Darkness in the Heart of Town: Bruce Springsteen’s Most Haunting Songs

For over four decades now, Bruce Springsteen has fronted one of the country’s most rollicking rock bands. Starkly contrasting with the stadium-shaking anthems, though, are the more somber-toned and macabre-themed tunes Springsteen has penned and crooned over the course of his career. So as the year draws to a close (just like the run of Springsteen on Broadway earlier this month), here’s a top-ten-style list of my favorite musician’s darkest offerings…

  • “My Hometown”: Waxing nostalgic and melancholic at once, the song hearkens back to a birthplace that has since been marred by racial strife and economic plight. But to me, it’s the cyclic structure (as the speaker ends up repeating to his son the same lines his father had given him years earlier) that’s so subtly unnerving, suggesting that “getting out” is now a snuffed aspiration.
  • “American Skin (41 Shots)”The eerie refrain is fired off nearly as many times as the eponymous barrage (Springsteen’s pointed reference to the excessive force used by officers of the NYPD in gunning down an innocent Amadou Diallo). This protest song, though, transcends its racially-charged subject matter by reminding listeners that we all risk violent death as we move through our everyday lives.
  • “The Wrestler”A grappler’s account of his sacrifice to the bloody spectacle of professional wrestling–the physical and spiritual toll the sport has taken on him. The images employed (“one-legged dog,” “one-armed man,” “a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and wheat”) reflect not only the speaker’s sense of having been broken down and hollowed out, but also a terrible self-awareness of his carnival-freakish status. Springsteen has laid elegiac tracks to other hit movies (PhiladelphiaDead Man Walking), but none match the tenor of their cinematic counterpart as pitch-perfectly as this Grammy nominee.
  • “Factory”Springsteen adopts a Gothic idiom (“mansions of fear,” “mansions of pain”) in this dirge about being turned into the walking dead by “the working life.” No less disconcerting than such reduction to soulless automatons, though, is the fact that these men have grown dangerously embittered by their blue-collar employment (and no doubt “somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight”).
  • “Atlantic City”: A song that highlights the darkness–the corruption and desperation–lying behind boardwalk glitz. “Everything dies, baby that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” the down-and-out speaker speculates on the return of luck; nevertheless, a hellish existence appears in store once he starts getting involved with the local underworld.
  • “We Are Alive”: Springsteen channels Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology as he presents a chorus of voices from beyond the grave. Ultimately uplifting in both its beat and theme (the undying spirit of those who fight for social and economic justice), the song features some truly horrific imagery along the way–especially when the speaker awakens within the cold blackness of a worm-filled grave.
  • Devils and Dust”: In this bleak Springsteen masterpiece, a soldier in a desert country (a landscape just as evocative of the American West) is gripped by fear and shaken by a crisis of faith. The alliterative title pairing signals a damning spiritual desiccation–an inner wasteland to match the battlefield without.
  • “Nebraska”This unemotional, remorseless chronicle (based on the real-life crimes of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate) of a couple’s interstate thrill-killing spree proves just as harrowing for the now-incarcerated speaker’s description of execution via electrocution. With his conclusion that “there’s just a meanness in this world,” the killer echoes the grimly philosophizing Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic classic, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
  • “My Father’s House”A dream of return to the childhood sanctuary of family connection takes a nightmarish turn, as the speaker makes a frightful flight through a dark forest with ghosts not-far afield and the devil right on his heels. Matters grow even more haunting when he awakens and embarks on a trip back home, only to discover that he is too late (his father is gone, and the family domicile is now occupied by strangers). The slow, muted music here is well-suited to the song’s story of quiet tragedy.
  • “The River”This bittersweet ballad (inspired by the marriage of Springsteen’s sister Ginny and brother-in-law Mickey) expertly evokes the loss of youthful innocence–the crushing of hopes by the harsh realities of life. The lines “Now these memories come back to haunt me / They haunt me like a curse / Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true / Or is it something worse?” rank among the most poignant ever sung by Springsteen. Undeniably powerful, “The River” floods the listener with mournful emotion.

 

Rush to Judgment

Rush’s “Witch Hunt” (from the group’s 1981 album Moving Pictures) arguably forms the greatest torch-and-pitchfork song in music history. The haunting aural experience begins with an ominous instrumental, complete with a chanting rabble in the background. Sizzling guitar licks then give way to Geddy Lee crooning Neal Peart’s lyrics, which blaze a condemnation of mob mentality–misguided self-righteousness, proscription of thought, intolerance of otherness, hasty vigilante justice. Described as moving “like demons possessed,” this irreligious hillttop mob might have emigrated straight from George Lippard’s The Quaker City (see yesterday’s post). Bewitchingly critical, Rush’s denunciation of presumptuous persecutors leaves quite a mark on the listener’s conscience.

Pop Gothic: Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do”

Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours.

Apparently even Taylor Swift is at home in the Macabre Republic. Never has threatened vengeance sounded so catchy as in her latest single, “Look What You Made Me Do.”

Singing about rising from the dead, Swift invokes the horrific from the opening verses. The accompanying music video makes the imagery that much more graphic, depicting a raven-infested cemetery and Swift (or, technically, her personified Reputation) breaking ground as a moldering, reanimate corpse. More than a nod to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the Halloween-worthy scene signals that Swift is hardly looking to bury the hatchet as she comes back from the grave. In the figure of a zombie–a bogey known for its relentless aggression, Swift puts her enemies on grim notice.

The video subsequently fashions Swift as a Gothic monarch, vampirically-taloned, ensconced on a snake-swarmed throne. Dressed in uncheery cherry, she forebodes bloody comeuppance: “I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined.” After sounding a thoroughly antisocial note (“I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me”), Swift insists on haunting nocturnal visitation: “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams.”

In past performances, Swift has shown that she isn’t averse to publicly airing grievances via allusive lyrics.  Here, though, the rhetoric is stronger, the stance decidedly darker. Swift plays the deadly female, furious over her own scorning and hellbent on redressing perceived wrongs. With her coolly-delivered refrain, Swift channels the victim-blaming, violence-justifying demeanor and dubious composure of a classic Poe narrator. And while the media inevitably gets swept up in decoding Swift’s lines and the video’s symbolism, it’s less the “you” (whichever former lover or rival musician being referenced) than the disturbingly vague “what” of the song title that proves so arresting: what exactly has this questionably-driven speaker done?

At the very least, she has compelled me to write this post. Because all of the forced comedy of the video’s conclusion–in which Swift pokes fun at her previous images/personae–does nothing to diminish the sinister overtones of this surprisingly prickly piece of pop music.