For the third consecutive year, and for the sixth time in nine years, Rolling Stone‘s readers have voted Bruce Springsteen Artist of the Year — an extraordinary index of how deeply Springsteen has penetrated American culture and the souls of his fans. After all, Springsteen was virtually invisible through most of 1986. He made a single live appearance, at a benefit concert in California for handicapped children, and gave no interviews. His last album of new songs, Bom in the U.S.A., was released nearly three years ago.
Still, as everyone knows, the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Live/1975-85 boxed set dominated record sales, radio play and the lives of rock cognoscenti for the last two Artist of the Year months of 1986. From any other living artist, such a set would have seemed close to the ultimate cynical gesture: an expensive multialbum collection of greatest hits, recorded live and released around Christmas time for maximum commercial impact; a set that contained only one new song and a smattering of predictable covers (a Motown tune, a Stax/Volt song, a folk chestnut, a feeling singer-songwriter finale); the perfect way to follow up and cash in on the biggest-selling record of his career.
But from Springsteen it was a masterful triumph — not merely the performance album anticipated from the earliest “you gotta see him live” days of his recording career and foreshadowed in hundreds of cherished bootlegs, but the celebration of his attaining the heights his ambition always demanded that he strive for. This Artist of the Year award is his fans’ confirmation that Springsteen deserves this stature — it’s a lifetime-achievement award, really, a resounding thank-you.
But Springsteen’s career, let alone his lifetime, isn’t nearly over, and the question that shadows the success of Live/1975-85 is “Where does he go from here?” With characteristic go-for-broke determination, his unfailing instinct for upping the ante at every crucial turn, Springsteen has brought himself face to face with this question. The scope of Live/1975-85, which starts with the national breakout of the Born to Run tour and ends with Born in the U.S.A.’s national conquest, defines a full ten-year period as the era of Bruce Springsteen – and simultaneously declares an end to that era. The slate swept clean, anything less than a dramatic new beginning would be worse than anticlimactic. It would be a failure to meet his own challenge, the betrayal of his promise to himself.
Meeting the challenge and delivering on the promise, however, are complicated by the enormous, and enormously divergent, expectations Springsteen’s audience has of him. Like every artist who has attained success on such a massive scale — Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson represent other vivid examples — Springsteen embodies a plethora of contradictions. In the public’s eye, he is both easygoing and fiercely aspiring, both an ordinary working-class guy and a multimillionaire. He inspires millions of fans to feel an intense personal relationship with him, but he is, in fact, insulated and remote. He is rarely seen in public, virtually never speaks to the media and releases albums infrequently. He is both a rebel and a patriot, claimed by the political left and right. He is life-size and larger than life.
Similar contradictions inform the public’s perception and understanding of Springsteen’s music. The basic meanings of Springsteen’s songs seem clear, but somehow those meanings double back on themselves in troubling ways. In song after song, Springsteen demands that his characters, and by extension his listeners, “show a little faith,” believe in themselves, dare to hope and struggle and win. As a corollary to this, he displays a profound, unpatronizing compassion for people whose circumstances make the achievement of such faith unbearably difficult. According to Springsteen’s values, nobody should have to be a hero just to lead a decent life — and leading a decent life is its own kind of heroism.
But in a society that dangles the prospect of upward mobility as one of its more intoxicating opiates, Springsteen’s idealistic calls to raise yourself up are easily — perhaps even willfully – misread. For a disturbingly large portion of Springsteen’s audience – particularly among the gang that signed on in the wake of Born in the U.S.A. — spitting in the face of these badlands means something like “going for it” or “getting yours.” Pulling out of here to win means going where the action is hotter in order to score that BMW or close that key real-estate deal. Distortions like these — along with Springsteen’s own miscues, like using the American flag as a stage backdrop — account for the otherwise puzzling attraction Springsteen holds for youthful, and not so youthful, conservatives.
After the grand summary statement of Live/ 1975-85, Springsteen is looking squarely down the double barrel of these contradictions, which he has so far been content to hold in tense suspension rather than force to resolution. Unlike such artists as Bob Dylan, Talking Heads and David Bowie, Springsteen has followed the populist path of building his career by steadily expanding his audience — not by shedding some fans and adding new ones with each successive album release. Inclusiveness is at the heart of his vision; breaking with any portion of his audience will not come easily or naturally to him. But the political bite of “Seeds,” the only new song on the five-LP set; the pointed stage rap that precedes the “War” single and video; and the very choice of “War” as a single suggest that Springsteen is presenting a sterner challenge to many of his followers.
Springsteen’s elaborate, Spectorian sound has become increasingly streamlined; it has been honed to such a fine compactness that it’s hard to imagine how it could change in any significant way without seeming forced. But if Springsteen should decide it’s time for a change, will he want the E Street Band to accompany him? Will the band members, who have projects of their own under way, want to stick around for the Sturm and Drang of launching the next stage of the Springsteen saga? And if the music should change, will Springsteen’s fans, many of whom display an irritating resistance to new sounds and seem insistent on becoming the Dead Heads of the Eighties, be receptive to it?
Whenever he’s been on the spot in the past, Springsteen has always found a way to rise to the occasion. Questioning has dogged him all down the line, not only from doubters but also from worried, ultimately hopeful supporters. Could he ever be more than a Northeast regional artist? Could he ever make an album to match his live shows? Would he be able to follow up Born to Run? Could he come back after being hyped too much too soon, or after his excruciating management and legal problems? Springsteen has ridden roughshod over every one of those questions with brilliant records, committed performances and the sheer force of his personality.
But never before has there been so much belief and so many hungry hearts at stake. It’s exhilarating and a little frightening. Given Springsteen’s recording history, it is unlikely that he’ll release a new album in 1987. What appears more certain is that the next time the 1986 Artist of the Year issues the invitation to “climb in,” not everybody will be going along for the ride. And for the career of Springsteen the artist, not the media projection or the fantasy figure, that may be a good thing.
This story appears in the February 26th, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.