If Bruce Springsteen didn’t waste so much time bragging about his art collection and his animal magnetism, maybe he’d have more to say about the world around him—like that man of the people Jay Z. Am I right? … No?
As the media has now exhaustively established, Harry Belafonte sees it differently. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last year, the pioneering entertainer and social activist offered Jay and Beyoncé as examples of high-profile artists who “have turned their back on social responsibility” and went on to say, “Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he’s black.”
Never one to hold his fire when called out, Jay responded in song (“Mr. Day-o, major fail/Respect these youngin’s, boy, it’s my time now”) and in a subsequent interview of his own, in which Jay accused Belafonte of 21st century Uncle Tom-ism: “You just bigged up the white guy against me in the white media.” The one thing they seem to agree on is Springsteen; let the record show Jay thinks “Bruce Springsteen is a great guy.”
For the most part, the critics seem to be taking Belafonte’s side.Sasha Frere-Jones ofThe New Yorker has expressed grave disappointment in Jay’s new album Magna Carta Holy Grail and suggested his recent six-hour performance at a posh art gallery would have been better if he’d pulled a gun on the audience—something it’s difficult to picture Belafonte, or Springsteen for that matter, doing in his place. (On the flipside, it’s difficult to picture either Belafonte or Springsteen singing to the creative director of J. Crew and the cast of Girls for six straight hours.)
My intent is not to defend Jay or to weigh in on whether he should devote more bandwidth to fighting injustice. Rather I’d like to ask: is the difference between these two artists really as, er, black and white as it’s made out to be?
Both Jay and the Boss broke into the public consciousness as young men with stories to tell about the economically depressed places they called home.
Baby, this town rips the bones from your back It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap We gotta get out while we’re young.
(Springsteen, “Born to Run”)
I’m a block away from hell, not enough shots away from stray shells An ounce away from a triple beam still using a handheld weight scale… Where we call the cops the A-Team ’Cause they hop out of vans and spray things And life expectancy so low we making out wills at eighteen.
(Jay Z, “Where I’m From”)
In these songs, there is no mention of working to change social conditions in the old neighborhood. Rather, the emphasis is squarely on getting out. In “Born to Run,” Springsteen’s character clearly states he has no intention of ever going back. For his part, the Jay of “Where I’m From” accepts a degree of responsibility, promising God, “If I ever blow, I’d let ’em know/Mistakes and exactly what takes place in the ghetto.” Which is to say he chooses the path of chronicler rather than activist, the path both the rapper and the rocker have followed, more often than not, throughout their careers, even when it led them down the darkest of alleys.
From the town of Lincoln Nebraska with a sawed off .410 on my lap Through to the badlands of Wyoming I killed everything in my path.
Come test me, I never cower For the love of money, son, I’m giving lead showers Stop screaming, you know the demon said it’s best to die And even if Jehovah witness, bet he’ll never testify.
(Jay Z, “D’Evils”)
On the album Nebraska, Springsteen inhabits a series of criminals and down-and-outers—including the mass murderer Charles Starkweather—offering little in the way of constructive commentary or hope of redemption. Jay Z has taken this approach repeatedly, from the “raging, money-obsessed sociopath” (as described in his memoir) of “D’evils” to the high-flying kingpin headed for a fall on the American Gangster album. In the work of both artists, you see the same commitment to putting a human face on violence, recognizing it as a consequence of hardship, even as in their personal lives they left hardship in the rearview mirror.
By the early ’90s, Mr. Born to Run had traveled a long way from the darkness on the edge of town (to a mansion in L.A., no less, with his wife and children). On the two albums he made during this period, he sounds listless and disconnected as he ponders the good life:
I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills With a truckload of hundred thousand dollar bills Man came by to hook up my cable TV We settled in for the night my baby and me We switched ’round and ’round ’til half-past dawn There was fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on…
(Springsteen, “57 Channels”)
In another song, he imagines building a wall around said mansion to keep the gang wars in Compton away from his sleeping son, hardly a lefty call to action. No surpriseHuman Touch and Lucky Town got some of the worst reviews of his career, including the following assessment of Entertainment Weekly: “Perhaps Springsteen is trying to convince himself that behind his formidable bank account and fame, he is still that same rock & roll party animal and boardwalk poet. But he simply isn’t, and nothing drives home that point more than the records themselves.” Even the The New York Times balked at the new Bruce: “Springsteen is starting to sound like a man wrapped up in private preoccupations, running in circles.” (Bonus quote from The Times: “like the hip-hop he never acknowledges, his songs are pastiches…”)