My Butch Lesbian Mom, Bruce Springsteen
Why should dads get to lay sole claim to the Boss?
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When we say Bruce Springsteen is Dad Rock, what kind of father are we talking about? An average man made affable in retrospect? A bullseye for blame? A boss, a cop, a drill sergeant? Or better yet, a Daddy, suggestive of the erotic hidden behind the familial?
Though I know plenty of moms whose devotion to Bruce runs fiercer than any dad could know, there’s a reason why we think of Springsteen as Dad Rock and not Mom Rock. The reason is that historically, over Springsteen’s nearly 50-year career, the dads have laid claim. In Springsteen, straight white dads of a certain age have seen their ultimate dad fantasy: in the words of Helena Fitzgerald, writing about Springsteen’s ultimate dadliness in Catapult, “All a dad has to do to be a hero is show up.” But my broke, queer generation has little compassion for the Boomer nonsense of better days, especially when their nostalgia renders them fonder of their own childhoods than their actual children’s futures.
That interpretation of Springsteen’s significance is reductive, hampered by both generational and gender barriers. Behind the assumption that his music speaks for the disaffected male, hard up and laid off, hides the assumption that class problems are either genderless or primarily a cis male concern — but queer Springsteen fans see through that lie. Maggie Nelson has written about the “many-gendered mothers of the heart,” a form of queer kinship that is both an intimacy and an identification. Springsteen has been our cis male Boomer dad for way too long. It’s time to consider the possibility that he might be our butch lesbian mom.
Springsteen has been our cis male Boomer dad for way too long. It’s time to consider the possibility that he might be our butch lesbian mom.
I am not the first to note Springsteen’s queer or even specifically lesbian appeal. If you are queer and the stereotypical Springsteen fan has always seemed to be the wrong side of Daddy to you, consider that tramps like us are especially born to run. He is not only for us, but also stands with us, and in a fashion, could even be one of us. The best male rock stars are barely, or many, gendered, and seldom straight: Prince, Bowie, Jagger. Consider Todd Haynes’ biopic of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, where the most convincing and curious portrayal of the star belonged to Cate Blanchett. And yet, Bruce (a butcher name there never was) is harder to claim as ours. Even if he shared a hot kiss with saxophonist Clarence Clemons at every concert, even if he wrote a song for Donna Summer to protest the racism and homophobia of the anti-disco movement, even if he sang a song called “My Lover Man,” even if he admits in his memoir that his Born in the USA look of bandanas and muscles was “Christopher Street leather bar” gay, the ardent identification of the dads seems to disallow any other kind of desire for him. But in the same way you can know that you are gay before you know what it means, from a young age, I recognized Bruce Springsteen as the butch mother of my hungry heart.
When I look at Springsteen, I might think Daddy, but I think Mommi, too. In the same way his protest song “Born in the USA” has been misread as patriotic, his approach to masculinity has been misread as cis male, when it is in fact too performative to be anything but genderqueer. (I’m not saying that Bruce himself is genderqueer, to be clear, but his showmanship is.) Perhaps this is why I have never felt left out of his music because I identify as a queer woman — though I do feel left out of the fandom sometimes, in spite of my Central Jersey birthright, because I feel that the army of dads (and straight, white dads specifically) have claimed him so decisively. Much like Chris Christie on the beach, their fandom takes up all the space on what should be an abundant shoreline of possibility.
In the same way you can know that you are gay before you know what it means, from a young age, I recognized Bruce Springsteen as the butch mother of my hungry heart.
Crowning a cis, straight white male as a butch icon is admittedly giving them more than their share — must everything be about them? As Hilton Als rightly asks in his review of Springsteen on Broadway, is it even “possible for straight white men to empathize with anything other than themselves?” But there is a disarming, queer playfulness in the art of labeling straight men as lesbians in disguise. It’s a statement of protest that masculinity doesn’t belong to cis men. The Toast was once a great agora of declaring famous cis straight men as either lesbian icons, singers of lesbian anthems, or themselves just regular old lesbians. Mallory Ortberg, in particular, has kept this art alive. Over at BuzzFeed, Shannon Keating has recently identified Jack from Titanic as a role model for baby soft butches, and Grace Perry has examined the lesbian attraction to Harry Styles. But the fun isn’t limited to snatching straight men from the strictures of heterosexuality. After the death of George Michael, Deb Schwartz paid her respects to our butch queen in pearls, may he rest in freedom.
