Jay Z vs. Bruce Springsteen

Pundits have accused Jay Z of ignoring his social responsibility, unlike Springsteen. But how different are they?

Topics: The Weeklings, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Belafonte, Jay-Z, Music, lyrics, , ,

Jay Z vs. Bruce Springsteen
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.

The Weeklings

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 of the 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 flip side, 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.

(Springsteen, “Nebraska”)

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 surprise “Human 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…”)

Sound familiar? The critical response to “Magna Carta Holy Grail” (which Jay has characterized as his own meditation on the tolls of success) hits many of the same notes: “weirdly distant and safe”; “His hope is that nobody notices the well-moneyed family man with nothing left to say behind the rap-superstar curtain.” Guess how old Springsteen was when he released the equivalent albums in his own discography … 42, one year younger than Jay is now.

Springsteen seemed to feel the need for a course correction. He turned outward, to literature and newspapers, for inspiration. The result was “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a stark set of ballads about undocumented Mexican immigrants and Depression-era farmers. Since then, he has written songs addressing the Amadou Diallo shooting, the war in Iraq, and the aftermath of Katrina.

The thing is, Jay Z has rapped about all these subjects, too. I quoted “Minority Report,” his angry, self-questioning take on Katrina, at the top of this essay. Just like Springsteen, he hit the stage for Obama in 2008 and 2012. He may not give his undivided attention to matters of national importance, but then neither does Springsteen, who in recent years has toggled between topical broadsides and moon-eyed odes to “girls in their summer clothes” and “the queen of the supermarket.”

So what, exactly, has Springsteen done that Jay needs to do to win over Belafonte and like-minded commentators? Show us he’s embarrassed by his wealth? Cut an album of Pete Seeger covers? Maybe if we give him time, he’ll come back with his own “Ghost of Tom Joad,” a collection devoted exclusively to the plight of people who are not Jay Z.

That would be an interesting move, for sure, but let’s not kid ourselves about the reception it would get. “Tom Joad” was the first Springsteen album in 20 years that failed to crack the Billboard top five. At least the critics gave him credit for his high-mindedness, right? Not as much as you’d think. Entertainment Weekly again: “[F]or all its nobility, The Ghost of Tom Joad still feels like a disappointing step back … If anyone could write about the lives of the middle class during the Republican Revolution and address the failed optimism of the Clinton years, it would be Springsteen. Yet almost none of these songs feel contemporary.”

Turns out, living up to expectations is an inexact science. In a 2012 Rolling Stone interview, Jon Stewart asked Springsteen how he deals with having “so many different constituencies that want so many different things from you.” His answer could serve as a levelheaded corrective to the Jay-Belafonte beef:

“Generally I do what I like at any given moment and let the people find out where they fit in. The only thing I do keep in mind is that I’m in the midst of a lifetime conversation with my audience, and I’m trying to keep track of that conversation. Martin Scorsese once said that ‘your job is to make your audience care about your obsessions.’ So if the artist loses track of the conversation he’s having with his audience, he may lose us forever. So I try to keep track of that conversation, while giving myself the musical freedom I need.”

Whatever its flaws, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” has kicked the conversation between Jay Z and his audience (or at least a certain segment of his audience) into overdrive. Whether he’s done enough to make us care about his obsessions — his obsessions, not the ones we wish he had at a given moment — is, as far as I’m concerned, an open question. The answer will be a long time coming. If Springsteen’s trajectory is any indication — and it has been so far — we’ll still be looking to Jay to speak for us, airing our frustration when he doesn’t, 20 years from now.

Daniel Browne has written about culture, animals and the arts for the Oxford American, the Believer, the Bygone Bureau, and Identity Theory, among others. His fiction has appeared most recently in “40 Stories: New Writing From Harper Perennial,” Drunken Boat and the Pinch. Visit him at http://daniel-browne.tumblr.com.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...