According to Rolling Stone, Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is the best album released this year. Why? Because of lyrics like:
Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bill.
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill.
They “rage at corporate oligarchy and economic injustice,” things at which I’m raging too, so I completely understand why Rolling Stone would think they’re good: it agrees with them. There’s only one problem: they’re not. The state of political rhetoric is such that feeble statements of solidarity pass for insight. We’ve traded genius for blandished agreement, resulting in a situation in which we praise people for writing:
There ain’t no help.
The cavalry stayed home.
I wouldn’t be complaining were it not for the fact that, of all people, it’s Springsteen they’re praising for rehashing tired polemic. Because part of the reason I’m lefter than I’ve any right to be is that this same Springsteen fellow once made me feel the anger and hopelessness to which he only here alludes. If you’ve never seen the debut performance of “The River,” do yourself a favor and do so right now. I can wait.
Granted, “The River” isn’t an explicitly political song–it’s decidedly lacking in policy statements–but it’s a far more compelling vision of what lives are like “on account of the economy” than the broadsides found on Wrecking Ball. Let’s start with the titular and abiding image: a river. What are rivers like? To trade one bard for another, here’s John McPhee on the Mississippi in his “Atchafalaya“:
Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium. The Mississippi’s main channel of three thousand years ago is now the quiet water of Bayou Teche, which mimics the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the high ground of ancient natural levees, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier—arcuate strings of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river’s present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it.
The point being that rivers are forces of nature that even the Army Corps of Engineers can only control until the occasional Katrina. Going “down to the river,” as Springsteen’s narrator and compatriots do, is the contemporary equivalent of worshiping a mountain on account of its orogeny. It’s there and demands homage and besides where else are you going to go when that thing is there? The song begins with an idyllic, if limited, vision of life in America: