E Street Intertext

Jonathan Bellman

Good morning. Let’s start with a little academic vocabulary: intertextuality. Julia Kristeva coined the term, and she said: “Every text builds itself as a mosaic of quotations; every text is absorption and transformation of another text.” The word looks like jargon, but it’s a very useful concept. In musical terms: the work is not just the piece, or song, itself; it is the piece, plus its antecedents, plus the pieces it quotes or evokes, plus—everything. Intertextuality in literature or music sees artworks in constant dialogue in other artworks. Of course, like any dialogue it depends on the participants and the listeners, who will make connections based on personal experience and disposition.

And today’s Biblical text is from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 1:9, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Because, Kristeva aside, this precise effect was identified and discussed by the Polish composer and musical thinker Karol Kurpiński in 1821: the quotation or less-direct evocation of a well-known melody was an additional way to communicate to the listener, for whom the former tune already had meaning. Particularly effective were “arias, which—nested in everyone’s memory through frequent repetitions—allow diverse allusions,” and though “these are only reminiscences, they therefore speak stronger to the heart.” Of course, that the allusion be a specific melody isn’t necessary; it can be a gesture of any kind. In Rock and Pop, it is often a sound. There was a great deal of this kind of stylistic evocation—topics, we call them—in the Klezmatics album that I blogged about some time ago: Raga Rock, Klezmer, folk ballad, etc.  Sam Phillips did a similar thing, produced by her husband T-Bone Burnett. When a listener is already familiar with a style, a song that partakes of the style does not walk alone, so to speak; it brings with it all songs in the same style, and everything those songs evoked, and that is what it’s about, not just the song itself.

(A parenthetical comment: Rock fans are expected (perhaps rightfully) to be style historians, perhaps because we all listen to Rock radio, and many radio stations play stuff all the way back to the 50s. In high school, much time was spent listening to records (and arguing politics and exchanging insults) with my brother Joel—who is acknowledged with thanks in several scholarly studies of Rock—and my friend Tom; those two had and have profound and encyclopedic knowledge of Rock styles and repertories. I was not on the same plane, but learned a lot from them.)

Magic, the new Bruce Springsteen album, is more intertextual than anything I’ve ever heard him do. Of course, we get the signature New Jersey/E Street sound in many of the songs “Long Walk Home,” and especially “I’ll Work Magic For Your Love,” the sort of love-song-of-the-flawed that Springsteen has always excelled at (“Jersey Girl,” “Little Girl I want to Marry You”). The E Street Sound is made up of a 1950s band (guitars, bass, drums, sax) plus Roy Bittan’s revelatin’ piano and Danny Federici’s synth that sounds like a skating-rink organ or Xmas bells. But we also get tributes to other 1960s and early 1970s styles, as if Springsteen is, on some level, now confident enough offer a deep bow to all the styles of his youth, those that had a multi-style pile-up to make him…the Boss.

Maybe the last thing I would have expected from the Boss is the “Eleanor Rigby” tribute, “Your Own Worst Enemy.” Not slushy strings, either; it sounds like the slightly trebly one- or two-on-a-part string lines of 60s art-rock recordings. Not a copy; a tribute. Similarly, “The Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is full-out mid-1960s pop, the Mersey Beat meets Mr. McGuinn and Mr. Rickenbacker. I can’t really say precisely what I am forcefully reminded of, which may mean that the musical languages are spoken with the native’s command. On first listening, it sounded like a song I knew already, familiar and sweet, that I hadn’t heard in a long time. Given that there’s no actual Ur-song back there, that’s far harder than it seems.

