Track of the Week: Bruce Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball"

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 14 2009 11:17 AM

Track of the Week: Bruce Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball"

Jody Rosen : Hello, Jonah. Today we'll be discussing the new Bruce Springsteen song "Wrecking Ball," which the Boss debuted during his recent five-night stand at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. The Springsteen shows were the last concerts scheduled to take place at the big colosseum in the Meadowlands prior to its demolition. (They're building a spiffy new home for the Giants and Jets next door.) I have mixed feelings about "Wrecking Ball."

Pro : The song is narrated by a football stadium. How can you not respect that? As far as I know, this is a first in the history of rock 'n' roll, possibly a first in world literature. Now, granted, the stadium sounds suspiciously like Bruce Springsteen. (It says "mister" a lot, and waxes grandiloquent about hopes and desires and rust and dust and wind.) But no matter. Also, the E Street Band just plain roars. What a group! I can feel Giants Stadium buckling and heaving through my YouTube.

Con : This wrecking ball conceit doesn't really deliver the emotional gut-punch that Springsteen wants. I get what he's going for: stadium-facing-the-wrecking ball-as-metaphor-for-60-year-old-rock-titan-staring-down-Father-Time. Bring on your wrecking ball; take your best shot, lemme see what you got, etc . I dunno it seems too tidy. This has been a problem with a lot of recent Springsteen songs: The metaphors are either too on-the-nose or too maddeningly vague. (What, exactly, are " devils and dust "?)

Jonah Weiner : Hi, Mister! This song didn't hit me in the gut, exactly, but it did manage to stir the emotions of this patent nonwatcher of sports, not to mention noncarer about 60-year-old rock titans. I see what you mean about the metaphor being a bit too-on-the-nose another way of saying it's obvious, right? When he delivered the line about running down the clock I groaned. But the line about Meadowlands mosquitoes, for instance, was a bit more surprising. And I think "bring on your wrecking ball" is a pretty damn good put-up-your-dukes hook on the nose in exactly the way a wrecking ball should be! Perhaps, though, it was the anthropomorphic narrator that really got me: It reminded me a bit of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel , a classic in the literature of workhorse institutions put out to pasture.

"Queen of the Supermarket," from Bruce's Working on a Dream album, struck me as dead-in-the-water working-class-fetishism Springsteen parody at its most ridiculous. This strikes me as Springsteen parody at its most grand.
 
J.R. : I love the line about the airplane-sized Meadowlands mosquitoes. That's not poetry, by the way. That's reportage.

I guess I wish that self-parody, whether ridiculous or grand, wasn't the only option left for Bruce. I'm convinced he lost his songwriting touch the day he began reading all those professors of Springsteenology and started believing that he's a littérateur. Even in this big dopey rock anthem, the poetastery creeps in: "I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago." Misty years!
 
J.W. : "Misty years" is an earsore maybe the clunky, clanging metaphor is meant to evoke the sound of steel being raised above the Jersey swamps? Yeah, listening again, a few infelicities piled up. He rhymes "balls" with "ball" in the first verse (although when Rick Ross rhymes a word with itself I love it, so, hey). In the third verse he's either mixing the stadium metaphor with a de trop "hold on to your anchor" refrain or, if I'm mishearing it that way, singing "hold on to your anger," which undercuts the bravado. And when he tells the crowd, "raise your glasses," has he forgotten where he is? To be fair, "Raise your plastic, nonweaponizable bottles of Bud Light" wouldn't have quite the same ring to it. Perhaps the most affecting part of the song is when the words stop altogether. Around the 5:40 mark, horns come in, and it sounds like the most poignant Saturday Night Live curtain call ever, with the whole group breaking into a big, fat, wordless wail.
 
But I think there are plenty of affecting lines and, moreover, I didn't notice many of these gaffes the first few times around, probably thanks to the force of Springsteen's singing. Re: self-parody being his only option it's funny how his would-be heirs have contributed, in a way, to this impression. When Brandon Flowers of The Killers or Win Butler of Arcade Fire pens a song about highways or the working man and calls it a Springsteen homage, is there a sense in which they rewrite/ossify him as a cliché merchant?

J.R. : Funny you should mention Springsteen's heirs. The money-shot moment you point to "the big, fat, wordless wail" toward the end of the song sounds to me like a straight Arcade Fire bite . The flow of influence has reversed!

Anyway, my verdict. C+ song; A- performance. Clarence Clemons' tasseled smock coat earns an A+. The Big Man's still fashion - forward , after all these years.

J.W. : The performance rocks. I wonder whether the drama the group musters at the scene of the crime will feel slight or canned if/when they record this in a studio. We agree the Clemons get-up was the real star, though very haute Outlaw Josey Wales or something. Enjoy the rest of this misty day.

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Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

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