Entry from September 9, 2002

Memorializing September 11th Part Three — and a propos of both “The Aristocracy of Feelings” from this month’s New Criterion, and “Be Yourself, Get into College” from last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, posted below. . .

One of my favorite pop songs is “Kathmandu” by Bob Seeger. In it he sings to a pounding, rock’n’roll rhythm about his supposed desire to go to Kathmandu — a city now beset with vicious Maoist guerrillas but back in the 1970s a mecca for gentle hippies who wanted to withdraw from the corrupt, materialistic world of Amerika into a life of contemplation and simple-living. The refrain goes:

If I ever get out of here,
If I ever get out of here,
If I ever get out of here,
I’m goin’ to Kathmandu!

But of course the music tells us that he’s never going to get out of here. There is nothing Buddhist or Nepalese about that old-time rock’n’roll (the kind that, as another of Seeger’s standards puts it with equal irony, “soothes the soul”). This is the music of America we’re listening to, with all its corruption and materialism: a wild, energetic, sexy growl that wouldn’t know what to do with Zen and quiet contemplation if it tripped over them in a drug-induced haze. Seeger himself is fully aware of the ironies in the contradiction between words and music and plays with them in the song:

I know I’ll miss the USA,
I guess I’ll miss it every single day,
But no one loves me here anyway,
I’m goin’ to Kathmandu!

In other words, the whole Kathmandu project is a teenage fantasy, an exercise in self-pity, but at the same time it is a necessary fantasy — at least necessary to the pop culture, of which the song stands out as a remarkably frank embodiment. It helps us to realize the extent to which that culture and the notion of “cool” to which it is yoked has become over the last forty years a culture of gesture and attitude (or “attitude”) deliberately divorced from the adult world of action and responsibility. Fantasy is of the essence, providing as it does the promise of temporary escape from the demands of adulthood — family, money and power. Yet its temporariness is also essential: nobody actually goes to Kathmandu, or goes to stay. The pop culture has always been shaped by the crassly material world of big business which it professes to despise.

All this would be no more than a curiosity if it were not for the fact that the pop culture is the only culture most of us have anymore. Adult culture, except at the avowedly élitist fringes, has been almost completely cowed by the claims of the kids, including those now in their fifties, to greater authenticity, even though that authenticity shares with the idea of escape to Kathmandu the property of being entirely fantastical. That is why, though once we might have commissioned a requiem mass from America’s most eminent composer — can most of us even name an eminent American composer? — in commemoration of the terror attacks on New York and Washington last year, now we have to make do with the soppy sentimentalism of Bruce Springsteen.

For where Bob Seeger can make fun of himself and of the contradictory culture within which he is working, Springsteen takes it all deadly seriously — though at that not so seriously as many of his fanatical (as well as fantastical) fans take it. In “The Rising,” his new album touted as a memorial to September 11th, there is a Seeger-like contrast between the aspiration to spirituality in many of the lyrics and the raw, in-your-face physicality of the music, but in Springsteen’s case the contradiction is merely inert and unproductive of illuminating ironies. It lacks purpose and self-awareness. Rock’n’roll is simply the language Springsteen speaks, so he goes on speaking it even when it might seem to a more traditional sensibility wildly inappropriate to such a solemn purpose as commemorating the dead.

A quiet afternoon
an empty house
On the edge of the bed
you slip off your blouse
The room is burning
with the noon sun
Your bittersweet taste on my tongue
The fuse is burning
(Shut out the lights)
The fuse is burning
(Come on let me
do you right)

Would he then not have wanted the anonymous, bittersweet-tasting woman (or possibly sailor) to let him do her right if the 3000 hadn’t died? Somehow one doubts it. Bruce is just doing his Bruce-y thing, his sexy thing, his rock’n’roll thing, his authentic “empathetic” thing, with the dead of September 11th plugged in in place of the working stiff or the Vietnam vet, empathy with whom in decades past has been the foundation of the Springsteen fortune. Long ago he spotted with a shrewd marketer’s eye the popular demand for musically mixed feelings. His fans may only care about his, and their, feelings, but they like the idea that the feelings are complicated. So now, contemplating the terror-attacks, Springsteen sings: “I want a kiss from your lips, I want an eye for an eye.” Guess what? I feel both ways. And the rockiness of the music and the mock hoarseness in the growling or screeching voice is meant to seem an ideal accompaniment to the turbulence of the emotion.

