Working on a decaying dream - Kollectiv

The Kollectiv look at Bruce Springsteen in the context of class disintegration and place him firmly in the decadent tradition of Balzac and Huysmans – Á Rebours to Run?

Submitted by JoeMaguire on April 15, 2010

... his great work is a constant elegy on the irretrievable decay of good society; his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction...

This is how Engels famously redeemed Balzac. By bitterly describing the declining social power of the aristocracy, despite the French writer's nostalgic loyalty to a doomed class, Balzac went against his own class sympathies and ‘saw the real men of the future'. Engels recognised how deeply conflicted and ironic decadence was as an aesthetic position: to write about the slow death of a world you recognise as your own is to participate in its destruction, to admit that after the vitality seeps out all that is left is artistic appreciation. London is full of such artistic appreciation of what was alive before and is now simply a sign liberated from any social or economic reality. Like an archaeological dig, the city is built over layers of decaying matter: Victorian churches are converted into bachelor pads, car garages are converted into impromptu evangelical churches, suburban warehouses are converted into call-centres. The memory of organised religion, heavy industry and the age of the automobile of the recent past adorns the city in sites of unwitting commemoration, like an urban unconscious.

Decadence, of course, has a vast literary legacy, having given us memorable images from Verlaine's dying empire invaded by a horde of ‘tall, fair-haired Barbarians' to the living dead aristocracy of vampire books (and in this context it is perhaps interesting to observe that the noughties gave us the high school teenage vampire exactly at the point when teenagers lost their uniqueness as a social class in a society that has extended the idea of youth to middle age). Henri Lefebvre observes a ‘curious pleonasm: [...] when a social body disappears and anything remains behind it, we call it a "soul"'. In popular music, decadence is associated with a particular trajectory leading from '70s glam to neo-goth rock, from Bowie to Marilyn Manson, celebrating and lamenting the desperate excesses of a spent social and cultural force.

Bowie lifted his decadent imagery from Isherwood's Weimar stories and mixed it with a sense of the nostalgic and tragic failure of post-imperial Britain. His fascination with fascism in the 1970s stems from this equivalence: the sleepy, deluded protagonists of Isherwood, dreamily living the last days of a dying democracy are like the inhabitants of a decaying, post-war liberal regime which has long lost its influence and power. Marilyn Manson similarly celebrates the last days of a culture that lost its core through excess, consuming more than it is producing. Behind decadence there is always an intricate game of reactionary sentiments and revolutionary aspirations, nostalgia and displacement, moralising and the celebration of sin.

The tradition of decadence is tied to the decline of hegemonic powers, the nobility of Balzac, the class of ‘gentlemen of independent means' applied by Benjamin to Baudelaire, and so on. But could there be a decadence of the left? The Chinese cultural revolution in the '60s was preoccupied with images of decadence, of a revolution that had stagnated and a revolutionary social class that had become blasé. This resulted of course in an excess of revolutionary energy, misguided and misspent, just like the hyper refined senses of the literary aesthete lead to an overindulgence in physical pleasure. In fact, in the aftermath of '68, much of the popular discourse of the '70s in film and music revolved around themes of decadence like the waning of revolutionary forces, the breakdown of the American ideal, the failure of post-war prosperity. This imagery received its most concrete expression in the punk of the latter half of the decade. But maybe this is the time to reclaim a place for an unlikely artist as one of the most prominent poets of the decadence of the 1970s.

Not many think of Bruce Springsteen as part of the tradition of Huysmans or Baudelaire, but just like them Springsteen's work is all about a careful and loving study of the disintegration and gradual corruption of an entire social class. Bruce's blue-collar worker was already a mythical creature by the 1970s, the American dream nothing but a fancy hyper-reality machine. It is so encompassing that nothing can escape it: when Springsteen sings about love he sings about the impossibility of holding on to a romantic ideal based on values of stability, work ethics, family, etc. in a world deeply eroded by the forces of late capitalism. When he sings about violence or murder, he sings about the inability to ever transgress the more real violence of capitalism. If, like in a Ballard novel, there is no psychological depth to Springsteen's characters, it is because their actions and passions are a mirror image of the material world outside them, like the murderer on death row in ‘Nebraska' explains: ‘they wanted to know why I did what I did; well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world'. And, like in Ballard, the only way out is through a total immersion in the psychosis of losing one's place in the world: the only escape from non-place is through a total devotion to the old technology that breaks up the fabric of places, the ‘suicide machines' of ‘Born to Run'. But, unlike the 1930s blues mythology of the hobo (who escapes from the breakdown of his own rural agricultural class during the great depression), there is no freedom in the running away of Springsteen's ‘tramps like us', just the promise of a more spectacular death.

