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song for bruce
This coming Monday, the 23rd, is: The first day of fall, the first day of Libra season, my wedding anniversary, and Bruce Springsteen’s birthday (the coexistence of the last two was an accident… or was it?). Last week Lucy Dacus released a great cover of Dancing in The Dark in honor of Bruce, and also her dad. In early celebration of the occasions on Monday, here’s an essay about The Boss, and about Dacus’ cover of his song, and some other stuff (cw: dads).
Last week, Lucy Dacus, who is somehow both 24 years old and also my mom, released a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” She dedicated it to her dad, “the biggest Bruce fan I know.” The cover is just fantastically good, good in a profoundly satisfying way. As with the original, the come-dance-with-me joy of the music leans hard in the opposite direction of the lyrics, so that together the two seem like a sleight-of-hand trick - look what I did, I made you dance about my pain. Or maybe it seems like a more straightforward defiance, that we can all turn our pain, our exhaustion, our heavy feelings of hopelessness from day to day, into something danceable and catchy. Listening to Dacus’ version is like watching two old friends reunite, or like witnessing someone coming back to the house where they grew up. It sounds like love without any franticness; it sounds like what if loving something a whole lot could also be chill.
Dacus’ dad commented on her instagram post to say that it had made him cry; my dad sent the song to me in an email fifteen minutes after I first listened to it. He hadn’t seen me repost it or anything like that, he’d just read about it on one of the dozens of Bruce fan forums he follows. I spent the rest of the day trying to get him to listen to Historian. To me, it felt like when someone else says the thing you wanted to say but couldn’t get into words. Bruce is also how I connect with my dad; as is true for many people, my dad is also the biggest Bruce fan I know. I can write about my feelings about Bruce, and my dad, and how those feelings are in some essential way one and the same, but I can’t sing or play guitar so it never lands anywhere close to what I mean. But Dacus covering Bruce’s songs (give us a whole album please, Boygenius cover Rosalita challenge, I put this in bold because it’s my thesis) is exactly what I mean, more precisely than I could ever say it, without her adding any words of her own at all.
In a review of Horses from 1976, Lester Bangs (I know, I know, I’m sorry) writes about Patti Smith, “Patti has done more here for woman as aggressor than all the Liberation tracts published, and has pushed to the front of the media eye that it is just as much a process (ordeal) learning to “become” a “woman” as it is for men wrestling with all this ballyhoed “manhood” business.” I’ve written in here before about “sad-girl music,” but lately I’m sometimes annoyed at this term, and I wonder if sadness is really the most useful way to group together a category that broadly includes Lucy Dacus and Snail Mail and Phoebe Bridgers and Camp Cope and Soccer Mommy and Julien Baker and Mitski and Jenny Lewis (both early in her career and now) and Billie Eilish and Lana Del Rey and many, many others. All of these artists sing about sadness, in that they sing about human relationships and day-to-day living. But they are maybe not writing sad-girl music so much as they’re writing coming-of-age music.
Rock music in mid-century America was the story of leaving your parents’ house and your parents’ world, breaking free to create an adulthood wholly your own, unfettered by a previous generations’ expectations or etiquettes. At the time, it was a narrative offered pretty much exclusively to white men. Bob Dylan riding the rails and breaking hearts, Bruce Springsteen pulling out of the town full of losers, New Jersey sinking behind him in a cloud of motorcycle exhaust. Leaving home, getting into trouble, looking for love, breaking hearts, getting free. A whole bunch of current musicians’ work can be grouped together this way for more reasons than that many of them are upsettingly young (Lewis is nearly 50 and still writing urgent coming of age music). The artists in this category are claiming for themselves this same well-worn coming of age narrative, expanded to include many of the people it originally excluded. The “process (ordeal) of learning to become a woman,” is more precisely that of trying to become a human adult, the always-near-impossibility of trying to grow up into a whole person living in the world, a process that, as artists like Lewis make clear, neither ceases nor becomes easier as one gets older.
One part of coming of age is grappling with one’s influences. Often the process by which people - real people and fictional characters and those, like Bruce and like Dacus, in the unsteady place balanced between the two that anyone with a degree of fame occupies- make the transition from childhood to adulthood is through crafting their own self-creation myths. Much of what is going on in this particular genre of music, from Lana Del Rey’s overt quotations of a heaping handful of canonical artists on her most recent album to Dacus covering both Bruce Springsteen and Edith Piaf, is women linking themselves to a chosen ancestry. It’s the mythologizing of one’s own origin story, the onstage monologue about saving up to buy a guitar that Bruce delivers before he plays “Growing Up.”