Yet you can’t listen to “The Rising” without sensing the glibness there has always been in his repeatedly performing the same trick. Here it becomes obviously incommensurate with the enormity (in the true sense of the word) that he has his eye on. If rock (or at least this rock) is all about proclaiming that “this is how I feel” it had better stay away from events like this one. And how do you feel about the murder of 3000 people? Don’t tell me, let me guess. But, like most pop culture, the album is resistant to criticism. If your only aim is to say “this is how I feel” and millions of listeners say, in effect, “yeah, I feel that way too,” what part in the transaction does a mere critic have to play? In this sense the Springsteen fans are right: they want the glib assurance, the comforting banality, and Bruce reliably supplies it.

Shirts in the closet,
shoes in the hall
Mama’s in the kitchen, baby and all
Everything is everything
Everything is everything
But you’re missing

It seems somehow appropriate to make “Everything is everything” the refrain, since it proclaims proudly the album’s edging up to banality as a virtue: I know it doesn’t mean anything. Don’t you see? That’s the point! He deflects all criticism in this way. Every foolishness or inanity or obscurity turns out to be the point. There is nothing he can sing that does not bear witness to his own deep feeling, and the more so, seemingly, as the feeling is contradicted by the medium of its expression. That’s why Springsteen-worship is so often compared to a religion. The fans want to believe, and do believe, in their hero’s feelings, in spite of their incongruousness, because they stand as a kind of assurance for their own. The banality or the silliness or the inappropriateness of the words only acts as a reminder that the feeling is all that matters.

Thus David Segal’s review in the Washington Post of a Springsteen concert in Washington, D.C.: “It was as if he had decided he wouldn’t merely assert that the country will recover from the wounds of Sept. 11. . .but that he would enact that recovery before our eyes.” This makes a lot of sense to me. And it makes Springsteen a kind of pop witch-doctor, someone engaged in sympathetic magic with a lot of Wizard-of-Oz effects that make us not want to look at the man behind the curtain. As he throws his magic dust on the fire and goes into an ecstasy we may find ourselves empathetically carried along on the wave of feeling. We feel better because BS is singing about feeling better and has got us tapping our toes.

Of course that makes the dead of 9/11 rather the forgotten men and women in this transaction between feelin’-bad audience and feelin’-worse singer, as we are reminded on the few occasions when he refers to them directly.

You want curds,
I’ll show you curds
you can understand,

— or so the Boss seems to sing. Only it turns out that “curds” is “courage,” according to the script, and BS sings the word as a tight-lipped monosyllable as a characteristic signifier of the strong emotion he feels on uttering it. Once again, attention is directed away from them and towards himself. I know the fans still like it, but it sounds pretty cheesy if you ask me.

It is only worth going on at such length about what the New York Times says “has been hailed as the first significant cultural response to Sept. 11” because of what it has in common with subsequent cultural responses, namely a regrettable tendency to use an ostensible tribute to the dead as an occasion for moral and emotional preening, for making a self-regarding display of our own feelings where the attention should be fixed on those who are being honored. Far be it from me to impugn the motives of Placido Domingo or Aretha Franklin or Enrique Iglesias or any of the rest of the galaxy of stars said to be turning out to sing their little hearts out on September 11th. No, not even Bruce Springsteen. But all of them are there, and doing what they are doing, because of a form of corruption in us, the audience.

This is the expectation, most strikingly revealed in the recently-concluded competition on Fox’s “American Idol,” that our “idols” will earn our admiration (to say nothing of our dollars) only if they make a display of emotion that can only be bogus. The successful contestants on “American Idol” all affected that Celine Dion, that Whitney Houston catch in the voice that has become the conventional sign in pop music of strong feelings — which are in turn the conventional sign of the authenticity we demand of our celebrities. Listen to almost any public performance of the national anthem these days and you will hear the same thing. It is that look-at-me expression of feeling that we have grown accustomed to taking as the public and official confirmation of the importance of our own feelings.

So it is no wonder that Kelly Clarkson, the former waitress who was the ultimate victor on “American Idol” has been chosen to sing the National Anthem at the Lincoln Memorial on September 11th. But I wonder if anyone who hears her there, or any of the other emotional exhibitionists whom we choose to consecrate our public ceremonies these days, will stop to wonder what Lincoln would have thought of them.


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