Monday, January 27, 2014

Rosalita Revisted: Springsteen, Gender and Lydia Loveless

I'm late to the party. Again.

Two parties, actually.

A couple decades when it comes to the feminist critique of Bruce Springsteen. That may have peeked in 1992 with the publication of Pamela Moss's Where Is the "Promised Land"?: Class and Gender in Bruce Springsteen's Rock Lyrics.

And Lydia Loveless? Late again, this time by a few years. While my tastemaker friends (who are legion) were enthusiastically extolling the virtues of 2011's Indestructible Machine, I was still in the throws of a prolonged summer crush involving Kelly Clarkson's pop masterpiece All I Ever Wanted (which I'd been listening to more or less on infinite repeat for two years).

It wasn't until last fall that I waded into what is arguably the shallow end of the Lydia Loveless pool. I was at Lost Weekend Records, having recommitted to the idea of "supporting the scene" by purchasing local music from a local store. Truth be told, I don't follow music much anymore. It just takes too much time; or at least more time than I have. Plus, there's all that extra baggage that goes along with following music; the forming of opinions about music, the talking with people about music, the going to see bands playing music. The whole enterprise is pretty overwhelming.

But I digress.

I was at Lost Weekend Records ostensibly to procure the second Connections' LP Body Language (featuring the buzzy earworm that is Jeni & Johnny). While there, I saw Lydia Loveless's Boy Crazy EP perfectly positioned for an impulse buy, so I grabbed that too. The owner, Kyle (bless him), informed me (almost apologetically) that Boy Crazy was "a little poppier than her early stuff". Being that Kyle is one of the aforementioned tastemakers, I didn't have the heart to tell him I'd spent the last four years listening almost exclusively to Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, and Francoise Hardy and was, as such, well past judging anything based on the idea it might be too poppy.

So I bought Boy Crazy. And it will surprise no one that it is indeed fantastic; fantastic for all the reasons likely spelled out by countless fans before me. But Boy Crazy's fantasticness wasn't the thing that stuck with me. I mean it did, because it is, but the place I kept getting hooked was on track three, Lover's Spat.

 Lover's Spat
At first listen it's a pleasant, melodic number; trundling along somewhere between a mid-tempo rollick and full-on gallop (not actual musical terms). The first-person verses highlight a tumultuous relationship and segue into a soaring (anthemic?) chorus complete with wooooo-hooooos and drum rolls. The more I listened though, the more something nagged at me. Lover's Spat sounded weirdly familiar, like I'd heard it before. Then it dawned on me, it was the song's soaring, anthemic quality that I found so familiar. It reminded me of a Springsteen song - not a particular Springsteen song mind you - but the kind of song that 1973 era-Springsteen could have written. Apparently the countless hours I lost listening to "The Boss" during my formative years have made me hyper-sensitive to anything approximating his emotive, major key stylings.

But structure was only the half of it. When I got around to reading the lyrics, I was gobsmacked. If Lover's Spat had the sonic flavor of a Springsteen song, it was lyrically and intellectually a counterattack on Springsteen's male-dominated worldview.

The aformentioned Pamela Moss offers an enlightening and nuanced reflection on Springsteen's lyrics as they relate to class and gender. Her work points out (among other things) that Springsteen's world is a place where men seek out their destinies in the public sphere, while women dominate the private, more intimate spaces. In Springsteenland, this public place is one where male protagonists are depicted as great actors. They are engaged in a struggle, a struggle to prove their worth and achieve their dreams. Women, conversely, are relegated to private spaces where, frankly, they don't do much. Usually they're at home, on porches, or in bedrooms, though sometimes they put in appearance on the hood of a car or in a dark corner:

(From Rosalita)
Little Gun's downtown in front of Woolworth's tryin' out his attitude on all the cats
Papa's on the corner, waitin' for the bus
Mama, she's home in the window, waitin' up for us

This public/private dichotomy plays out to the point where a song like Rosalita (or Thunder Road for that matter) mostly boils down to a male protagonist relentlessing coaxing the object of his affection out of her world and into his:

