Photograph from the insert to the Bruce Springsteen & E-Street Band Live 1975-1985 LP box set
By Kenyon Gradert, Course on Midwest Culture editor
Last week in the New York Times, David Brooks cited Bruce Springsteen’s vast international appeal as evidence for “the tremendous power of particularity” -- place being one of the most vivid of these particulars.
Along with more Midwestern-based acts like Seger and Mellencamp, Springsteen took up the mantle of Skynyrd and CCR (and, of course, the many older musicians from America’s folk tradition) and re-channeled myth away from the south and into America’s “heartland.” He crafted what Brooks calls a “paracosm,” a little mental landscape of sorts that guides our actions and thoughts.
But here’s the rub: if Springsteen was an artist of particular place known for capturing the zeitgeist of the modern “Heartland,” why does no one quite know the geographical location of this heartland? Though Springsteen himself would surely have acknowledged the power of place, the reality is that he was a New Jersey boy and his music’s mythical place was flexible enough to accommodate Mellencamp from the Hoosier State, Segar from Detroit Rock City, Tom Petty from Florida, and the Iron City Houserockers. Deeming such a group “Heartland Rock” reveals both the loose boundaries of the term “Heartland” and the Midwest’s paradoxical identity as an everyman, embodying only the traits that transcend the quixotic oddities of particular places. A Midwesterner is more American than Midwestern, at least in mythic identity.
Likewise, an explanation for the vast international appeal of “Heartland Rock” lies in its name. The myth of the heartland is not particular to the Midwest. More so, it is perhaps the oldest and most universal of tropes: a romantic fall from (an often pastoral) innocence. Adam and Eve pine for their lost garden. Milton’s Satan does the same. Doctor Frankenstein regrets ever leaving the peaceful Swiss Alps. Springsteen sings lamentations on the death of his hometown:
Herein lies the tensions of regionalism. We love art that vividly captures the color of particular place, but art forfeits its title if local color fails to capture human universals. This is why the rural is a fundamental part of Midwest identity and why pastoral myths will remain popular. This is why John Mellencamp can sing “Pink Houses” to a sold-out crowd for the first Farm Aid concert in Champaign, Illinois in the midst of the Farmers’ Crisis of the 1980s:
Human history inevitably leads to Frankensteins and Rust Belts. We balance these Falls with our need for a mythic, pure landscape still untainted by the human imagination and its history.