Perhaps this is the reason for the renewed interest in his work, from the invitation to head Glastonbury last year, to a stream of covers from unlikely indie bands, with the Boss himself reclaiming a place in the avant-garde with a brilliant cover of Suicide's ‘Dream Baby Dream'. Electrelane probably spearheaded the trend, with their cover of ‘I'm on Fire', drowning the heavy urgency of barely articulate freight-train male desire in classy synths and elegant female vocals, while Bat for Lashes' dramatic, slowed down version owes more to Tori Amos' homage than to faded New Jersey backwaters and jeans. The Blankket, aka Steve Kado of Blocks Blocks Blocks, is responsible for the most politically self-conscious take on the song, alongside three more, on his Be Your Own Boss EP, where a kind of lo-fi karaoke reclaims Springsteen from aspirational false consciousness. Springsteen's stadium rock sound paradoxically celebrated the working class culture that was being destroyed by the very powers that gave rise to the mega-stars of the '80s. Kado inverts the irony by deconstructing middle American mythology using the coastal indie language of fairly minimal, DIY guitar and percussion arrangements. But it's probably the post-industrial echo-chamber recording of ‘Prove it All Night' by US Girls (aka Megan Remy) that best captures the hollowed-out heartland ‘soul' of what's been left behind by the death of the world of the impoverished farmers and mechanics that inhabit the Springsteen universe. Recorded using a couple of stomp boxes, a microphone and a reel-to-reel tape, most of Remy's songs sound like an emptied out rock'n'roll, the ghost of Joe Meek haunting a studio after all the girl bands have died. But her method of singing and banging to half-recalled midi tracks of songs she grew up hearing on the radio is especially apt in the case of Springsteen. We are more than used to ironic appropriations of mainstream pop by now, but what stands out about these cover versions is the sincerity with which they pay tribute to the complexity of the Boss.

The Springsteen come-back was related to the rise of the Obama cult in the US and the end of the Bush years. But there is something ironic about America's adoption of Springsteen as a man of hope, since there is none in his songs, which acknowledge that ‘you spend your life waiting for a moment that just don't come', with the conclusion: ‘well don't waste your time waiting'. The music, a hybrid of '70s big rock sounds, '60s singer songwriter intimacy and a kind of hollowed out, shy and echoey vocal track, only drives the despair deeper. Springsteen's musical choices are similar to the ones made by the Manic Street Preachers, one of the most unusual bands to emerge from the early '90s. Even though the songs of the Welsh band dealt with subjects such as the Khmer Rouge, financialisation and Situationism, their music sounded like a watered down version of big hair Californian metal. No one in the ex-mining town of Blackwood wanted to listen to shoe-gazing indie, they reasoned, instead they preferred the glam metal of Hanoi Rocks for the image of hedonism and frivolousness they projected. In the same way, Springsteen's music is an ironic reflection of what America wants to see in itself. It is the dramatic sound of a country that wants to celebrate its ideal of freedom while softly killing its people. In this respect, his choice to cover Suicide is less surprising than it would initially appear: the radical outsider status that Alan Vega and Martin Rev cultivated after the fashion of decadent aesthetes was imposed on the people Springsteen addresses, the very people who were meant to be the salt of the Earth insiders America was made of. It is this forced exodus that his albums, all the way up to last year's Working on a Dream, continue explore, a post-Fordist Pyrrhic victory of immaterial labour over the workers it was meant to liberate.

Pil and Galia Kollectiv are London-based artists, writers and curators working in collaboration. They are also lecturers in Fine Art at the University of Kent.



14 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Plumber on April 15, 2010



14 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by posi on April 16, 2010

But there is something ironic about America's adoption of Springsteen as a man of hope, since there is none in his songs,

Hmmm. Precious little. But...

Galveston Bay

. . .

