Born to Run and Context

Springsteen - Born to Run
Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen from the Born to Run photo session.

To understand the hullabaloo many people make about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Born to Run album (1975), you really need to understand the context. It’s a very good rock record but there are a lot of very good rock records that have been made over the years, some we’ve heard about and many we haven’t. So why Born to Run?

In 1975 pop music had a generally bland sound. There were a lot of good songs and a lot of dross, as there always is, and when you strung them all together, played them repetitively as radio stations do, it came across as an extended yawn. There was a somnolent quality to the sound. Look at the top songs around that time:

In other words, a lot of rock music didn’t make it to the mainstream. There were rock stations but the MOR (Middle-of-the-Road) stations were the dominant ones and for most people the songs they played on them made up the soundtrack of the period.

Rock music at that time had evolved, rather like a biological organism: growth followed by decay. It had become decadent (for lack of a better word). Much of it had become self-indulgent, excessive, and generally pretentious. This was the period of such things as glam rock and progressive rock: David Bowie, Sweet, Roxy Music, Gary Glitter, Genesis, Yes and so on. Some of that music was very good but a lot of emphasis was being put on appearance, theatrics and obscure lyrics that made little sense but sounded like they might be profound. (They weren’t.)

Then this guy named Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band appeared. Springsteen wore jeans and a t-shirt. (Compare that to what Peter Gabriel was doing at the time with Genesis, or what Elton John was doing.)

His concerts went on forever with encore after encore after encore. (I saw Alice Cooper around the same period and the show lasted 45 minutes, if that. His big thing at the time was a routine with a guillotine on stage.) Springsteen and the band seemed to be having so much fun they didn’t want to go home. At the time many bands – the progressive ones – were stultifyingly serious. Fun didn’t play a big part in the equation.

Punk rock had already begun but most people were unaware of it or, if aware, knew of it as something loud and cacophonous played by angry, disagreeable people who were overly vulgar. Like most music, at first blush it wasn’t easy to distinguish the good stuff from the crap or to see (much less get) the essence of it. That would take some time.

So Springsteen came along with Born to Run and a kind of rock music that was firmly rooted in traditional rock and roll (tinted with some R&B), had an angry edge to it, was as self-reflective (even narcissistic) as most rock music tends to be, and had what most rock bands lacked at the time – romance, drama, and even joy. Hell, the songs told stories.

The shows had an energy that few, if any bands had. The songs were understandable (compare them to Yes and Genesis of the period). And it wasn’t disco, which people either loved or hated.

Peter Gabriel with Genesis circa 1974
Peter Gabriel with Genesis circa 1974

I remember reading an interview with Peter Gabriel some years back talking about that period. He left Genesis in 1975. At the time, their shows were very theatrical. In the interview he referred to what he was doing at that time and said something similar to, “Then I saw Springsteen and everything changed.”

In a sense, Springsteen was the antithesis of what Gabriel was back then. It wasn’t about music and whether one was good and one wasn’t (both were very good). It was about the approach to performance. I think Gabriel was saying that he had gone so far into the theatrics of it that he had lost his way. Maybe. That’s just a guess.

Anyway … the point is this. Springsteen’s Born to Run was and is a great album but what elevated it was that it was also the right album at the right time and Springsteen and the E Street band were the right band at the right time doing the right shows at the right time.

There were probably a lot of bands around at the time doing something similar but it was Springsteen and Born to Run that broke through and changed what audiences were open to. It reinvigorated a music that had become torpid. It put passion back into rock music.

And it was one great, kick-ass album.

Born to Run (1975)
Born to Run (1975)

We Do Not Know What We Do Not Know and We Do Not Know That We Don’t Know It

Shrinking world
Shrinking world

Continuing from my post yesterday that spoke largely of one specific area, that one being politics, and how we increasingly only hear what we want to hear (What Algorithms Do Not Know and What We Do Not See) because of the web and its intense focus on personalization …This is an issue much broader than the political realm. It is everything.

This personal web experience alters what see (and know) about the world around us. Inevitably, it narrows our worldview. As an example, I have found in the last few years my search results increasingly lacking.

I can tell by those results I get that they have been tailored for me (to use a term often used in describing personal results). More and more often now, they are not what I am looking for and I find them frustrating. I end up trying numerous variations of the search but often have no luck.

It is as if the wide open world has closed up and what was once a wide ranging landscape has been cordoned off to a much smaller area.

