Bruce v Bublé
Ed Power is not afraid to admit he's a Bublé fan but wonders why The Boss hasn't been demoted
This week two of the world's foremost popular entertainers arrive in Ireland for a series of sold-out gigs. One's a huffing, puffing schmaltz trader, a panderer to the lowest emotional denominator, the other is Canadian crooner Michael Bublé.
In the Bruce v Bublé face-off, there can be only one winner, as far as music snobs, are concerned anyway. Announce that you are heading to one of Bublé's five sold-out O2 shows and brace yourself for rolled eyes and condescending head-shakes. Michael BUBLÉ? Really? Isn't he just for hair-dressers and middle-aged women? (like there was anything wrong with either).
If, on the other hand, you are off to cheer Bruce Springsteen on his nationwide stadium jaunt, buckle up for a deluge of fist-bumps and man-hugs. Someone will inevitably tell you that, the last time they saw 'Bruce', they nearly cried (me too, you feel like saying, though probably not for the same reason).
How to explain Springsteen's evergreen popularity? We're all friends here so let's be honest, it isn't because of the continued excellence of his output. While Bublé's new album, a silky collection of standards entitled To Be Loved, is as accomplished as the rest of his catalogue, Springsteen's latest, Wrecking Ball, is squawking, condescending and distinctly c-list – a record that offers only the faintest echoes of past glories.
Seemingly unaware what a clunking cliché the preachy, billionaire rock star has become, on Wrecking Ball Springsteen presumes to preach on the great subject of our era: the Great Recession. The result: an interminable collection of glib coffee table rock. He tells us that selfish bankers were at fault; that, if we trust in each other, we can make it through. Well, cheers Bruce – it's good to know that the view is good from your Xanadu-scale New Jersey mansion.
Then, was Springsteen ever the blue-collar rock 'n roll prophet people so desperately wanted him to be? His early records were, by his own admission, creaky Dylan pastiches, drowning in verbosity. However, you could say the same for his supposed 'classic' work.
Songs like 'Born to Run' and 'The River' are catchy and earnest no doubt. So was 'Piano Man' by Billy Joel and, pardon me if I haven't looked in the right places, but I don't recall Joel being elevated to the posit of generational spokesperson (no matter that, with 'Good Night Saigon', he wrote a Vietnam ballad more nuanced and tender than any of Springsteen's).
Seeing Springsteen slog his way through 'The River' at the RDS several years ago, I was struck by how thunderously empty the moment felt: he was dispensing canned angst, lubricated with the sort of donkey-bray earnestness that has turned Mumford and Sons and Coldplay into figures of public hate (the shtick is that watching Springsteen in concert changes your life – and that's correct to the extent that you realise that it truly is possible to make three and a half hours feel like an eternity).
Bublé, meanwhile, receives a tough time for being a pleasant fellow with a nice voice. His crime, apparently, is that he isn't intent on embellishing his mythology whenever he steps on stage. He goes up there, sings for a bit, joshes with the crowd, is free with self-deprecating humour (if you have a steam-train career, lovely hair and a gorgeous wife, the smartest way to stop people hating on you is to laugh at yourself).
Headlining Dublin's Aviva Stadium in September 2010, he appeared genuinely touched by the love he was receiving and embarked on an impassioned monologue about how close he felt to Irish people. Very clearly he was making it up on the hoof – it was three minutes of ad-libbing that said more than all of Springsteen's manly grunts and musk oxen he-croaks .
It's not that Springsteen is a terrible songwriter or that his pandering is cynical or calculated. He 'means it' in a way few rock stars do (it seems 'meaning it' is more important than sustained artistic progress or interestingly tune smithery). The problem is that he's toted the same box of tricks for decades.
Aside from Bob Dylan, it is hard to think of a writer so celebrated for, in essence, ossifying before our eyes. The further he sinks into parody, the deeper our adoration.
In other words, he's the anti-David Bowie. An American commentator was recently moved to declare that everything Springsteen said or sang reeked of cliché – but that this was okay, because they were all clichés that he had invented.
Well, fine. What's harder to take is the endless lionising of a rock star, who, creatively speaking, hasn't made an original move since the early '80s. That's roughly as long since the Rolling Stones put out a decent record. They are dismissed as crocks, Bruce, being Bruce, gets a free pass.
For a reminder of how broad a mass entertainer he can be, consider his biggest hit, 'Born In The USA'. Released in 1984, the high watermark of bad music production, the record is an orgy of MOR decadence. Listen all the way through and you can practically SMELL the mullets of the people to made it. Yet fans will, with a straight face, declare it a masterpiece.
You can tell a lot about where a musician fits in the pantheon from the artists he inspires. Where is the Springsteen legacy? In the blunt-stroke mainstream rock of Jon Bon Jovi, a kindred New Jersey-ite who has explicitly modeled his writing on "The Boss". What is 'Livin' On A Prayer' other than classic Springsteen, with a better chorus bolted on? The bits everyone cringes at – Johnny working on the dock and so forth – are 100pc proof Bruce.
Bully for you if you are a Springsteen devotee. Nudging 64 (albeit with hair that could pass for two decades younger), his voice, never lovely to begin with, is holding up. Presuming you like standing in one place for a third of the average work day, who can argue that his three-hour performances don't deliver value?
But let us be clear: owning a vinyl edition of 'Born To Run' or possessing a well reasoned opinion on why Nebraska trumps Darkness On the Edge of Town does not make you a superior stripe of music fan.
Just as having a soft spot for Michael Bublé's retro charms doesn't signify you are a mass-market sheep. Each entertainer has their strengths and weakness. We shouldn't pretend one is an artistically superior form of life.
Given the choice, this writer would rather two hours of Bublé's mild-mannered Sinatra-isms that an endless evening of the other guy's thumping faux heroics. I suspect I am not alone.