park and have followed Springsteen's progress since "Born to Run" hit the charts while I was in high school, so this assignment was a natural fit.

Freshman seminars are designed to introduce students to the work involved in real scholarship at more advanced levels. Ideally, they would pick something that interests them and be guided through detailed study, modeling the experience of upper-level undergraduate or graduate school courses. The reality falls somewhat short of that: The students are forced to choose from a list of predetermined courses and asked to balance their course selections across from categories designed to cover the whole of the liberal arts. Then they have to shoehorn those choices into a daily schedule. As a result, every class will have some kids left wondering why they are there. But still, the goal of the program is to engage the freshman in individualized research--very different from my first years in college.

Considering Springsteen's lyrics as literature isn't a stretch. We've seen presidents, politicians, authors and commentators quoting from his songs. Albums recorded in the 1970s and '80s still have currency, finding new audiences and influencing young musicians. Subjecting those lyrics to a semester-long course of study might seem over the top--until you actually start the research. Then it becomes clear there's a lot to say. So much has been written about Springsteen's music--thousands of books and articles--but much more could be.

In the classes I taught, for instance, we spent a good bit of time on the political ramifications of the song "Born in the U.S.A." (1984) and how the deliberately patriotic album cover and the upbeat, anthem-like music seemed to contradict the lyrics' portrait of a beat-down vet. That contrast alone is worth a ream of paper at least (especially since Springsteen recorded an earlier, much more subdued version of the song). We noted the way the words succinctly capture complex social issues surrounding the Vietnam war, ("I had a brother at Khe Sahn, fighting off the Viet Cong/They're still there; he's all gone"). The narrator is not Springsteen himself, but one of the many working class joes that populate his songs. That character is celebrating his rough birthright with all the joyous fervor of a good barroom brawl. He challenges us to accept that this is his America, too.

Is it OK to celebrate failure? Is it patriotism to write about things as they are? Great questions for freshmen to try to answer.

Every album since the 1975 "Born to Run" is full of similar, if less obvious, conflicts--challenges to societal norms, provocative blends of good and evil within a single character, jabs at political issues, difficult personal relationships worked out through characters and rhymes. You don't have to be a die-hard fan to mine the rewards of these stories.

But for me the best part of teaching these classes was not Bruce. It was, as always, simply being able to talk to the freshmen, to participate in the flow of ideas and insights that are shaping who they will become. Open faced and newly vulnerable to the robo-assembly line challenges slamming them every second, they give me a reason to believe in a future less horrorshow; a hope that somehow together, taking a careful look at meanings--almost regardless of where we find them--we can help put humanity to rights.

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