Boss 101

This month a group of academics will assemble at Monmouth University to engage in scholarly discourse on a matter of grave concern to New Jerseyans: the cultural significance of Bruce Springsteen. No, really.

It not only sounds high-minded, it carries the sanctions of two institutions of higher learning to boot. “Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium,” scheduled for September 9 to 11 at Monmouth University in West Long Branch and organized by Penn State University, is being touted as the first event of its kind—a scholarly examination of the life and work of New Jersey’s most famous college dropout.

More than 150 presenters, many of whom have serious academic credentials, will read papers or participate in discussions on topics such as the influence of Dickens, Conrad, and Steinbeck on Springsteen’s writing; “Crime, Social Justice, and Equity” in Springsteen’s songs; and gender politics. Tickets to the symposium, which has room for up to 750 attendees, cost $195, tours and concerts not included.

Still, there’s something vaguely Trekkie-like about the event, a sense that beneath their tweeds, all those lit-crit types weighing in on topics such as “Springsteen and the American Pastoral” are really just fans dying to gush about Bruce. For starters, “Glory Days” was conceived not by an academic but by Mark Bernhard, a Penn State conference planner who calls himself “a huge Springsteen fan, first and foremost” and who can cite by date many of the Springsteen concerts he’s seen over the years. Then there’s the agenda, which hardly resembles that of a colloquium on, say, Emily Dickinson. The slate includes shows by Gary “U.S.” Bonds and Springsteen emulator Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers at the Stone Pony; a display of hagiographic Springsteen photos taken by his sister, Pamela, from the “Troubadour of the Highway” exhibit at the Newark Museum last year; and tours of such historic locales as the church parking lot in Freehold where one of his childhood homes stood and the shoe-store warehouse in Asbury Park that was once the Upstage Club, where a young, long-haired Bruce scored some of his earliest gigs. Featured speakers include Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh, whose wife is part of Springsteen’s management team; Frank Stefanko, who photographed Springsteen for the Darkness on the Edge of Town album; and Barbara Hall, creator of Joan of Arcadia, the former CBS television series that was, like Springsteen’s lyrics, long on Catholic imagery.

Similarities to a fanfest aside, the meat of the weekend will be its dispassionate academic fare, served by people who have written thoughtfully about Springsteen’s oeuvre. “The educational perspectives are what’s going to set this apart,” Bernhard says. Some of the material may be a bit esoteric, but Bernhard insists that most will be accessible to the average listener.
Whether one views rock’s elevation in the ivory tower as overdue or as a sign of crumbling intellectual standards, a select but growing number of iconic entertainers has in recent years been getting the kind of scrutiny once reserved for the likes of Shakespeare and Milton. Just as he is the King of Kitsch, Elvis Presley also dominates among rock musicians for academic interest, says Robert Santelli, a Point Pleasant Beach native who’s now the artistic director at Seattle’s Experience Music Project—one of two major U.S. museums devoted to rock-as-culture (the other being Santelli’s previous employer, the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland). Bob Dylan, now in his fifth decade as a performer, is of course a bottomless mine for the exegesis industry. But in England, even lesser names get their own symposia. This spring saw one in Manchester devoted to the Smiths, a 1980s outfit that attracted “remarkably few serious examinations” in spite of the band’s “enormous cultural significance and personal resonance”—at least according to a presenter named Fergus Campbell, a history professor at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne.

Santelli, who edited the 1998 lyric book Songs—Springsteen’s own effort to afford insight into his work—sees this trend as inevitable and positive. “I’m not saying that rock lyrics are poetry, or that rock ’n’ roll is as important in the overall scheme of things as the work of John Milton or Walt Whitman,” Santelli says. But he insists that the role pop music has played in shaping American culture over the past half-century is beyond debate, and events like “Glory Days,” with their mix of high- and lowbrow elements, are ideal vehicles for communicating that influence. “Too often, people want to say that academic conferences should be about the conventional academic things, but I think that kind of thinking is obsolete,” says Santelli, who will give a presentation on the E Street Band.

Whatever you might call “Glory Days,” Bernhard insists that “it’s not going to be a stalking convention” for fans hoping for a brush with the Boss on his home turf. Springsteen, he says, declined an invitation to attend.

Contributing editor John T. Ward wrote “The Spies of Loveladies” in the June issue.

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