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Loss, Pop, and The Boss

After September 11th, there has been something uneasy in the relationship between the antic world of pop music and a compulsion to memorialize that now seems as much a reflex as an accumulated need. There may be some essential disjunction between the great pop song’s promise of a libidinal jolt or melancholy infusion and the memorial’s contract to compensate for loss or to help survivors in the long work of mourning. Pop music and memorials are at opposite ends of the spectrum of cultural desire.

There are, of course, exceptions. Elton John recycled “Candle in the Wind” after the death of Lady Di and created a monster hit out of that mass mourning. Lou Reed sang about friends lost to AIDS on his Magic and Loss, and, with John Cale, remembered Andy Warhol on Songs for Drella. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young crossed protest with elegy in “Ohio,” a song about Kent State. Gordon Lightfoot produced one of the more anomalous hits of the 1970s in “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a dirge about a shipping disaster on Lake Superior in 1975, in which 29 men died. (Long before Lightfoot, there were folk songs about the Titanic.) Off most American charts, Linton Kwesi Johnson mourned the death of 13 children in his “New Craas Massakah,” a song about a deadly 1981 fire in London’s Deptford many suspect was set by racists.

With the exception of Lightfoot’s hit and Johnson’s dub lament, these songs are not about a large number of deaths. John did not adapt his song to remember the death of Dodi Al Fayed or the driver of Diana’s car; one might even say that part of the cultural work of the song’s reincarnation was to abstract her death from that context. (Diana becomes more like the song’s first dedicatee, Marilyn Monroe, who died alone.) “Ohio” remembers, as the group repeats over and over, “four dead in Ohio,” four who were already widely remembered in the press. Like “Ohio,” Johnson’s song is as much protest about a notorious political event as memorial. The case of Lightfoot’s song is different; with an old ballad form he turns a recent event into myth. It is as though the legacy of the folk singer’s anonymity, an anonymity Lightfoot could aspire to even if not possess, led to his song about a more anonymous, and more numerous, group of the dead.

But 13 or 29 also remain imaginable numbers. It may be worth pushing my point to ask why I can’t think of a single pop song memorializing the Holocaust, though it also proves the point that many will think the very suggestion distasteful. Someone may push the pop song’s limits, as Art Spiegelman did those of the comic book in Maus, but I’m not holding my breath. Pop songs have provided room for elegies, for mournful goodbyes, and for several hundred million regrets. They do not memorialize. They aren’t monuments. If they were, they wouldn’t be pop songs.

That pop songs aren’t memorials needs to be said only because of this exceptional cultural moment when it seems that every artist, in whatever form, needs to produce a memorial or participate in the production of one. And this imperative includes pop musicians. The early reception of Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, about which I will say more below, has been marked not so much by surprise that a rock star should treat September 11th as by the sense that something the public has been waiting for—the quintessential pop music memorial to the attacks—has at long last arrived.

Before turning back to The Rising, that tricky term, the “public,” requires more attention. In “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject,” an essay reprinted in his recent Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner writes about the relationship between mass media and mass disaster. “Disaster is popular,” writes Warner, “because it is a way of making mass subjectivity available, and it tells us something about the desirability of that mass subject.” According to Jürgen Habermas’s account of the public sphere, a sphere constituted primarily by print media, the participant enters it in part by surrendering the particularities of his or her body. Mass disaster, Warner argues, returns this lost body in a strange, exaggerated, but still noncorporeal form.

Warner’s analysis illuminates the demands made on mass culture, or, more narrowly, the desires surrounding pop music at present. The sense that massive damage to the mass subject has the virtue of making that subject present leads, among other things, to the counterintuitive claim that New York is stronger than ever. Scattered bodies encounter themselves as a damaged collectivity; it is precisely this damage that makes the collectivity visible; this visibility proves the value of disaster.

Insofar as pop music in fact attains the popularity that should constitute it as “pop,” it, too, produces something like the consciousness of mass subjectivity. Pop music allows its listener to feel part of something like what Warner calls a “mass subject”; the listener desires this condition. My question here regards the interaction between these forms of mass subjectivity. How does the mass public of pop music intersect with that conjured by disaster, by September 11th?

