Back at RT in 2012, Molly O'Keefe and I got to talking at the bar (like you do) (no, really, that's what you do at RT) and she told me she had to leave the convention early because her husband had scored tickets to see Bruce Springsteen live, and, well, yeah, she had to leave early. Because… Bruce.
As y'all know, I live in Jersey, and I spent every summer here as a kid. Springsteen is… well, he's Jersey. To quote Jon Stewart, another person from Jersey, when Springsteen was part of the Kennedy Center Honors program:
“I am not a music critic. Nor historian, nor archivist. I cannot tell you where Bruce Springsteen falls in the pantheon of the American songbook. I can not illuminate the context of his work or his roots in the folk and oral history traditions of our great nation.
But I am from New Jersey, and so I can tell you what I believe, and what I believe is this:
I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby. Yes! And they abandoned this child, as you can imagine at the time…interracial, same sex relationships being what they were…they abandoned this baby by the side of the road between the exit interchanges 8A and 9 on the Jersey Turnpike.
That child was Bruce Springsteen.”
So when O'Keefe emailed me some weeks back and said she'd been thinking about the intersection of romance and Springsteen, two things she loves, and had an idea for an essay, and would I perhaps be interested in reading it, I said, “Well, duh.”
What follows is O'Keefe's essay – and stay tuned for a giveaway at the end.
Main Street and Thunder Road: The Intersection of The Romance Genre and Bruce Springsteen
I was introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen when I was six, the year my brother got The River double tape set for Christmas. Listening from my room (a glorified hallway outside my brother’s door), I didn’t understand the adult and deeply conflicted nature of the song: Is a dream a lie that don’t come true or is it something worse? but still, recognition thrummed inside me.
I liked this.
Years later when I got my hands on Outlaw, Elizabeth Lowell’s fantastic Silhouette Desire, the same recognition thrummed.
I really liked this.
Thinking about it, despite the different mediums, I like romance novels and Springsteen in nearly exactly the same way, for the same reasons. It’s an easy argument that they share a multitude of themes:
At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet
And a freight train running through the
Middle of my head
Only you can cool my desire
(I’m On Fire)
You use your muscle and your mind and you pray your best
That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest
Familiar faces around me
Laughter fills the air
Your loving grace surrounds me
Loneliness and Alienation:
You been hurt and you're all cried out you say
You walk down the street pushin' people outta your way
You packed your bags and all alone you wanna ride,
You don't want nothin', don't need no one by your side
(The Ties That Bind)
I'm ridin' hard carryin' a cache of roses
A fresh map that I made
Now I'm gonna get birth naked and bury my old soul
And dance on it's grave
(Long Time Comin’)
Love, hard-won, naked, raw, vulnerable, violent and honest:
And it's not that nursery mouth that I came back for
It's not the way you're stretched out on the floor
'Cause I've broken all your windows and I've rammed through all your doors
And who am I to ask you to lick my sores?
And you should know that's true
I came for you
The characters in romance novels pop up in Springsteen songs – the blue collar, hard-working dreamer. Men with debts no honest man can pay and women with their killer graces and secret places. And his songs, no matter how gritty and dark, are almost always hopeful.
Perhaps because of all the shared themes, characters and the love, sex and hope filter Springsteen uses to tell his stories, I shouldn’t be amazed when Springsteen and the romance genre draw the same criticism.
I think the real intersection between Springsteen and romance is the perception that both are simple or perhaps too earnest, repetitive in theme and bombastic in delivery. The fact that both are tremendously popular make them easy targets.
In a recent article in the New Yorker, David Remnick (quoting rock critic Tom Carson) asserts that Springsteen didn’t think music was a tool of rebellion against conventional society but the means with which it is redeemed.
To me this means Springsteen is holding a constant and diligent mirror up to remind us of the best of ourselves.
I believe this is exactly what romance does, why it’s popular and why it’s so important.
To say romance is escapist (something I’ve often said) sells the power of the romance novel far too short. That it’s mommy porn is patronizing and offensive. A small-minded, elitist effort to explain something that is emotional, sexual and wholly feminine.
Romance, like Springsteen is a mirror showing us the best of ourselves.
Romance burrows deep into the familiar, the mundane, the day-to-day to find new, transformative and heart-breaking ways to remind us of what should be important in our lives: forgiveness, laughter, pleasure, honor, love and family.
Springsteen takes that private reading experience and fills an arena, making the argument that those things are just as important in the wider world.
Both Springsteen and romance validate the sacrifices and choices we’ve made to be wives, mothers, husbands, fathers, feminists, friends, caregivers, soldiers, crusaders, readers and believers.
Listening and reading we can all be reassured that we’re human, we’re flawed but we’re beautiful.
This next part is ridiculous, trust me I understand: but I feel like I know Springsteen and he knows me. His songs speak to my heart and his stories are about people I grew up with and walk beside.
And wouldn’t you know, I feel the exact same way about Laura Kinsale, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, JR Ward, Cecilia Grant, Sherry Thomas, Jill Shalvis – my list goes on.
This last year my husband and I went to a bunch of Springsteen shows. For my husband there is simply no better live band and while I agree, I also find myself experiencing the very same spectrum of emotions that I experience reading a great romance novel. I’m joyful, turned on, moved to tears, utterly satisfied and when the lights come up, just like turning the last page on a great romance, a little better than when I started.
I finished reading O'Keefe's essay when she sent it to me, sitting with my chin on my hand, and thought, “Well, yeah.”
Molly wants to give away a copy of Springsteen's biography, which, awesome, but she also has a book coming out at the end of the month, too. So she's offering up 10 copies, digital or print (winner's choice) for ya'll. One winner will receive both the Springsteen biography and a copy of Crazy Thing Called Love, and nine additional winners will receive a copy of Crazy Thing Called Love, in either print or digital.
All you have to do is tell us something you love as much as romance – or as much as Molly loves romance and Springsteen music. I'll choose 10 winners randomly at noon eastern time, Friday 11 January, 2013
Standard disclaimers apply: open to international residents. Must be 18 years of age or older and possibly wearing a bandanna. Do not taunt happy fun ball. Close cover before striking. Do not iron while wearing.
I think we learn a lot when we understand what is important to us – and important to others. Thanks for sharing this, Molly. Good luck, y'all!