American Skin

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It certainly says a lot about the authoritarian nature of law enforcement in the United States that the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association has condemned Springsteen...

Bruce Springsteen

Reviewed by Micah Holmquist

Thursday, July 13 2000, 2:37 PM


I could write about a number of things concerning the Bruce Springsteen song "American Skin (41 Shots)."

It certainly says a lot about the authoritarian nature of law enforcement in the United States that the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association has condemned Springsteen for this song. The piece after all says nothing more radical than that it's a tragedy when police fatally shoot an unarmed and innocent individual. Since the four New York City Police officers who fired 41 shots at and killed Amadou Diallo in February of last year -- the incident that this song clearly refers to -- have admitted as much, you would think that "American Skin" would be no big deal. Apparently though, some cops believe that the public has no right to question their actions.

I could also go on at length about the role of the Internet in distributing "American Skin." This song has yet to be officially released and has only been performed by Springsteen in less than dozen concerts over the last couple of weeks. Yet is widely available on the Internet as an MP3 file for downloading. "American Skin" is one of the first, if not the first, song that relatively large numbers of people have downloaded from the net which is not available anywhere else. Springsteen's fame and the controversy surrounding the song are no doubt the primary factors behind this but it still points the way to a future where the major record labels do not control the production of popular music.

The song itself also deserves comment. "American Skin" is a beautiful and moving piece that wonderfully uses the phrase "41 Shots" as thread to tie together verses coming from different perspectives and which moves from being a ballad to a rocker and back again.

What interests me most, however, is what "American Skin" says about Springsteen's efforts to build a community through his music. Not to mention what the song actually says to this community. Springsteen shows are the stuff of legends because they come across as secular tent revivals. Springsteen, the preacher, and his backing band, the choir, take concertgoers, those looking for salvation, on a non-stop ride of exhilaration that tells the audience that their lives are valuable and reaffirms that rock and roll can be meaningful and moving. It may be an illusion, but audience members feel for at least a few minutes that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Springsteen understands and nurtures this sentiment. Lately he has been using a faux preacher's voice to say in the middle of his shows that "unlike some of my competitors, I can't promise you life ever lasting, but I can promise you life right now."

If all of this sounds like Springsteen has listened to "American Pie" too much, keep in mind that there appears to be no cynicism in the presentation. He believes in what he is doing, in how the audience reacts to it, and that his music can serve as a bridge between all people. Which must make the fact that Springsteen's audiences are lily white hard for him to accept. Some musicians might respond to this by turning inward and focusing on the audience that does exist but Springsteen has generally gone a different route. He has regularly created dance remixes of his songs and sung about the plight of undocumented immigrants and the urban poor in cities like Los Angeles. For a couple of years now, Springsteen has talked about how he hopes to soon put the finishing touches on a hip-hop influenced album.

As earnest as these efforts might be, it is a Sisyphean task for a rock icon like Springsteen to change his image. Past efforts have bore little fruit in terms of becoming less of a "white" musician and the future isn't likely to differ much in this regard. So what are we to make of "American Skin" which addresses police brutality and harassment? For starters, there is something quite odd when virtually all white crowds in cities like Atlanta and New York City -- the two towns where Springsteen has performed "American Skin" so far -- sing along with a song that looks at police brutality which is primarily directed at people of color. These crowds are certainly not responding to "American Skin" as they do the bulk of the set. Songs about youthful energy and rebellion, working class frustration, and personal growth are the bread and butter of Springsteen's discography and probably most in audience see themselves -- both past and present -- in these odes. Heat from 5-O is in a different category. As much as the audience might sympathize with the victims of police brutality, it is not likely to be part of their life.

It would of course be wonderful if such an audience was identifying with the victims of police brutality but the extent to which this is happening is also unclear. Many at these shows would respond positively to anything that Springsteen delivered. Since he is the preacher, many in the flock are likely to think Springsteen has the direct line to "god" and thus go along with whatever he says not out of conviction but to get closer to the heaven that a Springsteen concert can produce.

All of which makes it tempting to dismiss "American Skin" as just another empty pop platitude that means nothing. After all, few audience members are likely to go out and become tireless activists against police brutality. And even the more liberal members of the audience are likely to vote for Gore, who promises to be just as "tough on crime" as Bush, this November. In other words, "American Skin" is not the harbinger of revolution but then again neither are any songs from Ani DiFranco or Public Enemy.

"American Skin" is, however, an attempt by Springsteen to tell his audience that the music is about more than just the people listening to it. Since he began his current tour in March of last year, Springsteen, now reunited with the E-Street Band, has consistently played to packed houses in Canada, Europe, and the U.S. There was no new studio album to promote with this tour. The implicit understanding has been that Springsteen was going to sing all the old songs that his fans wanted to hear. If anything, this was an act of preaching to the converted. But with "American Skin," Springsteen is saying that this isn't enough. He is telling the audience that yes, your lives are valuable but so was Amadou Diallo's. And that his music is about that life as well. Springsteen is trying to create a community where people like Diallo have a place.

The cynic might say, "so what if Springsteen wants to sing to people who aren't white? It is the result that counts and it is not as if there aren't musical scenes that are far more multi-racial than Springsteen's audience." The cynic is right but that doesn't make the efforts of Springsteen any less compelling.

"American Skin" can be obtained for free in MP3 format from Napster and Macster 

Copyright © 2000 by Micah Holmquist. All rights reserved.
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