David Brooks Explains His Deep Personal Connection with Bruce Springsteen


Thanksgiving, as we have learned to our sorrow, begins the Christmas season of uplifting stories. Today’s gush is from Times columnist David Brooks, who tells how, as a young pedant in 1975, he “began a part of my second education” by seeing a Bruce Springsteen show. This, he explains, was an “emotional” education of the sort that is “generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious.”

How very No Surrender. But Brooks, needless to say, did not bust out of class and get away from those fools, having learned more from a three-minute record than he ever learned in school. He went on to become a tiny-fingered rightwing pundit on TV and in the papers. Still he maintains he got something significant out of Springsteen’s music, though it’s hard to know what that might be, even after reading his peculiar column…

Brooks is enthralled by the Boss’ stories of “workers struggling as the mills close down, and drifters on the wrong side of the law.” He admits to us that “these stories don’t directly touch my life” — a sure contender for December’s Understatement of the Decade lists — but claims:

I do believe [Springsteen’s] narrative tone, the mental map, has worked its way into my head, influencing the way I organize the buzzing confusion of reality, shaping the unconscious categories through which I perceive events.

And without this rock ‘n’ roll reorganization process, we wouldn’t have… the David Brooks we know, a completely traditional, squishy-conservative vendor of Times Op Ed crap.

What could be less like a Bruce Springsteen song than a David Brooks column? There is no evidence of even the stiff, white proletarian swagger of Springsteen’s music in Brooks’ prose, which reminds us more of this stuff as played on the Emenee chord organ by a disliked Latin teacher on his day off. Brooks has no affinity with Springsteen’s old-fashioned Democratic pro-union politics, and where the bard of Jersey shows affection for and identification with the mooks and mookettes in his songs, Brooks’ view of people even a few small steps below him on the economic latter is almost zoological in its detachment.

Maybe Brooks has some sort of neurological condition that keeps him from experiencing music as other people do. Maybe he is working from garbled transcriptions of Springsteen lyrics (Born down in Georgetown/The first drink I took was when my grades went down… Born into privilege, born into privilege/I’m a straight white male in a big rich land!). Maybe the column is just meant as a tribute to George Will.

Or maybe Brooks was just acting on a principle adopted by many nerds when they’re children — that people will better tolerate their presence if they occasionally express, however awkwardly and inappropriately, an interest in popular culture. If he can’t actually explain why he likes it, so what? It’s not like making things clear has anything to do with how he earns his living.