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Exclusive: The Complete Text of Bruce Springsteen's SXSW Keynote Address

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So, holy shit, this is all going on in this town right now. For a guy who realizes U2 is probably the last band he is going to know the names of all four members of, it's overwhelming. Perhaps the most prophetic comment I've heard over the past quarter century about rock music was made by Lester Bangs upon Elvis' death. In 1977, Lester Bangs said Elvis was probably the last thing we were all going to agree on – Public Enemy not counting.

From here on in, you would have your heroes and I would have mine. The center of your world may be Iggy Pop, or Joni Mitchell, or maybe Dylan. Mine might be KISS, or Pearl Jam, but we would never see eye–to–eye again, and be brought together by one music again. And his final quote in the article was, "So, instead of saying goodbye to Elvis, I'm gonna say goodbye to you." 

While that's been proven a thousand times over, still here we are in a town with thousands of bands, each with a style, and a philosophy, and a song of their own. And I think the best of them believe that they have the power to turn Lester's prophecy inside out, and to beat his odds.

So as the records that my music was initially released on give way to a cloud of ones and zeroes, and as I carry my entire record collection since I was thirteen in my breast pocket, I'd like to talk about the one thing that's been consistent over the years, the genesis and power of creativity, the power of the songwriter, or let's say, composer, or just creator. So whether you're making dance music, Americana, rap music, electronica, it's all about how you are putting what you do together. The elements you're using don't matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing it. There's just doing it.

We live in a post–authentic world. And today authenticity is a house of mirrors. It's all just what you're bringing when the lights go down. It's your teachers, your influences, your personal history; and at the end of the day, it's the power and purpose of your music that still matters.

So I'm gonna talk, a little bit today, about how I've put what I've done together, in the hopes that someone slugging away in one of the clubs tonight may find some small piece of it valuable. And this being Woody Guthrie's hundredth birthday, and the centerpiece of this year's South–by–Southwest Conference, I'm also gonna talk a little about my musical development, and where it intersected with Woody's, and why.

In the beginning, every musician has their genesis moment. For you, it might have been the Sex Pistols, or Madonna, or Public Enemy. It's whatever initially inspires you to action. Mine was 1956, Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was the evening I realized a white man could make magic, that you did not have to be constrained by your upbringing, by the way you looked, or by the social context that oppressed you. You could call upon your own powers of imagination, and you could create a transformative self.

A certain type of transformative self, that perhaps at any other moment in American History, might have seemed difficult, if not impossible. And I always tell my kids that they were lucky to be born in the age of reproducible technology, otherwise they'd be traveling in the back of a wagon and I'd be wearing a jester's hat. It's all about timing. The advent of television and its dissemination of visual information changed the world in the fifties the way the internet has over the past twenty years.

Remember, it wasn't just the way Elvis looked, it was the way he moved that made people crazy, pissed off, driven to screaming ecstasy, and profane revulsion. That was television. When they made an attempt to censor him from the waist down, it was because of what you could see happening in his pants. Elvis was the first modern Twentieth Century man, the precursor of the Sexual Revolution, of the Civil Rights Revolution, drawn from the same Memphis as Martin Luther King, creating fundamental, outsider art that would be embraced by a mainstream popular culture.

Television and Elvis gave us full access to a new language, a new form of communication, a new way of being, a new way of looking, a new way of thinking; about sex, about race, about identity, about life; a new way of being an American, a human being; and a new way of hearing music. Once Elvis came across the airwaves, once he was heard and seen in action, you could not put the genie back in the bottle. After that moment, there was yesterday, and there was today, and there was a red hot, rockabilly forging of a new tomorrow, before your very eyes.

So, one week later, inspired by the passion in Elvis' pants, my little six–year–old fingers wrapped themselves around a guitar neck for the first time, rented from Mike Deal's Music in Freehold, New Jersey. They just wouldn't fit. Failure with a capital F. So I just beat on it, and beat on it, and beat on it – in front of the mirror, of course. I still do that. Don't you? Come on, you gotta check your moves. All right?

But even before there was Elvis, my world had begun to be shaped by the little radio with the six–inch mono speaker that sat on top of our refrigerator. My mother loved music, and she rahised us on pop music radio. So between 8:00 and 8:30 every morning, as I snowed sugar onto my Sugar Pops, the sounds of early pop and doo wop whispered into my young and impressionable ears. Doo wop, the most sensual music ever made, the sound of raw sex, of silk stockings rustling on backseat upholstery, the sound of the snaps of bras popping across the USA, of wonderful lies being whispered into Tabu–perfumed ears, the sound of smeared lipstick, untucked shirts, running mascara, tears on your pillow, secrets whispered in the still of the night, the high school bleachers, and the dark at the YMCA canteen. The soundtrack for your incredibly, wonderful limp–your–ass, blue–balled walk back home after the dance. Oh! And it hurt so good.

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