It takes a certain amount of queer clairvoyance to sense a lesbian vibe from an obvious non-lesbian. The heart of butchness, however, is sometimes more literally worn on its sleeve. Als notes that Springsteen’s “butch persona” allows him to reveal the smoke and mirrors behind the construct of masculinity. It also allows him a sense of empathy. As Walt Whitman wrote, “Agonies are one of my changes of garments / I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” And as with that other American poet, masculinity in Springsteen is as much a costume as it is a work uniform. Butchness is a way of wearing masculinity that plays on revealing and concealing emotion, an emotional identification as much as a sartorial choice.
The butchness Springsteen wears covers up hurt and vulnerability like a soft t-shirt under a leather jacket.
The butchness Springsteen wears covers up hurt and vulnerability like a soft t-shirt under a leather jacket. Look at the cover of Darkness on the Edge of Town, the album that taught me not only how to dress, but how to stare. In his tight jeans, v-neck tee, and leather jacket, Bruce poses in front of a floral wallpaper, not a hot rod or a bike. Add to that messy wavy hair, biker boots, and a flannel unbuttoned a little too far, and I had my look down. Fortunately for me, each of those items I inherited from my mother, who loved menswear and told me there were no rules for how to dress. I was free to believe that what looked hot on him would look hot on me, too, free to shrug off the old confusion of wanting him versus wanting to be him. Depending on my mood, I was prepared to be a soft butch by day and a hard femme by night. All I needed was my girl. You better get it straight, darling.
When I listened to Springsteen in my adolescence, I didn’t switch the pronouns, and in turn learned something about the mutability of gender, the ease with which you could identify with the man singing or the woman to whom he sang, or even that there were more options than those two roles. There was possibility for me in these songs, a possibility of something that looked like equality for all expressions of gender, and permission that if I needed to feel like a gender different than the one I was told to take, I could. There is the possibility for those of us who do not identify as men to hear these songs about, allegedly, straight male desire and still see something of ours in them. I’ve been listening to “Thunder Road” my whole life, for example, but it never occured to me to identify with Mary. I was the aggressive one waiting with the car, making my butch plea to coax out my closeted femme crush to run away with me. The song is beloved because the stakes are dire yet the win feels assured. Growing up without the omnipotent cultural promise of a happy romantic ending afforded to straights, it was always hard to imagine what it would feel like to be promised a win. But perhaps in “Thunder Road,” their happy ending is only promised so long as queerness remains subtext.
Sometimes queer love only promises disappointment, late nights wondering whether it is better to speak when you know it will turn out badly. Consider “I’m on Fire,” a song which performs its gender roles to a T: “Hey little girl, is your Daddy home?” It’s a song of butch torment and “bad desire,” of messing around with a straight girl with a boyfriend and knowing your love is futile, even if it runs hotter than his. This bad desire lashes out until you let it out: “At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet / and a freight train running through the middle of my head / Only you can cool my desire.” Here’s Sappho, in counterpoint: “You came and I was crazy for you / and you cooled my mind that burned with longing.” It is hard to imagine straight desire feeling this bad, but if anyone can convince me, it’s Bruce.
The butch/femme pair is a classic rock n’ roll dyad, with its shades of soft and stone. Unlike an imposed gender binary, the butch/femme pair inherits no violence and is based on adoration and complementarity rather than hierarchy. (The femme is just as much a take on femininity as butchness is to masculinity — it’s not a catchall term for women.) The pair has roots in the post-war, working-class lesbian bars that probably bore some bizzaro resemblance to the sort Bruce had to drag his dad out of, as he narrates in his memoir. In the novel Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg describes these bars as places of solace and rowdiness, safety and danger, considering the violent police raids to which such bars were always subject. When I first read Stone Butch Blues, it felt like a companion text to (or better, a dyke reboot of) Darkness on the Edge of Town or The River, insofar as it not only establishes queerness as a working class concern but it also traces the history of the queer struggle as concomitant with class struggle. Springsteen’s own fraught relation to masculinity is inseparable from the class-related concerns of labor and exhaustion that all genders share, but experience differently. The will to fight against the desperation to leave, the urgency of repressed pain breaking through, the drive for survival that runs hotter than hope — all the familiar themes are there.
