Earlier this weekend, I happened to be flicking through the music section of the Telegraph when I noticed a picture of the seemingly inescapable boyband One Direction staring up at the camera. I thought nothing of it for an instant, but my eyes drifted over to the accompanying caption: “Springsteen-esque: One Direction’s new album is uplifting fun”.
Those of you who know me personally will know that I rather like the music of Bruce Springsteen. I first heard Waitin’ On A Sunny Day on my cousin’s iPod when I was around 9, and was given the Essential Collection a year later. When I hit 14, the music, which I’d always enjoyed, simply took hold of me, and since then my collection of Springsteen has only grown ever more vast. It now stands at 784 songs, beginning with his work as the frontman of an Allman Brothers/Led Zep knock-off called Steel Mill (I don’t actually enjoy his work with an even earlier band, The Castiles), and ending with some live tour highlights from this year. I own most, if not all, of his audition tape for John Hammond of Columbia records, all his albums, all his officially released B-sides and outtakes, a great stack of them that have not been officially released, numerous radio appearances on the back of his first album in 1973, and gigs at the Main Point 1975, the famous Hammersmith Odeon gig a few months later, plus the Roxy, Agora, Passaic and Winterland broadcasts of the Darkness tour in 1978 (Incidentally, I’m willing to fight someone in defence of my opinion that the Winterland gig is the best gig of all time), the Breathless in Paris bootleg, the Prisoner of Pittsburgh of 1988, bootlegs of the Devils & Dust tour (incidentally the most underrated tour of all time) and his gigs in Paris 2012, Hard Rock Calling 2013 and Leeds 2013 (incidentally Springsteen is the best live act ever).
To hear One Direction, therefore compared to one of, in my opinion, the greatest american songwriters ever, up there with Guthrie, Dylan and Neil Young, was intriguing. I’ll confess I’m not quite such an avid fan of One Direction. They’re a perfectly adequate boyband, I’ll concede- they fulfil their function very well: they’re good-looking, can sing well enough, and I think Niall can actually strum a guitar, so the musicianship thing is there too. They make lots of money, and their target audience, to the best of my knowledge, still love them. That’s ok. I know their music isn’t meant for me, I don’t really find it that interesting, and so we keep ourselves to ourselves. I will, however say that one aspect of the band that does stand out to me is that several of the songs that permeate through to me via chart radio and the like sound rather derivative. “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful” is unmistakably using the chords from Grease’s “Summer Lovin'”. The opening of “Live While We’re Young” is obviously derived from that of the Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”. And “Best Song Ever” is a Frankenstein’s monster of several different elements. The studio exec in the opening skit of the video, I remember, is a carbon copy, but without the funniness, of Tom Cruise’s movie stealing character Les Grossman from Tropic Thunder. The chords are taken from the Who’s “Baba O’ Reilly”. And isn’t the whole idea about being unable to recall the melody of the best song ever in itself taken from “Tribute” by Tenacious D? This should act to explain why I don’t go out of my way to consume this music; it sounds too much like stuff I’ve already heard. But this is not really the reason I’m ranting here. As I said before, this music is not meant for me anyway.
I hope in writing this I don’t harm the image of Springsteen fans. The life of a teenage Springsteen fan is hard, I’ll readily admit. “Isn’t that what 50 year old housewives listen to?” and “Isn’t he the really cheesy 80s-pop ‘rockstar’?” are just two of the common questions directed at me when I profess my love of him. People often tell me that his songs aren’t that concise, or catchy, and I suppose if you grew up listening to sonically more compressed, shorter, and more traditionally catchy rock songs (think early Beatles) then I’d be willing to agree. If someone was to tell me they didn’t much like Springsteen’s music, nowadays, I would accept I’d done my best to persuade them and move on, like a Jehovah’s witness (although I hope, to those of you whom I’ve attempted to convert, I’m not that annoying). Likewise, if somebody randomly shouted “Bruce Springsteen sucks” or “I hate Bruce Springsteen” I just wouldn’t bother about it. They have their opinion, and I have mine, and, though I’d never say it out loud to them, I know they’re wrong. If I, a Springsteen fan behaved like a One Direction fan, conversely, I would have an array of retorts to make these fools come around to seeing the truth. “You’re just jealous of his success!”, I would shriek hysterically, or perhaps through muffled sobs, “You’re probably a virgin loser who lives in his Mum’s basement”, or, my last resort, my failsafe, the argument I know would end the dispute forever, safe in the knowledge that I had deployed my most decisive and potent weapon of all, “You’re gay”. Nothing like a blunted, completely irrelevant homophobic attack to enhance your powers of persuasion. So normally, I wouldn’t go about attacking the supporters of One Direction. And in many ways, I’m not, although I think I have mocked them quite a bit. However one word I read made me want to pose a counter-argument. “Springsteen-esque”.
