Jon Pareles takes issue with the A-word and the Boss today (here). He basically places Bruce in the category of the Folk Revival, and in a brief recap of what that meant 50 years ago manages to cover the whole Seeger Sessions album with a multi-culti, useless gloss. It's not that Pareles says a lot of negative things about the new songs, not at all. And I don't expect reviews to gush the way I did, but I guess I would expect someone like Jon Pareles to focus more on the now than the then. Because this isn't 1958, and various musical and political movements have come and gone, and Springsteen deserves more than to be grouped into a 50-year old daguerrotype. The obvious mistake (like Reagan's of "Born in the USA") is to see Springsteen cover Seeger and then assume that it's part of the same motivations, that Springsteen is trying to be Seeger.
It's pretty obvious to me that Springsteen is just being Springsteen. There are definitely cultural things happening, musically, like red flags. The preponderance of what people call Americana, the rise of mags like Paste and No Depression, and things like the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and Hurricane Katrina-inspired tributes. If you asked me, I'd say that the barriers are breaking down, that "rock" is too hard to define (and so is "country," but this is still under investigation in Ali-land), and that authenticity isn't about how things sound.
For Jon Pareles to say that the Boss and his band are "about as authentic as a covered wagon with chrome wheels" is an insulting dismissal of one of the most authentic projects I've heard in a while. Even from Springsteen himself. And I know that it's not cool to care about authenticity anymore, because then you'd be a rockist, (which sometimes leads to being racist), and it's truly the fault of rock that all this seriousness is so important in the first place. But what I see with this new record is an artist that has found a new way to make old music new. This version of "Shenandoah," for instance, ain't nothing like the way I learned it in third grade. And "John Henry"? It sounds as if it was written for Bruce to sing. Going back and listening to Guthrie sing it makes Guthrie seem like the poseur.
A simpler, but probably more complex, way to put this is that there are two kinds of cover songs. There is "Hallelujah" and there is "Hound Dog." Either an artist covers a song and makes it unbearable, the listener wishing for only one thing in the world and that is to hear the original, ASAP; or, an artist covers a song and actually comes to own it in their own right. (These examples don't have to be specifically about these songs, I'm just using my own opinions: Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley's vocal timbres are like cosmic aesthetic archnemesi, and even though Big Mama Thornton's version is pretty kickass, remember she didn't write the song, Leiber and Stoller did.) What we have with The Seeger Sessions is a "Hound Dog," no question about it. Just like that Ed Sullivan show and the pelvis and the dancing and the lip curl was really a central part of the essence of Elvis Presely, this music, particularly this presentation of it, is one of Springsteen's hallmarks: it's showy, its spiritual, and it's truly responding to a cultural moment. On my first hearing of this album, it was shocking, jarring really, how much this band owns these songs. As much as everyone owns songs. It was like a slap in the face, it was that instantaneous. So that's authenticity: he means it. If he didn't mean it, the music would not be so good.
"A covered wagon with chrome wheels"? Not only is that hokey, that's kitsch-hokey. More appropriate for that description would be…CocoRosie, or maybe the new New Order stuff, if we can go there. As far as I can tell, it hasn't become kitsch to be serious, like a sick vortex of mockery, at least outside of the super indie-riffic universe where the more mockery you can stomach, the better. And Pareles makes it clear that the band is having fun, the show is an experience of fun.
So what is the problem here?
1. Politics. It could be that we are so hungry for stand-up political statements that we are attaching these grandiose associations in all the wrong places. (I even think that A Prairie Home Companion is a political allegory.) But Bruce is all about grandiose displays, and we already know that he is lefty-supportive, so it could very well be much more explicit than audience-mongering media would readily admit.
2. Folk. I cringe at the misguided, brush-off way that folk music is used. All music is folk music! I'm going to figure out a way to work that into everything I write, or as much as I possibly can.