It’s not surprising that a generation of academics raised on rock should combine a fan’s passion with a scholar’s analytical scrutiny in books that are neither conventional biography nor standard music criticism.
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In the wake of such high-profile work in “Dylan studies” such as Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz and Dylan’s Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks comes Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock 'n’ Roll by Marc Dolan, a career-spanning collection by a professor of English and American Studies. Dolan’s perspective isn’t journalistic, as he relies on previous biographies and critical work rather than fresh reportage and interviewing, while finding revelation in what the less obsessive might consider minutiae. For those who want exegesis of Springsteen’s between-song concert soliloquies rather than fresh gossip or personal dirt, Dolan takes the high road.
How do you think your perspective on Springsteen differs from conventional wisdom?
Whether they like him or not, many see Springsteen as too much of an icon, as the guy on the cover of Born to Run and Born in the USA. I bring contingency back into his story. I take such turns as his heavy-metal phase in the early 1970s and his interest in hip-hop in the mid-1990s very seriously. My Springsteen takes a very twisty road to success and an even more interesting road after he becomes successful.
Did you conceive of this book as a biography, an extended work of musical-cultural criticism or some kind of hybrid?
Always a hybrid. Most obviously, Springsteen’s varied career allows me to talk about the extraordinary transformation of American popular music during the last half-century, from Sam & Dave and the Blues Magoos to Jay-Z and Arcade Fire, from the Ed Sullivan Show and Hullabaloo to MySpace and iTunes. His increasing interest in politics has also allowed me to talk, not just about the campaigns in which he has been directly involved, but more importantly about how our culture has been profoundly changed by the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet.
Who is your ideal reader? Do you hope to appeal to the newly curious and the Springsteen fan alike?
My ideal reader, literally and metaphorically, is someone who listens to music he or she hasn’t heard before. My favorite biographies of artists are the ones that influence me to seek out works to which I hadn’t previously paid attention. For the relative newbies, that means learning about a less well-known Springsteen album like Lucky Town. For E Street Nation, that means taking seriously a true obscurity like [the song] “Chevrolet Deluxe.” Any artist worth knowing is worth knowing in more detail.
You’ve drawn from a number of Springsteen biographies. What did you hope to add to the reader’s understanding of your subjects? Why was the time ripe for another Springsteen book?
Nearly all prior biographies ended in the 20th century. The last decade has been the most productive of Springsteen’s career, with seven albums and at least three different types of tours. Saying Bruce Springsteen’s life story is essentially over in 1986 or 1999 is akin to saying that Steve Jobs’ life story is essentially over with the founding of NeXT. In both lives, the later acts are as fascinating to me as the earlier ones.
Did you approach this work as an academic or a fan?
I’ve been a Springsteen fan since college, but when I started thinking about him as a scholar would, the book truly began. I started asking questions and considering sources I had never really taken seriously before.
Back in 2000, I had tried to write something off-the-cuff about Springsteen singing “American Skin” at Madison Square Garden but I never finished it. When I completed the section of this book about that concert, I realized that the academic in me had worked seven years to explain to the fan what had moved him.
'Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock 'n' Roll' is available from Norton on June 4.