The real problem with ‘The Rising’: It’s not actually about 9/11 (or anything at all)

As a fan of Bruce Springsteen revisionism, I was happy to see John Cook’s Gawker post challenging the canonization of Springsteen’s The Rising as “the closest thing we have to an official soundtrack to 9/11”:

The Rising is a failure. It purports to document a nation’s rupture and guide us toward salvation—”here the poet, not unlike the priest and community during Mass, opens a window in space and time for communion with the dead themselves: the dead who alone, perhaps, can transform the rage of the living and awaken in us a vision of something more than more of the same,” is how one Catholic critic recently put it. You can almost feel the weight of Springsteen’s duty on the record—these are his people, these firefighters. This is his backyard. A nation turned its weary eyes to the Boss, and he keenly felt the need to answer. But the answer was overwrought, grandiose, bombastic. He went big. We didn’t need anymore big things.

Cook’s right that The Rising is a failure, but he doesn’t quite get at the reasons why. The Rising isn’t just big and overwrought. It’s lyrically vague to the point of being a 9/11 album in name only. Absent the marketing push that announced the album as Springsteen’s big 9/11 statement, The Rising could be interpreted as being about pretty much anything (or nothing at all).

I wrote about the Boss’s 9/11 dodge in a 2003 piece for the Valley News in New Hampshire. (It’s actually a section from a larger essay about that year’s Grammy Awards.) I think it holds up pretty well.

*****

From “Pop Go the Grammy Awards”; the Valley News, Feb. 20, 2003

When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band released The Rising last summer, it was greeted as the first response to Sept. 11, 2001, by a major artist. Kurt Loder, writing in Rolling Stone, took the lead in praising Springsteen for his approach to the attacks:

“The small miracle of his accomplishment is that at no point does he give vent to the anger felt by so many Americans: the hunger for revenge. The music is often fierce in its execution, but in essence it is a requiem for those who perished in that sudden inferno, and those who died trying to save them.”

But Loder ignores, as did many, that The Rising barely mentions Sept. 11 directly at all. By my count, there are two specific references: “The sky was falling and streaked with blood/I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into dust/Up the stairs, into the fire” (Into the Fire); “I never thought I’d live/To read about myself in my hometown paper/How my brave young life was forever changed/In a misty cloud of pink vapor” (Nothing Man). One song is about a suicide bomber, but doesn’t refer to Sept. 11 itself.

Otherwise, the album is one rousing, generic chorus after another, with alternating images of doom and perseverance — “Blood on the streets/Blood flowin’ down,” “With these hands, with these hands,/I pray for your faith, Lord” — that could apply to just about anything. The lyrics are often so banal that they don’t even support the album’s ostensible theme of hope in the face of unimaginable tragedy: “I’m waitin’, waitin’ on a sunny day/Gonna chase the clouds away/Waitin’ on a sunny day”; “I’m countin’ on a miracle/Baby I’m countin’ on a miracle/Darlin’ I’m countin’ on a miracle/To come through”; “Empty sky, empty sky/I woke up this morning to an empty sky”; “Come on, rise up! (8x)”

Of course, as a friend pointed out, it wouldn’t have worked had Springsteen written songs with lyrics like, “And when those planes crashed into the two towers, I remember how I felt.” That’s the approach Alan Jackson took with Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning), with predictably syrupy results. But, however clumsy, Jackson at least approached Sept. 11 straight on.

Jim Dwyer, a New York Times reporter, wrote about the aftermath of the attacks by focusing on specific details and letting them speak for themselves. A man finds a photograph in the rubble belonging to someone he knew but hadn’t seen in a decade, who had escaped the falling towers. A woman who walked home through clouds of pulverized-glass dust finds, later that night, “a plastic cup that had been full of water when someone — a stranger, she doesn’t know who — handed it to her as she passed the restaurant supply district along the Bowery.”

Such specificity is nowhere to be found on The Rising. Likewise missing are more general issues of religious fundamentalism, root causes of support for international terrorism or the nature of revenge.

Springsteen, instead, wants to have it both ways: seeming to respond in a mature, nonjingoistic manner while not actually addressing anything at all. His words, in their lack of detail — and, in the case of several party/love songs, their randomness — ultimately refer to nothing. Meanwhile, the music is unabashedly rousing, catchy and anthemic, like Springstenn’s Born in the U.S.A. — but, Ronald Reagan’s misunderstanding notwithstanding, lacking that song’s sense of anger and despair.

Far from being the clear-eyed Sept. 11 album it’s made out to be, The Rising is just a hummable, feel-good arena-rock record.

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