Meet the new Boss—same as the old Boss?
I have to admit that it was refreshing to hear Barack Obama admit—over and over on Tuesday--that he royally messed up his Tom Daschle appointment, who was on his way to a top-level job as secretary of Health and Human Services until scrutiny over Daschle’s failure to pay taxes forced Obama to withdraw the nomination. As the president put it: “I’ve got to own up to my mistakes. It’s important for this administration to send a message that there aren’t two sets of rules, you know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes.”
Many people quickly made comparisons to the Bush administration, which was infamous for never admitting a mistake, no matter how big or small. But you could also make plenty of comparisons to Hollywood, which isn’t just the entertainment capital of the world but surely the capital city when it comes to having two sets of rules—one for stars and one for the rest of us. That goes for everything from bad behavior, which his happily overlooked if someone is enough of a big shot (Christian Bale just being the latest example) to plain old hypocrisy, as is evidenced by all the ardent Hollywood environmentalists who travel by private jet and live in gigantic air-conditioned houses.
But Obama’s apology had a specifically familiar ring to it. I kept racking my brain—who was the other inspiring, thoughtful, much-lionized activist who suddenly appeared to have two sets of rules, one for himself, one for public consumption? Oh, that’s right—Bruce Springsteen! In case you missed it, the Boss apologized Sunday in the New York Times, on the eve of his Super Bowl halftime appearance, for making an exclusive deal with Wal-Mart to sell a new greatest-hits collection, in itself something of a cynical “impulse purchase” move since you’d really have to dig long and hard to find anyone who didn’t already own at least one of the many Springsteen hits packages already in existence.
It was a new low for the much beloved rock icon. As a host of bloggers have pointed out, it seems like the height of hypocrisy for a pro-union lefty like Springsteen to approve a sweetheart deal with Wal-Mart, a company that has been accused of numerous anti-union practices, discriminated against female employees and scrimped on employee health benefits. “It was a mistake,” Springsteen told the N.Y. Times, with Obama-like bluntness. “We just dropped the ball.... We missed that one. Fans will call you on that stuff, as it should be.”
Maureen Dowd could have just as easily been talking about Springsteen as Obama when she wrote today that it took a cascade of appointees who’d forgotten to pay their taxes to shake the president “out of his arrogant attitude that his charmed circle doesn't have to abide by the lofty standards he lectured the rest of us about for two years.”
Whether you live in Hollywood or Washington or Asbury Park, it’s easy once you become accustomed to the blind adoration of devoted fans to misread the mood of the times. As other editorialists have pointed out, Obama probably still could have pushed the Daschle appointment through a Democratic Senate. It was the general public—all those voters who embraced change—who were offended by Daschle’s failure to pay taxes, which came on the heels of all the wealthy bankers who’ve made a mockery of government bailouts.
The same goes for Springsteen, whose rah-rah, almost carnival barker-like appearance at the Super Bowl, complete with showbizzy shtick and a hokey “I’m going to Disneyland!” farewell, seemed to hit all the wrong notes for a guy who’s made his reputation as an thoughtful, inspired artist full of blunt, honest emotion. As Slate’s Stephen Metcalf put it in a piece titled “Springsteen Misreads the National Mood,” all the mugging at the Boss’ Super Bowl show rang false: “The national mood is sober bordering on a galloping panic. Lively as he was, I wouldn’t say the Boss did much to either banish or capture it. The Springsteen persona was originally intended as a stand-in for a blue-collar working class living in an insular white ethnic neighborhood. He was the poet of their decline, but he’s moved away from that specific community of origin as his persona has evolved into a bit of general-purpose kitsch America.”
I would argue that Springsteen actually has two mistakes to apologize for, the Wal-Mart deal and the Super Bowl appearance, clearly designed to hype his new album. After all, Bruce doesn’t have any problems making money--he sells more concert tickets than almost anyone else on the planet--though he is already being bashed for being in bed with Ticketmaster, the company notorious for its rapacious service charges. The Super Bowl appearance simply made Bruce look like he was a shill.
I’ve been to dozens upon dozens of Springsteen shows in my life—and I’ve never been disappointed. But watching the Boss on TV on Sunday, pruning memorable verses out of his classic songs, shamelessly camping it up to reach the dimmest fans out in the ether, I felt doubly disappointed, for him as well as for his loyal fans. When you write about pop culture, you’re always brood about how low can it go, but I never imagined it would be Bruce Springsteen who felt the need to stoop to conquer.
Photo of Bruce Springsteen performing at the Super Bowl by Jamie Squire / Getty Images