Weekender | ‘Our love is real’: an American icon in Europe
A look at Bruce Springsteen and fan culture
Published: Thursday, October 10, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 10, 2013 02:10
It was a bit before 8 p.m. on a warm weekday in Milan this past June, and the sun was still shining brightly as fans worked their way inside the city’s famed San Siro soccer stadium. As the stadium filled to near capacity, the atmosphere inside was simply electric: that night was not just a concert but an event. And like the flick of a switch, as strains of the epic walk-on song began to blare from the speakers, the 55,000-strong audience was whipped into a frenzy. Hundreds of small Italian flags were waving on the floor, while the crowd’s cheering rose to a fever pitch. In the stands, thousands of fans created a massive sign that spelled the phrase “Our Love Is Real” in the Italian colors. So just what exactly was the cause for all this commotion?
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Yes, that Bruce — the American rock icon who reached massive levels of success with his 1984 album “Born in the USA.” Beyond that commercial peak, Springsteen is known for writing character-driven songs that often explore political and class struggles in America, like on “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (1978) or “Nebraska” (1982), making him a sort of icon for the working class. Though some of his most successful albums are approaching 30 years old, Springsteen is anything but washed up. In fact, he has actually experienced a late-career surge in popularity since the early 2000s thanks to a series of strong new releases, and continues to be a major touring force in North America. That Springsteen is extremely popular in certain parts of America certainly isn’t surprising; his shows in arenas and stadiums across the country continue to sell out to this day.
But what may be surprising to some is that, despite his fairly prominent association with American issues and imagery, Springsteen is incredibly popular throughout much of Western Europe. What may have once been seen as a secondary touring market for Springsteen is now considered one of his major markets, alongside the U.S. Obviously, this is all relative. As in America, it would be a gross generalization to say Springsteen is popular everywhere in Europe — certain cities and countries inevitably welcome him more enthusiastically than others.
But even by simply defining “popular” in terms of number of tickets sold, it’s truly an impressive number. Back in 2008, Springsteen sold out two nights at Barcelona’s massive Camp Nou stadium, performing in front of a combined total of over 140,000 fans. Just this year, he played to another sold-out crowd of over 70,000 at London’s Wembley Stadium. And even more impressive, Springsteen played to well over a quarter of a million Swedish fans in five sold-out shows on his latest “Wrecking Ball” tour. The numbers continue to tell similar stories of Springsteen’s massive attendance figures in other countries.
Yet all of this might beg the question, “So what?” Why is it of any particular importance to talk about the overseas reception of an American rock star? Examining Springsteen’s status abroad actually brings two interesting questions to the forefront. One interesting aspect of this sustained popularity is the considerable contingent of fans who attend multiple shows during each tour. Plenty of music fans see their favorite groups in concert, but what leads someone to see multiple shows by the same artist and even follow a tour around? Moreover, why is an artist with such a strong connection to America — perhaps more so than any other American artist performing overseas — so popular in foreign countries? While the latter question will be discussed in next week’s Weekender, today’s installment will investigate the phenomenon of fandom and explore what exactly makes someone a “die-hard” fan.
Fans seeing multiple concerts and following an artist on tour is definitely not a new concept. Dating all the way back to the Grateful Dead in the 60’s and 70’s, and continuing through modern times with bands like Dave Matthews Band and Phish, certain groups have developed a fan culture in which supporters buy tickets for numerous shows and travel to see the band in various cities. But then how does Springsteen, whose shows usually contain little of the improvisation and “jamming” that typically attracts so many followers, lend itself to this kind of cult culture?
One immediate answer is his variety of setlists. While roughly a third of the show remains the same from night to night on tour, decades’ worth of experience with the E Street Band allows Springsteen to take song requests nightly and rotate in a large portion of his catalog. Just on his recently concluded “Wrecking Ball” tour, Springsteen played a total of 225 unique songs over the course of 18 months.
Beyond the diversity of Springsteen’s performances, each individual has their own personal reasons as to why they transitioned into a “die-hard” fan. However, certain patterns do emerge. Some are converted after seeing one show, while other fans are intent on seeing multiple performances from the start. Swedish fan Samuel Persson explained that he first saw Springsteen when he attended all three nights of his 2009 concerts in Stockholm. According to Persson, the quality of Springsteen’s live recordings was evidence enough for him to know he would enjoy all three nights.
“I was already a pretty big fan so I knew that I would enjoy it that much — there was no risk involved in buying tickets for the shows,” Persson said. “I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. I was a big fan of Iron Maiden, [and] I had already been in that crazy thinking of going to multiple shows, so it wasn’t a strange thing [for me] to do.”
A similar sentiment was echoed by Italian fan Paolo Ferraresi, who also wanted to see multiple concerts out of sheer enjoyment of Springsteen’s music.
“The music made it for me. I started to love Bruce the very first moment I listened to the first song of “The River” back in 1982. I simply said to myself, this guy is a genius,” Ferraresi said.