As an unabashed Bruce Springsteen fan, I've always loved the nuance he brings to his characters. Though he's sometimes portrayed as a heartland caricaturist, the people in his songs and the stories that he tells have more shading than the bombast of some of his songs would make you think.
But even from the first time I heard his music as a ten-year-old, I felt that there was something missing from Springsteen's storytelling. Though each track opened up a new world to me, I always felt like I was watching from the sidelines. I saw Mary dancing in my room, but I could never imagine I was swaying in her shoes. And the more I listened, the less I could even imagine her as a person - she was just another object, another guitar, or switchblade, or car.
In fairness, Springsteen's a man, so he writes about men, from a male perspective. But on album after album, Springsteen's female characters consistently fall short. In the vast majority of his songs, the man - the hero - is at the fore, receiving the bulk of Springsteen's characterization. We hear a lot about love - in fact, "love" is often drawn so painstakingly that the concept of it feels more real and solid, more of a character, than the women themselves, who are ostensibly one-half of the experience.
Springsteen's women usually fall into one of a couple of archetypes. The most common one is probably the "Mary," from "Thunder Road." She's beautiful and pure, but that makes her remote or even unattainable. She's either a goal that the male hero can strive toward (in which case, the real story is all about him, his trials, and his tenacity), or she's a deus ex, a savior swooping in from the heavens. In "She's The One," she's the latter:
"With just one kiss / she'd fill them long summer nights / with her tenderness
That secret pact you made / back when her love could save you / from the bitterness"
Besides Mary in "Thunder Road" and "Mary Queen of Arkansas," there's Wendy in "Born to Run," Sandy in "Fourth of July," and of course, Rosalita in, uh, "Rosalita." (Springsteen's narrator wants to "liberate" and "confiscate" her.) These women exist to save men from grand cosmic themes like unhappiness or small-town ennui. (In interesting contrast, Springsteen's men tend to save their women from very real concrete ills, ranging from poverty to family strife.)
There's an inverse to Mary, typified by the women in songs like "Candy's Room," or "Backstreets." These are stronger-willed woman, if only because they're living independent of the male characters, but there's already a value judgment in that: these female characters are damaged. They're making the wrong choices in life, often by walking away from the men who love them in exchange for lives filled with something perverse, like prostitution or gratuitous wealth.
That's how it goes in "Backstreets," when Terry leaves for another man, or in "Kitty's Back," when Kitty leaves her man for some "top cat city dude" (though she does eventually return, cf. the title). Springsteen's men love them forever despite their unreliability, so in the end, they too become objects to pine for.
There's a third, somewhat darker role women can play in Springsteen songs: they can be noble burdens. This is a woman who the protagonist has gotten stuck with somehow, but he loves her no matter what, and that love will be enough to - you guessed it - save them both. Probably the best example of this is in "The River:"
"I got Mary pregnant / man, that was all she wrote /
for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat"
These women are huge parts of the story, but they remain voiceless and often actionless - they're accessories to the men's life journeys. (You really think Mary's goal was to get pregnant and get married by eighteen? What's she thinking in all of this?) Springsteen wants us to believe in the amazing power of love, but in his love stories, the woman is often the albatross around the man's neck - something to emphasize the hero's perseverance.
It's odd to me that Springsteen keeps writing about women like this with one marriage behind him, a wife who's out beside him on stage every night, and a daughter of his own. His daughter, Jessica Rae Springsteen, is a nationally ranked champion equestrian who attends Duke University. She doesn't work at a bar or a grocery store, and I'm guessing she doesn't need a guy to get her out of town, or save her from much of anything.
On Springsteen's newest, Wrecking Ball, there are only really two lines on the whole album that hint at the presence of a female character. On the second track, "Easy Money," Springsteen briefly flashes back to "Atlantic City," singing:
"Put on your red dress for me tonight, honey / We're going on the town tonight looking for easy money"
And that's it. That's the only woman he addresses on his latest release. The rest of the album transitions between purely political tracks and songs exploring Springsteen's usual hard-up scenarios (beautifully, as usual). And that's what puzzles me: Springsteen's American Dream is still about a man providing for his family, but is this an accurate vision of contemporary America? Where are the women who want to provide, too? The ones who get the same joy and satisfaction from putting food on the table or sending their kids off to college as their husbands do?
Springsteen's reliance on ideas about gender roles from forty or fifty years ago dates his songwriting more than anything else does. Maybe his next album will feature a song from the point of view of an accomplished young woman like his daughter, or just a female character who exists to do something beyond pine or be pined for. That's a vision I'd like to see dance across the front porch.
This post originally appeared on Nerve. Republished with permission. While you're at it, check out Nerve Dating, where you can meet people who have never been that into Springsteen.
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