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Richards, B. (1987). Bruce Springsteen and the crisis of masculinity. Free Associations, 1(9):91-94.

(1987). Free Associations, 1(9):91-94

Bruce Springsteen and the crisis of masculinity

Barry Richards

A large, very expensive collection of live performances of songs, many of which you already have in polished studio recordings: why buy it? The many buyers of Bruce Springsteen's boxed set of 1975-85 performances have their reasons. It is not fashionable, though, to take Springsteen very seriously. An unconsidered enjoyment of his music may be admitted to, but in British writing about rock there is little exploration of the significance of his work. Left cultural commentary has been more attenttive to the disco deconstructors of gender, to Red Wedge (a grouping of British musicians in broad support of the Labour Party), and to the increasingly confident gay presence. Springsteen's outspoken, conventional masculinity may seem like a hangover from the pre-feminist era of rock, something which can only be a sham now that the old certainties of gender have dissolved. That process of dissolution has to some extent been led by developments in pop music and has been enacted more by men than by women. Masculinity has become a focal point of cultural decomposition: it is typically men in rock who are subverting the codes of heterosexual difference. Boy George is the best-known of many recent British examples of transvestite modes of such subversion. (Ironically, the visibility of this collapse of masculinity may be due in part to the generally greater prominence of men in the music industry.)

Yet Springsteen is authentic — his music is without sentimentality and without excess. The masculinity he represents carries more than just the formal signs of the masculine stereotype — voice, dress, postures and so on. Those alone, when deployed with the intensity which he commands, might lead to the kind of narcissistic hypermasculine strutting of which rock has many examples. Springsteen's importance is that he revives a positive moral content to those masculine forms.

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