Bruce Springsteen is wrapping up his summer tour and his autobiography, with accompanying soundtrack, will be released in late September. To mark these occasions, perhaps it is appropriate to look at a side of Springsteen that doesn't get enough attention -- Springsteen the wordsmith.
Springsteen is known as a great live performer, a singer of anthems who connects with his audiences wherever he goes. Examining his use of words in his lyrics will give us insight into how he accomplishes these feats.
I'm comin' to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man
Someday we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny
Confiscate is a very strange word choice in the context of coming to rescue a girl you like. Confiscate has the sense of doing something in an official capacity, the way the police confiscate illegal goods or agents at the airport confiscate items that are not allowed on the plane. So, the idea of a boy coming to save a girl from parents who don't understand their love by seizing her in a formal way is unusual. The "seizing" sense of confiscate may be appropriate, though, because the singer and Rosalita might not have been dating that long; the singer says "I want to be your man," not "I am your man" or something that would show he's more sure of himself. In addition, Springsteen has fun with the liberate/confiscate rhyme and the fact that those meanings are opposing: the freedom of liberation vs. the confinement of confiscation.
I said this train...
Dreams will not be thwarted
Faith will be rewarded
--Land of Hope and Dreams
Thwart is a very purposeful, deliberate word; it means to ruin something, like plans. It is also a very grand word; it is difficult to say that "someone thwarted your plan to get that piece of gum" since the word is more often associated with designs and schemes of a lofty nature. Thwart is an interesting verb to pair with the word dreams for this very reason. For someone to thwart your dreams would mean they are out to get you, in order to see you suffer. Dreams can go unfulfilled for many reasons (e.g., bad luck, laziness), but to have a dream thwarted means you have an enemy. Of course Springsteen says that dreams will not be thwarted; have faith and you and your dreams will be protected. Protected in this case, because of the choice of thwart, means from outside forces looking to do you harm.
I've been without love, but never forsaken
Now the morning sun, the morning sun
As in thwart above, often Springsteen doesn't just write about things falling apart in life, he embodies, or personifies, the process of dreams being crushed and narrators sinking low. In this song, "This Depression," Springsteen isn't just lonely; he is forsaken, deliberately abandoned and feels as if no one cares about him. To feel forsaken is to feel abandoned when the person being abandoned is least able to handle it. There is even within the emotion of forsaken a sense of betrayal. The narrator of this song is at a low point and is reaching out to the person to whom the song is addressed. The use of forsaken lets the listener know what a risk the singer of the song is taking, because he has been hurt and betrayed before.
My father's house shines hard and bright it
Stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling so cold and alone
Shining cross this dark highway where our
Sins lie unatoned.
--My Father's House
Beacons are usually happy things. Historically, beacons were lights that indicated to ships that land was near, or a bonfire which signaled that troops were home from war. Even metaphorical extensions of the word beacon have usually been about pleasant things. People can be described as "beacons of goodness" if they stand out for being morally upright in a setting or a profession where you don't usually find such people. Bruce Springsteen changes the metaphorical meaning of beacon somewhat in this lyric. A light still calls to him, and it is in a sense a light of homecoming because the light is coming from his father's house, but the overwhelming feeling is dark amid all that shining light. This beacon has called Springsteen's narrator to a place that is haunted by the past. Springsteen says that "sins lie unatoned" in this place. One has to ask forgiveness for their sins, atone for them, so that one can be free of them. Otherwise, unatoned for sins can weigh you down and prevent you from moving on with your life. The past calls to the narrator in " My Father's House" and it is unclear that after he follows that beacon whether he will face the past or have his sins remain unatoned for.
Bruce Springsteen's long career has been filled with songs of broken hearts and being chewed up by the circumstances of life, but it's not that simple. Besides relating to his audiences, Springsteen has always wanted to write classic rock songs that you could sing along to but were complicated at the same time. Some of that complexity begins with the odd choice of word or the odd use of an already familiar word. Springsteen accomplishes this complexity like few others in music today.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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