Weekender | 30 years burning down the road
A look at Bruce Springsteen’s music in Europe
Published: Thursday, October 17, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 17, 2013 01:10
If one had to guess which song would receive one of the strongest reactions at a Bruce Springsteen show in Europe, it probably would not be a haunting ballad about a working-class narrator struggling with a failing economy. Yet, whether it was in a plaza in Naples, a soccer stadium in Hannover or the famed San Siro stadium in Milan, the first chilling harmonica notes of Springsteen’s “The River” (1980) would, without fail, elicit some of the loudest cries of the night. Each crowd sang along word-by-word — at times, the sound of cheering drowned out the band during the song’s instrumental intro. Initially, the reason why this song — which is arguably one of Springsteen’s most direct takes on the disillusionment of the American dream — is such a hit overseas seems quite puzzling.
But, in fact, the answer might not actually be so complicated. Many European fans attest that “The River” was Springsteen’s first big hit single in Europe, and for many of them, it represents their first interaction with his music (the subsequent tour was the first time Springsteen played in many Western European countries). Yet “The River” is not the only Springsteen song with strong American ties that often garners a warm welcome in Europe, which begs the question: How does American imagery and references in his songs translate across cultures? And to what extent do Springsteen’s political views play a role in his popularity in Europe? While last week’s Weekender explored the concept of what it means to be a diehard fan, particularly by looking at the fan community around Springsteen’s music, this week’s article will examine how his American themes and ideas are received across the Atlantic.
For many European fans, their first introduction to Springsteen and his music came from the massive hype surrounding “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984). After its release, he achieved a level of popularity that laid the foundation for the large following he has overseas today. Despite its immense popularity, the album’s overwhelming use of patriotic imagery — such as the American flag stripes on the cover — may have confused some foreign listeners about Springsteen’s intentions. Because of this blatant American iconography, it could be easy to misinterpret the music as having a jingoistic or excessively nationalistic connotation — a notion that sharply contrasted the title track’s lyrical content. As Dutch fan Rachel Schoneveld noted, with many European fans speaking English as a second language, the subtext in the lyrics may have gone unnoticed.
While 1984 established Springsteen as a formidable commercial presence abroad, his later albums, particularly 1995’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” increased his credibility among critics who were skeptical that he had nothing left to say after “U.S.A.” Numerous European fans have cited “Tom Joad” — a sparse, acoustic record portraying a somber take on life in America — as a turning point for Springsteen, a moment when he began to amass a critical consensus comparable to his commercial success.
Despite the increasingly political nature of his lyrics, one constant throughout Springsteen’s career has been the songs he pens about the surroundings of his life, with early albums name-dropping many New Jersey and New York area landmarks. But for many European fans, these images reference places most have never visited. How, then, can they relate to these American locales?
Schoneveld said that when she listens to a song like “Jungleland” (1975), which frequently mentions the urban scenery near New York, she thinks of similar locations from her own experience instead to help her identify with the song.
“It’s not only location in terms of physical location. ... Every location he sings about has an emotional level,” she said.
French fan Fabrice Szabo, who now resides in Canada, attributes the ability of Europeans to connect so easily with Springsteen’s American imagery to the prevalence of American culture overseas. Because of the popularity of American television and cinema abroad, Szabo argues that Europeans have already been exposed to various American settings and themes, giving them a framework through which to understand Springsteen’s work.
“[This] makes it easy for someone like Springsteen. ... He’s American but most of his songs are universal,” Szabo said. “It can work in both contexts. ... It articulates both local and global. You can listen to ‘The River’ [(1980)] if you’re from Pittsburgh, and if you’re somewhere in Germany, ... you can have the same emotions.”
Dona Velluti, an Italian fan living in the United Kingdom, believes that Springsteen’s work can be interpreted through a variety of contexts, each illustrating different aspects of a song.
“I listen to Bruce’s songs in the context of the album, in the context of his development, in the context of America and with the kinds of things it’s been through. ... Things take their meaning from the context, and you can’t take them in isolation,” she said.
When it comes to Springsteen’s political views, most foreign fans agree that this is a much bigger issue with his American fan base. After Springsteen delivered his first official presidential endorsement — for John Kerry in 2004 — and played a major role in the subsequent “Vote for Change” tour, he became an increasingly divisive figure in the United States, igniting controversy among fans. Most European fans agree, however, that the general political spectrum in Europe is so much to the left of that in the United States that none of Springsteen’s political stances are truly considered as controversial there. In fact, Springsteen’s increased tackling of political issues over the past decade seems to be embraced by certain fans.
“I think this has given new life and new points of interest to many fans of his here,” Italian fan Paolo Ferraresi, who resides in Spain, said. “Now, whether this has gained new fans, I don’t know. I think it’s rather the [lifelong] fans who have found a confirmation of what they were seeing in his writing.”