The final intertextual touch is the Easter Egg/bonus track, “When they built you, Brother, they broke the mold.” The song is a tribute to Terry Magovern, Springsteen’s longtime road manager and close friend, and it stands alone in the stark, underproduced mode of the Nebraska album, which was—I think—in large part demo tape that was allowed to stand. The hallmarks of this style are 1) voice and guitar recorded folksinger style, simultaneously rather than separately, 2) rough, two-takes-max background vocals, and 3) little else, some keyboard here or there maybe. The affect of the song is pure love and grief, but with no bitterness, as if at the End of Things there’s no time for the narcissism of bitterness. To my ear, the song bears a strong family resemblance to “She’s Too Good for Me,” a song from Warren Zevon’s The Wind, an album written and recorded as Zevon was dying of cancer. That song was a tribute (so the story goes) to his Immortal Beloved, the One That Got Away, and its production is also stark, a style at which Zevon also excelled (a great example is “Jesus Mentioned,” his duet with Waddy Wachtel on The Envoy). Springsteen and Zevon were friends and collaborators, and Springsteen sang backup on that final album, so it would not be surprising for Zevon’s final good-by to someone to be floating around Springsteen’s subconscious when he penned his.

So, if I may circle back to what gets me out of bed in the morning: Springsteen’s new CD will be fine for the aging Jersey Girls who dream about him on the way to take their grandkids to playgroup, sure, and there is not a thing in the world wrong with that. Better yet, though, it gives wonderful, thick-context listening here for people who have found a lot to love in the last fifty years of popular music. Moreover, it’s hard to escape the sense that Springsteen knows it and did it on purpose—the album is a love letter to the full gamut of musical styles he’s played.

Now, for those of us who want more than toe-tappin’, who like knowing what people are musically saying to us, what if hearing classical concerts was this kind of experience? Of course, no one knows the whole repertoire, but imagine how viable the enterprise would become if listeners had broad-based knowledge of art-music styles similar to what Rock fans have of Rock styles: a solid conceptual understanding to bring to every new Haydn quartet, Schubert song, or Liszt or Bartok work piano piece. In many ways, Springsteen’s new album is a historically oriented work, yet fully viable. Is there a lesson here?

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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4 Responses to E Street Intertext

  1. Mark says:

    I always assumed that classical fans did have a repertoire in their heads, and was built on quotes and references, and that I just didn’t share that reservoir.
    Jazz is certainly like that. a sonny rollins solo.
    I think you’re on to something: that music writing can take a lot from literary theory.
    I remember when i first heard lenny kravitz, I thought, he sounds a bit too much like everybody.
    Fine review of the springsteen album

  2. Jonathan says:

    Thanks, Mark. Classical listening *should* be like this, but I suspect that art-music itself has been high-culturized and sanctified to the point where it’s barely heard…even, dare I say, by the participants. Too often, it’s a weird shut-up-this-is-good-for-you ritual, in other words, not something living and breathing. Shakespeare continues to live and breathe, and so should this.
    Literary theory? Note that I Kristeva’d back to Kurpinski, a composer. I was exposed to high doses of literary theory in past decades, and the scars still show. Walter Pater, I think: “All arts aspire to the condition of music.”

  3. Scraps says:

    Many folks have compared “The Girls in Their Summer Clothes” to the Magnetic Fields. (I haven’t heard it yet, but that’s an intriguing comparison.)

  4. I have always suspected, much to my dismay at losing any status for a hoped for competence, that music is ephemeral, no matter how fixed (black dots on paper, or sound). To be even more gloomy, that our music relating neurons get reasonably fixed during the time of our optimal reproductive period, and then we sail into the sea of general obsolesence with our gaze firmly backwards.
    How would it work, a zen musicology, only studying the music of “now”? Considering the amount of population at this time, one might imagine that composers as great as any who ever lived, may exist by the few handfuls, statistically. But we are all so pointed backwards. That’s okay, we’re in good company doing that, such as economists, another “useful” and gloomy bunch. They too, are paid much less then lawyers.
    Musicologists are English majors whose subject is music, and after a library full of books, there is no clearer understanding of why, wherefrom etc. The scientists are getting out their measuring tools now, this might be interesting… then maybe not. Perhaps music is a swamp, an intellectual Afganistan that once a discipline chooses to march into it, is lucky to stumble back out some time later, looking quite the worse for wear.
    Struggling to give up the beloved music of my wasted yuf, as I struggle against the foods that have so distorted my once girlish figure, I have commited myself to avoiding “music”, and dealing only with the industrial process of media making. There, everything old is new again 🙂

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