Since I was just a kid in high school, I have worshipped Bruce Springsteen. His catalog is extensive and, if you count bootlegs and special live versions, probably well above a thousand songs deep. I got to see my idol perform for over three hours again last week, so now I’d like to talk about one of the worst songs he ever wrote.
There are different periods when it comes to Bruce’s writing: everything up to Born to Run is tinged with romanticism and urban mythology in songs that unfold like scripture; The River period is where he confronts reality and takes on the day-to-day lives and difficulties of his own massive fanbase; Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A., while wildly different sonically, both are attempts at probing everything good, bad, ugly and beautiful about the America past and present.
Then you get to the 90s and he writes songs about how there’s nothing on TV.
Nobody can stay at the top of their game forever, and a lot of artists have had much worse “bad periods” than Bruce–the decade boasts his second great folk record, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and a masterwork of archive spelunking in the 4-disc Tracks. But for a lot of fans, myself included, it’s an awkward period that he mostly sat out to raise his family, and when he did release music (sans E-Street Band) it wasn’t very good. Exhibit A: “57 Channels (And Nothing On).”
The problem is not the music itself, as the bassline is kind of neat and Bruce can do sinister well but the lyrics just make it a joke. It’s probably supposed to be a joke, but today it just comes off as something that ought to have been left on the cutting room floor and not released as one of your lead singles.
I’ll conclude with a lyrics comparison. Here he is a decade earlier on “Nebraska,” which inflects the true story of convicted murderer Charlie Starkweather (inspiration for the movie Badlands) with sympathy, yearning, nihilism and coldness all at once:
They declared me unfit to live
Said into that great void, my soul’d be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world
And compare that to 1992.
Well now home entertainment was my baby’s wish
So I hopped into town for a satellite dish
I tied it to the top of my Japanese car
I came home and I pointed it out into the stars
A message came back from the great beyond
There’s fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on
It’s okay, Bruce. Those days are over now.