One response is the ugly but predictable one represented by Toby Keith’s country hit, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” The singer promises: “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U. S. of A. / Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way.” (So that’s the American way!) Tolling bells make the whole thing grand. This song’s fantasies of revenge take as their predicate something like the belief that disaster provides the basis for the positive reconstitution of the damaged nation. Springsteen’s work, too, flirts with this logic of national redemption, though never with Keith’s explicitly hawkish politics. But there are a few too many bells tolling for us on The Rising, too.

“The Rising is about Sept. 11,” writes Josh Tyrangiel in Time, “and it is the first significant piece of pop art to respond to the events of that day.” John Podhoretz, in the New York Post, echoes Tyrangiel, but an octave higher: “The Rising is the first great work of popular art to emerge from the war on terrorism.” To counter these blurbs I offer another quotation, from Maurice Blanchot: “The disaster ruins everything, while leaving everything intact.” The paradox Blanchot describes is a large part of what makes The Rising remarkable as a recording or as a moment in the aftermath of September 11th. Springsteen’s music is perfectly intact; he has even reassembled the E Street Band for their first studio album together since Born in the U.S.A. Many of the songs, in turn, are about a world in which everything is all too intact.

The Rising began in part in a strange moment in the old print public sphere. In the Time article, Springsteen talks about the importance of the New York Times’s “Portraits of Grief” series for his work; there he encountered fan after fan among the victims, and he called the survivors of some of these. (The New Yorker reported, indeed, that the writers of the series agreed that they had to stop mentioning Springsteen in those obituaries; being a Springsteen fan no longer sufficiently differentiated one victim from another.) My question here is how we get from these print memorials to pop music.

The severe contrast between stubborn continuities in everyday life and intolerable absence is especially clear on the record’s best song, the mournful “You’re Missing”: “Everything is everything / Everything is everything / But you’re missing.” The tautology takes on a different form and collapses in a later verse:

Morning is morning, the evening falls I got
Too much room in my bed,
too many phone calls
How’s everything, everything?
Everything, everything
You’re missing,
you’re missing

The copula between “Everything” and “everything” disappears in the repetition of the word that slowly came to mean “dead” in the weeks after the attacks. We see very clearly how the absent bodies of the mass disaster cross with the absent bodies pop music so often strives to conjure.

One of the album’s answers to this emptiness lies in a religiosity borrowed from African-American music. The closing song, “My City of Ruins,” which was the first of these songs the public heard when Springsteen performed it at the Tribute to Heroes telethon, owes its backbone to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” one of the greatest pop songs about redemption. The album’s other answer, in the old rock and roll tradition, is sex and parties and rock and roll. To my ear, the religious strain is unconvincing; that rhetoric is simply what’s available to simulate repairs to a damaged public sphere. The pop gospel here assumes a collectivity; the party songs create one. The real form of this collectivity, however, is no less spectral than that of the bodies we contemplate in the songs about loss.

The most remarkable songs on The Rising are ones like “You’re Missing” or “The Nothing Man” that simply and sparsely delineate loss, and others straightforwardly about getting it on, especially “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin).” A group of other songs, murkier both lyrically and musically, tries to take the listener from loss to the bedroom. It’s significant that perhaps the weakest song on the album, “The Fuse,” begins with a funeral procession and ends with “you” taking off clothes “on the edge of the bed.”

The Rising can articulate grief on the one hand and happy desire on the other, but it can’t bridge the divides it delineates. My other candidate for the album’s low point is the well-intentioned “Worlds Apart,” which includes a backing performance by a group led by Asif Ali Khan. Khan’s Qawwali has been made wallpaper behind a mediocre rock song. (Studios apart, anyway: in the spirit of world music, perhaps, Springsteen was recorded in Atlanta, Khan in Los Angeles. O Sting, where is thy death?) Similarly, “The Fuse” resorts to ponderous sound and has some of the record’s least convincing lyrics. Songs like “The Fuse” should be about disconnection, but instead too many on The Rising embody it. The record is unable to fuse these separate worlds.

Who can, in three minutes? To ask a pop song to map the route from mourning to remembrance, from remembrance to perseverance, from perseverance to all tomorrow’s parties, is to ask too much. It is as though Springsteen were responding to a memorializing imperative from the mass public sphere: You need to put all these things together. But it is in that sphere that these bodies are continually put together and torn apart.


Martin Harries

Martin Harries teaches in the departments of English and Dramatic Literature at NYU, and is the author of Scare Quotes from Shakespeare: Marx, Keynes, and the Language of Reenchantment.


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