One of the troubling consequences of this is that we do not know what we do not know. I wrote about this back in 2009 saying, “…sometimes I don’t realize I’ve been looking for something until I find it.” (See, Algorithms and the Search for Happy Accidents.)

I call them happy accidents because in the past I have found intriguing things online simply by getting a much broader range of results. If you don’t know something exists, how can you search for it? If you haven’t got something in your profile that indicates an interest, something in the oodles of data companies amass on each of us, how will it ever show up?

It won’t. And because it won’t you may never know about it even though, if you were to stumble upon it, it might be one of the most interesting things you’ve come across. It may open up an entire new dimension to your life, if you only knew about it.

In my 2009 post I asked for (and still do) an option that allows a person to turn the personalization off. I don’t ask for it to be eliminated, just for an ability to toggle between two views of whatever the particular platform happens to be.

Without a means to see the world as it is, rather than how we would have it be, we live in an isolationist, even xenophobic bubble that has no resemblance to reality.

There is a TED video by Eli Pariser, “…author of “The Filter Bubble,” about how personalized search might be narrowing our worldview”. It’s from 2011 and it articulates the problem very well (You can read the transcript here):

Is this a problem? Yes. What we see online is growing isolationism, tribalism, and the closing of minds. Pariser puts it well in his conclusion when he says, “We need it [the Web] to introduce us to new ideas and new people and different perspectives. And it’s not going to do that if it leaves us all isolated in a Web of one.”

We will cease to discover. We won’t encounter views that conflict with our own. It will be as if we are in  a courtroom listening to one of two sides present their argument and never hear the opposing side’s.

Our world(s) will get much smaller.

See Also:


What Algorithms Do Not Know and What We Do Not See

Page source view of Facebook
Page source view of Facebook

When the editor is an algorithm you’ve got trouble. Several days ago all my news feeds were peppered with variations of the same story: a Conservative Party supporter losing his temper and using profanity in an encounter with reporters.

It was everywhere because a) it was the kind of spectacle story people inevitably give their attention to, not unlike a traffic accident, and b) all those arcane algorithms the many technology based companies use had decided it was what I wanted to see.

Those feeds were specific to me because those algorithms are ubiquitous and due to the many factors used in creating them (which are only dimly understood) they had correctly divined my political leanings and had concluded that this story was one that would appeal to me.

However, what they did not divine was how often I wanted to see the story and, more significantly, how I felt about the story.

I thought it was trivial horseshit.

Worse than that, I thought it fed into the simplified, erroneous caricature of people with a particular political leaning – Conservative. It made people who do not support the Conservative Party feel good. It confirmed for those people a simplistic view of those who do not agree with them. It made those Tories laughable and, much more troubling, allowed those left of centre to turn off their brains and do what they accuse Conservatives of doing: fall back on ideology, cant, and back patting.

The failure of these algorithms is in what we see and what we do not see. Politics is an easy example of how it distorts the way the world appears to us. People I know span the entirety of the political spectrum yet I see far more online from friends with leanings left of centre than I do of those friends on the right of things. I check, and those on the right are still posting but they seldom appear in my feeds. This began a few years ago, I think.

This isn’t something most people I know would even think about. If they did, many would be fine because they have no interest in hearing from people with opinions they don’t agree with.

But for me it means the world that emerges from these feeds is one I cannot trust (unless I am trusting that it is all horseshit). I do not believe people on either the right or the left of issues are stupid, unthinking, evil, crass, buffoons … or any of the other ways ideologies would have us characterize those who don’t agree with us.

I also believe that some very fundamental issues do not and will not get credibly discussed and debated during the current election (like Canadian democracy) because no one is interested in what the other side says, no one hears from the other side because our news is managed by code, and we will all move like automata into the voting booths on election day and later be bewildered by the results because we had no idea anyone supported “those guys.”

Nothing is as frightening or misleading on the Internet as what we do not get to see.

See Also:

We Like People and Stories

Content Warehouse
Content Warehouse

We continually see references to content. It’s spoken of as if it’s a tangible quantity, something measurable, a thing you can stock the shelves with.

In the case of the Internet, it would be shelves on the web and social media platforms. Posts and tweets and fan pages. We know we have it because it’s in the spreadsheet and we’ve done some number crunching with the data. But what is it?

Content is ideas. Content is ideas presented in a variety of ways. Content is one person saying to another, “What do you think about this?”