(From Rosalita)
We're gonna play some pool, skip some school
Act real cool, stay out all night, it's gonna feel alright
So Rosie, come out tonight, little baby, come out tonight


And from Springsteen's perspective that's more or less it. Guys primp and strut in public. They "flash guitars just like switchblades", they "meet 'neath that giant Exxon sign", they race, run, holler, and hoot. The night's on fire and filled with the machismo of countless Promised Land seeking man-children. It's romantic, an opera even - or ballet or waltz - depending on which Springsteen song you listen to.

And the women? Well, they're expected to follow their man. Why is never exactly explained. It's simply presumed that every Promised Land seeking man-child needs a good woman in tow as he follows his dream.

Which is another feature of  Springsteen's Springsteenland. Men are the ones with the dreams and agency. They're the actors and the orchestrators. It's their pilgrimage. Sure, sometimes they're misunderstood ("I know your Daddy, he don't like me, cause I play in  a rock and roll band") and sometimes life is hard, but the men in Springsteen's songs have a plan, even if it's sometimes a plan as flimsy as a record deal or as vague as "pulling outta here to win":

(From Rosalita)
Oh, your daddy says he knows that I don't have any money
Well, tell him this is his last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance
'Cause a record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance  

There you go. Baby, stick with me. The band's gonna make it! I promise!

It's all a very interesting perspective, but one that's hopelessly one-sided and perhaps a bit immature. Which is why Lover's Spat comes off as so welcome and so refreshing.

First, let's consider what all this night-out in-the-streets bravado looks like from the female perspective:

(From Lover's Spat)
So don't go runnin' round naked by the side of  the road
Honey you look ridiculous
With that cut on your eye and your dick hangin' out
Why don't you care about us?

One can only imagine how this particular Promised Land seeking man-child came to be naked at the side of the road, but realistically the reason is neither here nor there. The point is there's not a particularly wide gulf between the male-dominated nocturnes portrayed in songs like Jungleland or Thunder Road and the drunken douchebaggery of countless young men who've consumed countless Natty Lights. Furthermore, it's a gulf we ought to recognize, not romanticize.

And regarding who's got a plan, consider this:

(From Lover's Spat)
I'm from Milwaukee originally, but now I go to OSU
I'll be rich when I get my business degree
And I'll take good care of you

So imagine a young couple; the male is an inveterate band dood and the female is a business major. Now fast-forward 10 years. Given the unlikely event these two are still together, ask yourself "Who's taking care of whom?

And back to that dichotomy between public space and private space, Loveless takes a very different tack. Rather than viewing private spaces as something to avoid (or be coaxed out of), Loveless sees them as a destination; the place where things actually happen. Lover's Spat abounds with admonitions to "come home with me tonight", "stay for dinner" and "hide in my closet". Not that these private spaces are a bed of roses. Lover's Spat is pretty forthright in recognizing the violence that can often go hand in hand with intimacy. But at least she's not hawking some romanticized view of private space or one-sided notion of relationship dynamics.

Ultimately though, this isn't an either or question. The world is big enough for Bruce Springsteen and Lydia Loveless. The point comes with realizing there's usually a counter-narrative to the dominant view. The fact is I was listening to a lot of Springsteen while I wrote this, and as one-sided and romanticized as many of his songs are, I wouldn't trade them for the world. The trick is to remember that all those heroic first-person protagonists might not be the most reliable narrators. And while Mary may indeed dance across the porch like a vision, there's a good chance she was put on this earth for something more than that. 

Honestly, I'm the last person to ask. I do know I'm officially on the Lydia Loveless bandwagon (even if I'm a bit late and pointed in the wrong direction). I've got Indestructible Machine on backorder and I'm looking forward to the February release of Somewhere Else. And while I've seen Bruce Springsteen more times than Lydia Loveless (2-0 if your counting) I'm hoping to at least even the score in 2014!

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