To mark Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday, singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus recorded a cover of “Dancing in the Dark,” and here she reflects on the role he’s played in her life.
I couldn’t stand Bruce Springsteen when I was younger. It’s all my dad would listen to, morning and night, in the car or the house, while cleaning or gardening. He’d sing along and play air guitar, sometimes air harmonica or saxophone when those instruments showed up on a song. Bruce’s voice was synonymous with my father’s. I took no interest and made no attempt to listen, finding it easier to rebel against the music than it would have been to actually rebel against my dad, which I had no reason to do in the first place. I was too obedient to give into my angst, the purpose and cause of which was undefined. I shoved my earbuds deep into my ears and turned up the sound of my own music to an unhealthy volume.
My neighborhood friends and I spent our time memorizing the lyrics of Rihanna, Fergie, and the Pussycat Dolls, working for hours on choreography in the yard that we would eventually perform for the other kids in the neighborhood. Anything our parents liked was officially lame; anything that wasn’t on the radio didn’t matter.
After years of refusal, the music finally reached the part of me that wanted to hear it. We were in the car when my dad cut off the conversation to turn up the radio and sing along. The song was “Jungleland” from Born to Run. I actually didn’t start paying attention until halfway through Clarence Clemons’s two-minute sax solo when I realized we were somehow still listening to the same song.
The door opened. These songs had surrounded me my whole life, and only now did I see their depth, that they were for me, about me, and beautiful. I remember listening to “Dancing in the Dark” for what felt like the first time (though it may have been the hundredth). In the second verse, he says, “I check my look in the mirror / I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face.” I had never heard a man express discontent with his appearance before. I thought low self-esteem was reserved for young women like myself and my friends, sometimes it felt like only I knew what it felt like to feel wrong in my own body. Did this man suck in his stomach? Did he compulsively cut his hair and garments on a whim? He opened a window for all of us to watch him, tearing around his bedroom in dissatisfaction. And with that, every bedroom in the world opened up to me. The song sent my mind floating above my whole neighborhood, and the next and the next. Roofs across the city lifted like lids off of pots, allowing me to peer into countless rooms of people pulling at their faces in the mirror. I was not alone.
Springsteen’s reputation for humility precedes him. Photos of him from the early days show him unkempt, like he might smell weird if you got close. I say this with admiration, and I’m thankful for the lesson. He could have easily bought into the style of the ’70s. Elvis, Elton John, and David Bowie also put out records in 1975, the year Bruce released Born to Run. These artists are well known for their attire, like rhinestone birds-of-paradise, and yet Bruce made it through the noise in a T-shirt and jeans. It’s not for lack of means. He speaks so soberly about class issues, it’s hard to remember that we’re talking about a millionaire. He proves that style follows substance, not the other way around—an example that comes as a relief to writers who are ill-suited for the limelight but well-equipped with words. Part of his allure is that he comes to battle without armor, bearing an ungilded truth that can’t be fought.
Bruce Springsteen has shown up in my songwriting in the same way my face can’t help but make the expressions of my parents as I grow older. I find myself writing and slipping into scenes that Bruce has set. The boardwalk, the alleyway, the screen door, the brand-new car. Light from the street lamps, neon signs, fire, matchsticks, and cigarettes. We’re all included, all a part of the ensemble. We have all walked these streets, haven’t we?
It must have hurt my father that I hated the music that he loved. Yet I also remember the urge to escape from childhood, that battle against what everyone expects of you, and the discovery of your own true needs and desires. I repelled the influence of my father’s favorite music as if my identity depended on it. I don’t think my love for Bruce Springsteen’s music would be as strong if I hadn’t turned from it and returned on my own time.
Bruce Springsteen turns 70 today, and his work has defined the music landscape for nearly 50 years, though his early successes will also forever be cultural touchstones of the ’70s and ’80s. Music is in the unique position of being both dated and ageless, attached to its period while also brought back to new life again and again. The songs haven’t changed, and they won’t change. We are the mutable ones.
Springsteen is often a nostalgic writer—his songs are marked by his warmth toward his past and his willingness to look back. His reverence for the past shows us how to remember our own, and where to look when we forget ourselves. What a gift to be able to look upon your life with affection. It must take strength and a lifetime of practice.
Maybe one day I will become my father, playing “Atlantic City” on the porch with my kid. Maybe they will beg me to turn it off. And then, for no reason, one day they’ll be ready to listen.