“Springsteen-esque”, when applied to artist like One Direction, is the ultimate insult to a humble Springsteen fan like myself. That word actually wounded me like a Directioner is wounded when OneDirectionSux97 comments “Harry’s a fag” on a music video, at which point the failsafe must presumably be deployed (isn’t it intriguing that homophobic slurs supposedly cancel each other out?). However, once again, being a rational human being as I am, I read the review to see exactly how the band had in a matter of surely less than a year elevated themselves to such an incredibly high musical echelon. Neil McCormick, a critic I really respect, wrote as follows:
“Imagine five little English Bruce Springsteens in check shirts, jeans and T-shirts, fists aloft, roaring declarations of lusty young love in the back of an open top car driving through the American heartland.
That rather strange image popped into my head whilst listening to Steal My Girl, the opening track on the X Factor quintet’s latest offering. Something about the driving piano, the rock and roll drums, the denseness of the mix, the surging uplift of the chorus, all bring to mind a mini-pops version of the E Street Band. “Everybody wants to steal my girl,” they sing, a gang of likely lads warning off romantic rivals with a charming mixture of sweetness and bravado: “Find another one, ’cause she belongs to me.” There’s a rather glorious surge of unison “nah nah nah”s followed by a snappy “oh yeah”, delivered like the popping of bubble gum.”
Ok, fair enough. McCormick seems to have adopted a rather myopic view point of Springsteen’s music- it’s really not all that triumphant or uplifting for the most part, and when it is, it’s always subverted by a dark undercurrent of futility and despair, but I’ll forgive this one. So, let’s see how One Direction’s “Steal My Girl” compares to the album McCormick’s rather stereotypical image arising from the words ‘Bruce Springsteen’ seem to fit best: his magnum opus, Born To Run, which is not only my favourite album, containing my favourite song of all time, but is also ranked by objective, non-Springsteen-fan critics regularly as one of the twenty best albums ever made. Let’s choose the title track to compare, as it also seems to best fit McCormick’s description of Springsteen’s “epic rock” “fashioned…from the joyous pop of the Sixties with Phil Spector drums and the kind of big production that slammed you in the chest and left you gasping for breath.” No pressure, guys.
Bruce, please just do the explaining for me.
No? I still need to emphasise how ridiculous this is? I’m not actually a big fan of Born To Run (the song), I’ve always thought it acted as a manifesto of the album as a whole, and therefore didn’t have room for the little idiosyncrasies I love in Springsteen’s songwriting. But still, everything about this song blows One Direction away like the girl in the Camaro in “Racing In The Street”. Where can I give the comparison some credit? Well, One Direction do claim that both the speaker and his girl “dream the same dreams”, and dreams are a fundamental topic explored in Born To Run and the album, so I guess I could give McCormick a point there. But not only are these lyrics dull; they’re utterly devoid of romance. Compare again to Springsteen:
“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight
but there’s no place left to hide
Together Wendy we can live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul”
Come on guys, how good is that? Here, we see the speaker’s pleas are infused as much with desperation as ardour. The highway is literally jammed, littered with broken heroes, figures just like himself that echo the “ghosts in the eyes/of all the boys you sent away” in ‘Thunder Road’. The speaker is all too horribly aware that he and Wendy are just as likely to end as broken heroes of their own naive self-mythology, and that if they attempt to make the “honest stand” that is taken, for example in ‘Jungleland’, there will be no place left to hide. It’s romantic, yes, it’s uplifting on the surface- after all, who doesn’t want to leave an oppressing atmosphere where American Dreams have run away and make a new life for themselves?- but it’s also tragic, stupid and naive. Springsteen’s characters aren’t the perfect vision of romance with which teenage girls want to empathise; they’re flawed by their environment, and by the fact that their idealised vision of a simply contented life is incompatible with a harsh and overbearing reality. Moreover, this desperation is compounded by the fact that the whole song is itself a plea to Wendy. We don’t know if she even sees life this way; she could be just as incompatible with the speaker as the town that “rips the bones from your back”. The speaker’s dream to “walk in the sun” may never actually be realised, because Wendy can easily say no. This is interesting! This is evocative songwriting!