One late summer night Le stood watch along the waterside
Billy stood in the shadows
His K-bar knife in his hand
And the moon slipped behind the clouds

Le lit a cigarette, the bay was still as glass
As he walked by Billy stuck his knife into his pocket
Took a breath and let him pass

In the early darkness Billy rose up
Went into the kitchen for a drink of water
Kissed his sleeping wife
Headed into the channel
And casts his nets into the water

But maybe The Ghost of Tom Joad as an album is the exception in general, in that - apart from Youngstown, which sounds like it was left off Born in the USA - it's not about nostalgia for the mid twentieth century blue collar, often small town working class. Rather, it's about immigration into California and hence, as much as anything, the tortuous coming into being of the new working class, ripped from their homes by the predecessors of NAFTA.

Meanwhile the "indigenous" working class - with names like "Bobby Ramirez" etc. - work as border police, table dancers, robbing banks, "runnin' hot cars"... I'm not sure Bruce is so one-sided in his take on "decadence" as the above article suggests.


12 years ago

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Submitted by jdoggg on May 29, 2012

Pretentious bit of commentary. Obviously written by a Brit who has taken too many classes on cultural theory. Basically a classic instance of anarchism's anti-worker aesthetics.

BTW, though I'm no fan of "The Boss" watch his version of Keep Your Eyes on The Prize. No hope indeed.


11 years 10 months ago

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Submitted by RedHughs on August 12, 2012

Springsteen is a capitalist. Just not a capitalist glorifier but an individual owning and managing a significant amount of capital.

[quote=Billboard]Total Gross: $688,136,476 Number of Shows: 403
Total Attendance: 8,605,238 Number of Sell-Outs: 248

These artoid's moronic glorification of him is identical to the kind of reviews that appear in alternative weekly of various sorts, making vague reference to rebellion and irony but in no way useful to achieve either. Why should it appear here?


11 years 10 months ago

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Submitted by MT on August 12, 2012

where does it say he is a capitalist? i just see he earns well. which is something we all know, don't we?

offtopic - it has reminded me a libcom debate that take place few years ago, when people supported a strike of actors (or something like that). the thing is that many of them have their own companies and are real capitalists employing people. i really cannot remember it correctly 100% but I think that several posters said something like i am wrong to look at the strike from this kind of perspective.

i bet springsteen is a case of celebrity working for a living while at the same time being a capitalist, but from what you put here, it is impossible to say. to be honest, i like springsteen (his latest album Wrecking Ball is absolutely amazing!) but for sure he is no communist and like almost all the more radical celebrities in US, supports democratic party.


11 years 10 months ago

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Submitted by flaneur on August 12, 2012

When Springsteen is mentioned, I always think of the bit in Ben Hamper's Rivethead where he says they'd play blues and 70s rock in the car factory rather than THE BOSS, whose music was a cynical ploy to sell records to those daft enough to fall for it, because he could really relate to working folk. Which is all well and good but my main objection would be that he's utter shit.

Noah Fence

10 years 9 months ago

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Submitted by Noah Fence on September 6, 2013

my main objection would be that he's utter shit.

I would fully concur with this but for 'Streets of Philidelphia'. A beautiful song.

I don't buy political credibility in musicians, rock stars etc. music history is littered with phony wankers. Some of them are good value, say some good stuff or are pretty amusing but most of them I wouldn't trust any further than I could throw an elephant! By there very nature they are ruled by ego, self importance and self interest. Still, you pay your money and take your choice. I've got my pet hates and faves like everyone else but if you want artists that are true to their word steer clear of lefties. Duran Duran were far more credible than The Clash - both we're capitalist shitpots but at least Duran Duran didn't pretend to be anything else. Oh yeah, and whilst their sartorial choices were dubious to say the least, at least they didn't dress up in little South American rebel uniforms! Wankers!


10 years 9 months ago

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Submitted by freemind on September 7, 2013

At the end of the day music is largely just music and a recreation.It maybe an initial point of departure but I think people give it more gravitas than it deserves.You take it for what it is and as something for enjoyment primarily and ephemeral.It makes me laugh and despair to hear the term Anarco-Punk.Lydon didn't use the term as informed agitprop but because it loosely rhymed with Antichrist(Anarchy in the UK).Crass were not Anarchists but lifestylist/Individualists!They had an affect on me with their art and lyrics but that's it.I think they have done more damage to our cause than aided it.In a sense I have more respect for Springsteen in that you know he is a rich pop star and can retire to his stress free,comfortable life.You know what he is and his facade.