August 14, 2011

Bruce Springsteen’s Music and Fans Explored by Anthropology Mentor Linda Randall

Grab your ticket and your suitcase

Thunder's rollin' down this track
You don't know where you're goin'
But you know you won't be back
Darlin' if you're weary
Lay your head upon my chest
We'll take what we can carry
And we'll leave the rest.” 

-- Bruce Springsteen, "Land of Hopes and Dreams"

After sitting in the audience for 70 Bruce Springsteen shows around the world and interviewing scads of fans, SUNY Empire State College anthropology mentor Linda K. Randall knows whereof she speaks in “Finding Grace in the Concert Hall,” her book that investigates the culture of Bruce Springsteen fans. Based on her master’s thesis on religion and culture for Wake Forest University, “Grace” focuses on real-life Springsteen aficionados – how they think and why they behave the way they do -- and shows how widespread international devotion is to the rock star, also known as “The Boss,” to his “tramps” – the label fans use for themselves.

Randall Head Shot Randall, left, recently was interviewed on WSKG radio about her work and will be participating in the Bookmarks Book Festival in September. She also will present at the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association conference in October in a session titled, “Finding Grace in the Concert Hall: Springsteen, Pop Culture, and Religion.”

Randall makes no secret of the fact that she’s not unbiased. A long-time Springsteen enthusiast who saw him first when she was age 24 in 1975, and an active member of an online Springsteen fan community – many of whose members served as sources for the book – and the International Springsteen Studies Association, Randall recalls her reaction to Springsteen at the fourth concert she attended (and the first one she attended alone), “I felt this man speaking to my heart, to my life's wins and losses. He identified with my struggles and frustrations, not waiting for me to identify with him, and perhaps that is his talent and genius. Bruce places the onus of understanding on himself, and not on the listener; his job is to convince us that he knows what we know, to provide us with hope; and not to ask us to understand him. Sitting there, I felt as surely as I knew my own name that this man needed me as much as I needed him. What I felt was not a rock ‘n’ roll concert. I felt like all my sins in life were forgiven. I’ve never been a joiner. I don’t join clubs or organizations, but still when I was at the show, I felt that I was a part of something.”

In writing about him, the Oneonta resident sought “to document the ways in which Springsteen fans are inspired to create a global cultural community, offering emotional support, spirituality and the motivation for doing good works,” exemplified by the star in his own philanthropic outreach. Gathering the data for “Grace” was an 11-year process.

“Bruce Springsteen’s music and performances have provided an emotional outlet for thousands of fans all over the world. Using the statements of these fans, as well as the life and music of Springsteen, my work documents the reasons why, as well as the ways in which fans are inspired to create a community,” Randall says. “This community reflects both their emotional and spiritual attachment as well as their attempts to live according to the moral precepts they find through this music.”

Springsteen has laid the groundwork for this community through his words, music and deeds, Randall points out. “To many, these feelings and values are as valid and alive as any other spiritual tradition, and are a legitimate spiritual outlet. The thoughts and actions of these fans, and the motivating forces behind them, allow a glimpse into how nontraditional spiritual values can be formed and acted on outside the gates of what is normally seen as conventional church-going behavior.”

By acknowledging the legitimacy of personal spiritual connection outside a sectarian landscape, Randall hopes to cultivate and nourish appreciation and tolerance for different belief systems and system formations.

Randall has seen the way his fans connect with each other, has observed the calls and responses between Springsteen and his audience, and is “continually amazed.”

Springsteen’s songs promote redemption and hope, says Randall, who is drawn to his honesty and sincerity. “He sings about justice, friendship and honesty. He believes what he writes and he writes what he believes,” she says. 

Fans often refer to themselves as the “Springsteen Nation” or “Church of Bruce,” reports  Randall, who adds, “Bruce Springsteen is the closest thing many people have to religion. The church is no longer the sole medium to supply religious fervor, nor is it the sole medium through which people experience spirituality.”

Randall adds that for many, organized religion no longer provides inspiration and enlightenment, however, music has provided such fulfillment.

Springsteen is not “just a popular performer or even an avatar of rock 'n' roll,” notes Randall. His songs recount the story of his life, his difficult relationship with his father and even posit a moral and social lesson that is the same as the world's great religions. His work shows, "a remarkable ability to understand whatever situation he is writing about, " Randall states, "whether it is an illegal immigrant working in a methamphetamine lab or a Vietnam veteran seeking work."

Randall observes (and shares) a nearly cultic connection to Springsteen. In her conversations with fellow fans she has found that many are distanced and disillusioned with traditional organized religion – Springsteen refers to himself as a "lapsed Catholic" -- but many have found a transformative spiritual meaning in his songs. Some of the songs (such as "Jesus Was an Only Son") are clearly religious in theme and tone, but many are so personal and significant that they are known to move Springsteen's predominantly male audience to tears. Randall writes with clarity and sensitivity of both the gender and emotional nature of the fan base, and of the powerful sense of community.

“From the time the troubadours roamed Europe in the 11th century, serenading lovers and conveying the day's news, music has been a defining element in human lives, a major contributor to community cohesion. We even speak of ‘the baroque age’ or ‘the ragtime era’,” Randall explains. “Today's issues and feelings are powerfully expressed by Springsteen through his international concert tours, his many recordings and the devotion of fans.”

(Randall's list of "best Springsteen websites": www.backstreets.org, www.brucebase.org, www.greasylake.org, www.njrockmap.com, www.Brucespringsteen.net and www.bruce-springsteen.com.