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Pamela Fox

Pamela Fox is Professor of English at Georgetown University specializing in working-class lit. and culture as well as feminist and cultural theory. She is the author of Class Fictions: Shame and Resistance in the British Working-Class Novel, 1890-1945; Natural Acts: Gender, Race, And Rusticity in Country Music; the Critical Introduction to Ethel Carnie Holdsworth's 1917 novel Helen of Four Gates; co-editor of Old Roots, New Routes: The Cultural Politics of Alt.Country Music. Recent scholarship addresses transracial/ transnational adoption memoirs and country music and sexuality for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Country Music.

“Born to (Re)Write: Rethinking the Gendered and Classed Political Imaginary of Rock Music Memoir in Born to Run
Few rock music memoirs have received the heralded attention of esteemed novelists such as Richard Ford, whose recent New York Times review of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (2016) invokes the likes of Seamus Heaney in its praise of the musician as not simply an extraordinary artist and showman but a literary writer who ‘paradoxically’ hails from the “humblest” of American locales (“How the hell do you get from Freehold, N.J., to this in only 50 short years?”). But then again, with the exception of Dylan—to whom he was infamously compared during the first heady days of the E Street Band—almost no other songwriter/singer has been routinely placed in the company of canonical giants such as Whitman, Steinbeck, and the more contemporary Raymond Carver. Over the last four and a half decades, Springsteen has been branded America’s working-class troubadour—at once an “every man” and a singular, consummate artist, an iconic amalgam of high and low whose songs have become conflated with his life story—despite recognition that he has created a mythos of the Jersey shore “underworld” steeped in B movies, westerns, mob sagas, and Guthrie-esque tales of abject poverty.

This paper probes the political efficacy of that conflation, focusing on the memoir’s self-conscious as well as more overdetermined engagements with autobiography as both a mode of writing itself and as potential tool of social change. I examine Born to Run as a challenging gendered hybrid of various autobiographical subgenres: working-class life writing—in some ways, a variant of recent deindustrialization narratives; celebrity memoir; and “rock ’n’ recovery” narratives of addiction or, as in his case, mental illness. On surface, these three basic models tend to conflict in terms of mission and voice as well as narrative form (collective identity and “stalled” storyline vs. individual trajectory of success), yet Springsteen’s text teases out their suppressed intersections in fascinating ways. Blurring the masculine and feminine, middle and working classes, whiteness and “blackness,” it both illustrates and contests the sentimental/vernacular binary.

I argue that the memoir in some senses destabilizes his music's autobiographical claims in its disclosure of his bipolar selves—Springsteen functions as a kind of ghost writer for his own text who attempts to reconcile his identity as both a working man's son and multi-millionaire rock star by confronting what has haunted him throughout his past. As a formal author, he is deeply invested in the notion of a stable, “authentic” self while also clearly cognizant of his shifting classed and gendered, manic and depressive, identities. Likening himself to a “repairman,” he writes, “I searched for the voice I would blend with mine to do the telling. It is a moment when through creativity and will you can rework, repossess and rebirth the conflicting voices of your childhood, to turn them into something alive, powerful and seeking light.” He appears to envision his autobiography as a (certain mode of) working-class vernacular art, but the form itself ultimately shapes the message.