In Stone Butch Blues, as in Springsteen’s music, intergenerational poverty and exploitation are the impediments to making it out alive, and in a body that feels like yours. The difference is, in the novel, the laid-off factory workers and union rabble rousers are not only cis, white, straight men. The protagonist, Jess, forges solidarity with the indigenous people of this country, with black civil rights crusaders, with sex workers, and perhaps with the greatest difficulty, with her own burgeoning queer community as she tries on new words to describe her relation to gender and desire. Springsteen gives voice to these communities, too, but the voice of the dads who sing along loudest tend to drown out the others. The butchness that Springsteen wears only becomes legible through the queer love and class struggle that a writer like Feinberg describes. It’s a toughness that gets forged by police beatings, pink slips, poverty, winter. A toughness that can protect love.
The stakes in a Springsteen song are nothing short of survival: “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” But survival isn’t promised equally. Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib writes of going to The River tour after making a trip to Ferguson, Missouri, and observes that the future Springsteen calls for, celebratory and forgiving, is so often stolen from black youths. It is for this reason that I feel compelled to wrest Springsteen’s music from the tractor beam identification of the dads. They might be on their last chance power drive, but no one gets more chances than white men. The rest of us, and some more than others, are desperate for a future we can believe in, a future that looks like possibility, an open road leading to the horizon.
My actual mother is the one who taught me how to love Springsteen. Her stories of listening to his music when she was my age were different than my father’s, less rosy: stories of staying home and crying and listening to “Sandy” while her deadbeat boyfriend went to Point Pleasant for the Fourth of July without her. “Fuckin’ Bob,” she still shakes her head. We recently took each other to see Springsteen on Broadway as a Christmas present. Unsure of the dress code, I wore my biker boots, a leather skirt, and my Darkness on the Edge of Town t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. At one moment in his monologue, he listed local venues he had played with his first band, the Castilles, and mentioned Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital. In a stage whisper, my mother said to me, “Your grandmother was there.” My grandmother, who died too young when I was eight, likely never saw Springsteen, in the hospital or otherwise. But I could imagine her, an in-patient of grief and alcoholism and bad luck, unimpressed with the young man and his guitar and his will to live. For a moment, I smiled at the thought of three generations of us at Springsteen concerts, but it passed, for the many-gendered mothers of my heart are not much interested in nostalgia. Better to keep your eyes on the road, on the future, roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair. Like Orpheus and Eurydice, let the men look back — let’s get lost instead. His music, taken to be anthemic of white male culture, expresses wisdom I’ve never learned from men. And because I did not so much interpret through a queer lens as I never knew any other way to think, his masculine burdens translated themselves into my butch virtues.
Springsteen’s music, taken to be anthemic of white male culture, expresses wisdom I’ve never learned from men. His masculine burdens translated themselves into my butch virtues.
Towards the end of Stone Butch Blues, Jess finds a kindred spirit in her trans woman neighbor, Ruth. It’s unclear whether or not their relationship will be sexual, but there is love between them, and desire, too, the kind Springsteen promises will greet you when you’ve honed your roughness into readiness. They discuss Ruth’s painting of the sky: “It’s not going to be day or night, Jess, It’s always going to be that moment of infinite possibility that connects them.” To me, this is the darkness on the edge of town, where the line between desperation and hope are obscured. Maybe it’s always been easy for me to queer Springsteen songs because, as with queer culture, his yearning to make it seems so impossible, and yet just on the horizon. Queer theorist José Muñoz writes that “we may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with possibility.” The “we” he proposes is a community of those for whom the here and now isn’t enough, who believe in a promised land but know that that belief is hard won and hard kept, for the bad desire is just on the edge of the possible and survival isn’t promised. My personal Springsteen anthem is “The Promised Land,” queer for me every time I sing along: “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man, and I believe in the promised land.” (Not to mention the drama, my god: “Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart!”)
You can argue that these themes are universal. Everybody’s got a hungry heart, after all, even those who are never taught that their desires are bad. But saying that art speaks to everybody can easily erase particulars and lose its bite in the urge to universalize. Springsteen might be the one true daddy, but Daddy doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. And anyway, the toughness he preaches reminds me more of my mother and grandmother—tougher than the rest, sure, but a toughness that is only the leather exterior of vulnerability.