One Direction’s speaker, however, is so downright boring. He “dreams the same dreams” as his girlfriend, he’s “never let her down before”, and there’s no hint of doubt of any kind. He doesn’t even seem to love her that match, as there’s no mention of the ‘L’ word. This is easily forgiven though, because good songs don’t need to rely on the ‘L’ word to convince us of the legitimacy of the feelings. But this song can’t convince me the speaker does genuinely love this girl. The world in which they exist seems utterly perfect, where everything from the nameless girl’s parents to her desires conform to his vision. But perfection is so boring, and there’s already so many songs about happy relationships. The resources available to someone who wants to write as uninspired and as uninteresting a song as this are scarce, so I can’t really blame the writers for lack of lyrical originality. There’s nothing unique about this girl though, who is an utterly blank and characterless figure. She’s been his “queen”, a classic use of objectification and idealisation at the same time, as surely the speaker sees himself as the “king”. She kisses like “cream” apparently, which actually is interesting, though for the wrong reasons. I’m assuming the writer wanted to give the impression that her kisses were sweet and soft, like cream. But let’s think about this simile practically for a second. When I was a kid, I loved that squirty cream from the can. I’d top everything with it, even squirt it directly in my mouth. But kissing whipped cream (which is the sweetest, and therefore the most likely kind of cream the lyricist had in mind)? You cannot make out with cream without making a huge mess. There’d be white stuff all over your face. So when they sing about kisses like cream, are they implying they end up with foamy white stuff on their mouths? Does this girl then have rabies? Is that why she’s nameless? Is the speaker trying to emotionally detach himself from her memory, and therefore the people trying to steal his girls are in fact worms eating her corpse? I wish it was true, but I’m afraid other than that line, there’s nothing else to support that theory in the song. Incidentally Springsteen actually compares a woman to “soft French cream” in “She’s the One” on ‘Born to Run’, but he uses it to describe his idealised vision of an unattainable woman, as he later states that neither these visions of “French cream” or for that matter “French kisses” can break her “heart of stone”. The only notable thing about Steal My Girl lyrically is how boring it is, and unromantic.
“Everybody wanna steal my girl
Everybody wanna take her heart away
Couple billion in the whole wide world
Find another one ’cause she belongs to me”
That sounds less like a declaration of love (true love, mind you, the kind arising from “all the madness in my soul”, the tortured kind) than an affirmation of ownership. These lyrics essentially mean “Hey I found this one first, it was in high demand, but I marked my territory by having sex with it, buzz off and find your own”. Sorry Directioners, but you’re going to have a worse life than you would in Springsteen’s “suicide rap” if you go through life wanting a boyfriend who views relationships like this, and values you only because of your cream-like kisses (creepy fetish much) and the fact his self-worth is based on how many people stare at you “when she’s in those jeans”.
Musically, ‘Steal My Girl’ sounds like any other pop song. I don’t hear Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ here. I heard ‘Born To Run’ live last summer and Mighty Max Weinberg’s snare was like a punch to the chest. Admittedly I’m analysing a studio recording, but the music of One Direction is just nowhere near as evocative as Springsteen’s. There’s that unmistakable Beatles/Roy Orbison riff, an exhilarating Clarence Clemons sax solo and just an overall tone of urgency and anticipation, particularly during the undanceable guitar breakdown that precedes the final verse. I’ve listened to ‘Steal My Girl’ several times, and I genuinely cannot recall anything that made me sit up and think for a moment. And I understand why. I’m not who this song was designed for. But surely there’s still a way to make simplistic and catchy music for teenage girls that isn’t musically worthless. The Beatles’ early years are great examples. Come on, guys. I don’t have a problem with this music. I won’t listen to it either way. Just make it not crap. There’s a sizeable proportion of people who will have grown up with One Direction. In thirty years their kids may ask them what music they listened to growing up. And they’ll be forced to play this stuff. Please, writers, think of the children! My parents’ music and to a lesser extent, my grandparents’ music was hugely influential on me. Let’s petition for a musically interesting One Direction album. I reckon it can happen. One Direction themselves aren’t the problem; they just sing it. Music execs, writers- you heard me. And last but not least, Neil McCormick, this is for you. Yes, you did acknowledge that the comparison between One Direction and Springsteen was “strange”, but you also defended it, saying it was not “absurd or accidental”, although as I hope I’ve set out, it was not accidental- you just made a stupid comparison, admitted it was weird, and then convinced yourself that One Direction and their inner circle intended to evoke this comparison. I’ll be blunt. They didn’t. You’re mental. I’ll leave you, Mr McCormick, with a selection of evidence to support the variety of music Bruce Springsteen has given the world, and how it is nothing like One Direction.
Dylan-esque (I’m allowed to make this comparison) meditations on the dark soul of 70s-depression era America
All Out Guitar-Heroing Awesomenesss
The Best 50s Rock & Roll Tribute Act Ever
Jazzy Bluesy Improvised Awesomeness
And writer of my favourite song of all time
Mr McCormick, you managed to provoke a Springsteen fan into retaliation, which might be a source of perverse pride. I’ve never reacted to an insult to my favourite musical artist before, so congratulations. Unless you know what the hell you’re talking about next time, stay far away from my Bruce.
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