In our seminar a few weeks ago, we examined performances of Bruce Springsteen in regards to conceptions of authenticity as a determining characteristic of rock and rockers.
To better understand the appeal we went to YouTube, the internet-gods’ gift to man, and watched two performances of “Thunder Road,” one from 1976 (http://youtube.com/watch?v=KngiJUNdsu0) and one from 1985 (http://youtube.com/watch?v=PWHv4u1aadc). A striking, maybe even shocking element of both performances is the kiss between Springsteen and saxophonist, “The Big Man,” Clarence Clemons to conclude the song. The earlier video portrays a somewhat modest kiss in comparison to the lengthy smooch of the later performance, providing a focus for our discussion about the authenticity or lack thereof in their performance by 1985.
The performances that we saw were separated by nearly a decade. Clearly the Boss and the band had performed “Thunder Road” show multiple times and knew what worked. They knew what their audience wanted to see.
I don’t think it was rehearsed but it was definitely practiced. How many times had the Boss and the band performed “Thunder Road” in that time span? Was the kiss authentic if it happened for most or every performance? Surely, the audience that loved the Boss and the Big Man saw that this was part of the act, it was contrived. However, does that mean that it was not authentic?
It seems that many agree that authenticity to some extent is an inseparable characteristic of rock. As Brian asks in “Why Captain Beefheart,” “is there actually one type of authenticity at work in rock music, or are there several?” I think it is possible there are no universal qualifications for what can be ‘authentic’. I’ll agree that most perceive some degree of authenticity in ‘rock’, but the difficulty of describing universal characteristics that make something ‘authentic’ are as problematic (and probably unnecessary) as trying to define ‘rock’ itself. It depends who you ask, when you ask them, where they are, etc. For me and my peers the “Thunder Road” performance was contrived, but for fans at that time I don’t think it had the same associations.
Shortly after the seminar, I had the opportunity to talk to the biggest and only true Springsteen fan I know: my mother. She attended two performances of the 1985 Born in the USA tour, both in South Florida one night after another. For the first, she stood in line all night to be one of the first to purchase tickets and happened to luck out and was given tickets to the second show. Perhaps I mention the overnight adventure because it makes my mom seem really cool, but it also portrays the expectation and loyalty of Springsteen fans by that time. My mother was part of the predictable demographic fan base for Springsteen and the E-Street Band, a very dedicated (and female) fan base.
When I asked her about the kiss, she preceded her account with a bit of background information. First, that “Thunder Road” was the finale in both concerts. Second, that from her interpretation of the song (presumably similar to others’ interpretations) “Thunder Road” was the Springsteen and E-Street Band anthem that reminded fans that freedom is found by living without fear. She recognized that the performance of “Thunder Road” allowed her to experience “an extreme emotional moment” because of its place in the show and its lyrical meaning, but still recalls the kiss enthusiastically as the pinnacle of the performance of “Thunder Road”.
Though she did not expect the kiss at her first show, she remembers that it seemed perfectly appropriate to convey the “ecstasy” of the moment. She recalls that the next night the kiss still seemed appropriate, and that perhaps, that she was eagerly anticipating it. It seems that for her and probably for most fans who had seen Springsteen and the E-Street Band perform before, by the second show, to a some extent the kiss indexed the first show, amplifying the euphoria of the moment.
I realize that my informant-base is limited to one, but it also seems fair to presume that the Boss and the Big Man would have done away with the kiss if it didn’t get an encouraging response. I suspect that most of the audience sees the kiss as an authentic and ESSENTIAL element to the performance of “Thunder Road.” The lyrical content and performance expectations, seem to have made the kiss not only appropriate to those fans, but to a certain extent, part of the song (live) itself. The fans undoubtedly recognize that it had been done before. However, they have no derogatory connotations towards the ‘contrived’ nature of the kiss because the expectation was part of its effectiveness and appeal.
I think it’s unfair to pass judgement on what people expect to see at live show, or to criticize the ‘authenticity’ of any performer who is willing to give the audience the expected. I also believe that for Springsteen and Clemons the kiss was an authentic part of every performance. The kiss reminds scholars and/or critics that ‘authenticity’ in rock is not equivalent with spontenaity. Similiarly, it reminds us that determining ethical values based on what may be perceived as ‘contrived’ is not a useful analytical tool to describe unfamiliar performance settings.
Perhaps the comparison of “Thunder Road” performances for my peers and I seemed to present Springsteen and Clemons as actors on a musical stage. But twenty years ago the fans of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band wanted to and more than likely did, re-experience the “ecstasy” of the “Thunder Road” performance every time, every kiss. I would like to propose that the ‘authenticity’ that is disctinct to rock, especially in performance, can take any shape depending on the performers’ AND audiences’ expectations at any given moment. Performances that ooze romantic sentiment are as authentic as post-modern cries for attention disguised as ambivalence depending on who you ask, when you ask them, where they are, etc. As scholars/critics, the most effective way to determine what is ‘authentic’ is to ask.