This may also be why so many of these artists feel so specifically relevant to this moment in history, as we attempt to cleave our stories from old and often oppressive ones to which we were taught to be obligated. If these singers are sad and horny, angry and heartbroken, those are the feelings that arrive at the rupture between childhood and adulthood, the journey out from under who we were supposed to be, and into an original self. The struggles that define our entrance into the larger world, our attempts to define our place within it, and our first recognition of its essential injustice, are themselves sad and horny, angry and heartbroken. The subjects that have led some people to categorize these artists as “sad girls” are the same defiant growing-up stuff that angry young dudes have been writing about for centuries.
When we talk about female musicians, in particular younger ones (the older I get the wider I am throwing my arms when I use the word “younger” as a category term, I really mean younger than like, 50, younger than Bruce, maybe young enough to have grown up listening to him) and their relationship to Bruce, we’re also talking about an origin story. This inheritance, as much as the public dad persona he may or may not present to the world, is I think why we talk about Bruce and dads interchangeably. A dad is a person, sometimes, but sometimes a dad is just an origin story, just one part of the myth of where we came from and how we got to here. Because we’re talking about an origin story we’re talking about dads, whether real or invented, whether biologically assigned or claimed in the process of forming an identity.
An engagement with Bruce’s music will always unearth the truth that dads are first and foremost imaginary. You can be your own dad, a good friend who helps you through bad times can be your dad, your single mom who raised you all on her own can be your dad, or Bruce Springsteen, crackling in through the radio or through headphones while you walk fast on a cold day, can be your dad. Bruce is a potential site for reclaiming dads, for allowing the whole concept of dads to not be limited by the literal fact of dads. Bruce opens up the persona of The Dad so wide that anyone can walk right in. Lucy Dacus, in a jumpsuit with “Bruce” embroidered on the front pocket, with a guitar and a band of dudes behind her on a stage, is also a dad, and so am I, dancing to her music in my apartment by myself.
As the generation of young artists coming up right now demonstrate, Bruce’s primary audience may not be white suburban dads, despite the crowds of them yelling Bruuuuuuuuuce at his shows. Bruce is all over our culture in many forms, reappearing at once surprising and familiar, telling those of us who have loved him since childhood as much about ourselves as about him. A dad is also material, something to be digested and used up in service of making something new. A traditional reading of a cover song is that it is a nostalgic act, reaching backward, but perhaps, and especially in the case of women like Dacus covering artists like Bruce to whom they grew up listening, it works the opposite way, a means of forward motion, taking the past and making it our own, changing its relevance, so that history reads differently, and so that Bruce Springsteen serves the purpose of helping to create a younger generation of queer and female artists. What if Bruce is a material, something out of which we can mold our own selves.
So many young women making music professionally today probably grew up listening to Bruce, listening to Bruce specifically because their dads loved Bruce. Our influences act as fathers and more often than not our influences, just like our real-life parents, can be toxic and damaging, something to fight our way out from under. What Dacus’ cover, in its easy-rocking backbeat, sounds like to me, is the acknowledgement of the unlikely instances in which this is not the case, the hard-won moments in which influence -- whether a parent or an album playing in a car on a long drive and a kid in the backseat growing slowly into an adult while the same album plays -- might sometimes be good, generative and welcoming, that even the inheritances which are fraught and painful can also be something to celebrate. It is the same fleeting joy that some of us found, or find, in connecting with our dads over Bruce Springsteen’s music, and sometimes over a cover of a Bruce song that bridges the gap between our dads’ music and our own, throwing a rare friendly ladder down between generations.
Bruce is our origin story, too. We can grow up to be our own dads; we can seek out a way to live both with the specific idea of our real dad (who maybe does or doesn’t love Bruce Springsteen) and the larger cultural idea of dads, even within all the trauma that each almost inevitably carries, knowing that at any moment each can be thrown out or reinvented. Part of what’s so good about Dacus’ cover is an enormous feeling of relief, and of kindness. It sounds like a welcome. It sounds like Bruce as an influence gently and easily passed down between generations, part of our coming of age stories, making it possible for the present to contain the past.
hi, everybody. this newsletter is for all subscribers, paid and free. the free letters are usually about once a month (this extra one is thanks to the special occasion of Bruce’s birthday); letters for paid subscribers are about once a week and are usually the longer, weirder, let’s-try-this-and-see-what-happens ones. feel free to share and forward and screenshot this as much as you want (paying subscribers, you should feel free to do that with the subscriber-only ones, too). if you or someone you know wants to subscribe to griefbacon but can’t afford it, please email me and we can always work something out. if you have opinions about which Bruce songs Lucy Dacus/boygenius should cover on an album of Bruce covers, please also email me and let’s discuss. xo