“In a world turned cyanide cynical, belief grows more precious, more powerfully colorful. Good ethics purify aesthetic perception.”
That’s author and North Carolina native Allan Gurganus, writing in the April 9 edition of the New York Times. Gurganus’ editorial laments the fact that “Jesse Helms is dead, but his spirit of bigotry isn’t” within the author’s beloved state.
This piece ran the day after Bruce Springsteen announced the cancellation of his April 10 show in Greensboro, N.C., citing opposition to HB2 – the “Bathroom Act,” which seeks to dictate which restrooms transgender people are allowed to use. Springsteen, in a letter to fans posted on his website, noted that “(s)ome things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry - which is happening as I write - is one of them.”
There was plenty of negative response to Springsteen’s decision, reactionary opinions bursting the social media floodgates, often engaging in blatantly bigoted and prejudicial jargon, much of it boiling down to a perception of Springsteen as a “limousine Liberal,” a guy who needs to “Shut up and sing.” (There was plenty of support for Springsteen’s decision as well, but as anyone who spends any time in the land of social media or following presidential campaigns knows, the haters speak the loudest and the most often.)
Springsteen did the right thing. Unquestionably.
Why? Because, as Gurganus said, “good ethics purify aesthetic perception.” Meaning, standing on principle deepens the artistic experience for the perceptive, and offers hope to a world that places ever-diminishing value on such a commodity.
[Read about Bruce Springsteen's visit to the Albright-Knox after his Buffalo show]
The critical have speculated that this is a publicity stunt for Springsteen. This is completely ludicrous. Beyonce performing at the Super Bowl and embracing symbols of radical change in order to support a new song and tour? That’s a publicity stunt, well intentioned or otherwise.
Canceling a show on principle, refunding all of the money, risking serious fallout, and challenging your audience to accept the same sacrifice you yourself are willing to make? That’s fulfilling the mandate of music as an agent of change, a concept born in the protest folk of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and carried forward into the rock and soul music of the 1960s.
It was a decade during which observable change was incited by the kind of men and women who these days are urged to “shut up and sing,” to cash the corporate check, to resell tickets to their own shows at a profit and to generally act as if they live in a bubble that floats above the doings of the great unwashed.
Springsteen is not one of these people. And anyone who didn’t know as much previous to the North Carolina cancellation has either not been paying the slightest bit of attention, or is one of those fans who never bothers to listen to the lyrics.
HB2 is not just about bathroom rights, naturally. Buried in the bill is language that limits the ability of citizens to pursue legal claims of discrimination in the workplace based on race, religion, color, sexual orientation and nation of origin. Further fine print forbids a city or county from setting minimum wage standards for private employers.
Perhaps there are some Springsteen fans in Greensboro possessed by the belief that musicians and songwriters are merely there to entertain them, to offer them a good time on a night out, to be their human jukebox for the evening, and to leave any direct engagement with the world around them out of the equation. Such fans certainly exist in other cities Springsteen visits. I’ve met many of them. This being America, they are free to believe whatever they’d like to believe.
But it seems fair to suggest that maybe Springsteen isn’t the guy for them. There are more than enough artists out there offering entertainment sans commentary or the tendency to challenge and engage the audience. Springsteen has never been one of them. His entire career is premised on the belief that a relationship exists between the songwriter and the listener, that the two share the ride, that the audience member’s purchase of a ticket implies a willingness to at least wrestle with the same issues as the man on the stage.
[Read the review of Springsteen's first-ever show in Buffalo (1978)]
Canceling the Greensboro show will cost Springsteen some fans. It already cost him a fair amount of money. I’m pretty sure he’ll be OK with that. Personally, I’d love to see Springsteen’s audience shrink to the point where he played 3,000 seaters stuffed to capacity with folks who realize that to be a fan of Springsteen is to ride the river with him. But that’s just me.
“To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress,” Springsteen’s statement read. There are many people who won’t remember that standing in opposition to bigotry, public policies birthed by hatred and ignorance, and the economic exploitation of (and social discrimination against) minorities were once the predominant dictates of the rock ’n’ roll manifesto. Regardless of who remembers and who doesn’t, that manifesto stands.
Popular music, at least some of it, is supposed to speak truth to power. Springsteen did his duty. More artists should follow his lead.