Last month, The New York Times Magazine published an essay decrying "The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism," defined by critic Saul Austerlitz as the trend among rock critics to embrace the shallow lifestyle-reporting aspects of pop culture while disregarding or distrusting "music that is about something other than the whoosh of a catchy riff."
Here's this rock critic's response to poptimism: his name is Bruce Springsteen, and he demonstrated the undiminished redemptive power of rock and roll before a huge all-ages crowd Saturday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
The show was two hours and 45 minutes long -- far longer than any set I've ever seen at Jazzfest, yet still compact by Springsteen's epic standards.
Springsteen, who will play the Woodlands Pavilion on Tuesday night, performed with his E Street Band, augmented by former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and a New Orleans-influenced horn section. The set list seemed to be constructed specifically for Jazzfest, from John Fogerty's guest appearance on "Proud Mary" to an encore version of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In."
But it also included a slugger's row of singalong anthems from every decade of Springsteen's 45-year career, delivered with the passion and polish of a band that views the serious business of great rock and roll as a lifetime commitment, not a whoosh.
The set opened shortly after 4:15 p.m. with "High Hopes," the title track of Springsteen's latest album. Originally recorded by the Javelinas, the song is a call to hang tough in a world where "before the meek inherit they'll learn to hate themselves..." This was followed by "Johnny 99," in which a laid-off factory worker who drunkenly shot a night clerk asks the judge for the chair instead of 99-to-life, and "Badlands," in which the defiant singer declares, "Poor man wanna be rich/ Rich man wanna be king/ And a king ain't satisfied/ 'Till he rules everything..."
These songs have always had political dimensions, of course, but Springsteen has become more outspoken about his populist views since he wrote them back in the 1970s and '80s. They now stand side by side in his repertoire with Depression-era folk songs such as Woody Guthrie's "Jesse James" and Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," putting Springsteen in the potentially awkward role of the rich rock star as working-class hero.
It's enough to make a snide poptimist gag, as if fame and wealth should disqualify artists from expressing a social conscience and as if Bruno Mars' music is somehow more honest by virtue of being self-consciously apolitical and authentically inauthentic.
Besides, it's not as if Springsteen's blue-collar roots are not real.
The first indication that Springsteen was up to something special Saturday came on "The River," a song laden with emotional significance for post-Katrina New Orleans, introduced by Springsteen's lonesome harmonica and sung in a quietly intense down-tempo. The next chill-on-the-spine moment was during "Wrecking Ball," written for the demolition of the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey but with obvious implications of spiritual survival for a city that has come back from a flood of Biblical proportions.
The next of several inspired segues occured when "Death to My Hometown," an Irish-flavored lament with Bruce sharing vocals with Morello, led immediately into "The Promised Land," the song on which Springsteen most emphatically pledges allegiance to the transcendent power of rock and roll. "Mister, I ain't a boy, no, I'm a man/ And I believe in the promised land..."
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