Content is always two-way. If you’re on one side of it, the creator side, it helps a lot if you know who is on the other side. You can be as imperative as you like and stress your call to action repeatedly, but if you’re talking about cricket to fanatical hockey fans, you are wasting your time.

Let’s be honest, no business likes content. It’s just that our customers seem to and so we’re forced to come up with some. But it is so mercurial, so difficult to nail down and define, it makes us crazy. It involves creativity. For heaven’s sake, it’s even artsy sometimes. How the hell do you measure that? How do you replicate it? How do you build efficiencies into it?

I think the first step is to stop thinking about it as content. When we say “content,” I believe we implicitly think in terms of our business goals. Counter intuitive as it may seem, that is probably the worst way to think of it. When we talk in terms of movies, books, cartoons, comics, articles and all the other various forms “content” comes in, we start to think from a consumer point of view. A people point of view.

People don’t always think in terms of their goals. Sometimes they like something simply because it’s “neat.” Neat doesn’t necessarily mean gimmicky. An idea or story can be “neat” because it shows us something we tend to think of one way in a completely new way. That isn’t just neat, it’s informative and it’s stimulating.

Sometimes that is all people want. In fact, I’d say most of the time that is all people want.

Do you actually use the web and social media tools? If so, do you use them in the same way your spouse, kids and friends do? That alone should give you some intuitive sense for what people are online for and what they find engaging.

No one is looking for content. Most people are looking for people and ideas. They’re looking for stories and stories come in a wide range of forms: video, pictures, words and sound.

Content is not king. It’s the rabble. It’s us. And we’re not interested in content.

We like people and stories.

(This was originally posted in a slightly different form five years ago in March of 2010.)

See Also:

Come Fly With Me? No Thanks

The following was written on January 24, 2005 at 28,000 feet somewhere above the Canadian Rockies. I had been sent to Vancouver for meetings. I just found this old piece, which was originally written in a notebook, and it made me laugh. It first appeared on an old version of Writelife and it goes like this …

JetI hate flying. I hate, hate, hate it. So whenever our office calls a meeting in Vancouver I jump through hoops in an effort to find a way out of attending.

I’m seldom successful.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, the only time I enjoy flying is when I’m drunk. Then, it’s not so much an enjoyable experience as it is a desensitized one. It occurs to me it is often the absence of a quality that recommends something.

I think an absence of turbulence would recommend flying. Not so on my flight.

You may laugh. But try writing longhand when the damn plane is bouncing like an old Pontiac Laurentian over back country roads. (By the way … if you’re in a 737, avoid seat 21A – window seat, right at the back. It’s like riding in that Laurentian’s trunk.)

You know, when you remove the element of speed from the flying equation you find there is little left on the upside. If you were making a list of flying’s best qualities, it would begin:

  1. Transports people between places quickly.

Then the list would end.

There is nothing else good about flying. And given the hold ups these days with security clearances, false alarms, weather delays and so on, flight’s key benefit – speed – is kind of a crapshoot. Your flight may be fast; maybe not.

Even when flying is fast, it feels real slow because it begins and ends with airports, which are Bermuda Triangles of lost time. Airports are the answer to the age-old question, “Where does the time go?”

So why do we do it? Or more to the point, why do we do so much of it? Why the rush? It is as if we were obsessed with terminal tedium (where we seem to spend ages standing around waiting).

It’s because we think flying is fast and we are determined to get to wherever we want to go as fast as we possibly can. But it’s like trying to remove the discomfort of a dull headache by knocking yourself unconscious with a hammer.

(Posted on January 29, 2005 at 09:56 AM)


Cover art for To Your Scattered Bodies Go.
Cover art for To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

Very briefly … I read this so many years ago it must have been in another life. I’ve reread the first book now, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and I’m a few chapters into the second, The Fabulous Riverboat. And it is as I remember.

The second is the better book, perhaps because of the Mark Twain character. The first, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, features Sir Richard Francis Burton – a seemingly good figure to use based on his biography but the book ends up being a scattered mess, if you’ll pardon the choice of words.

The book has an interesting conceit (the dead resurrected along an enormous, world encircling river) but its pulp roots make the action/plot just a series of loosely credible fights, battles, and caricatures doing some pretty lame philosophizing. Character depth is not the book’s strong suit.

But it is a good example of old school SF pulp fiction. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a particularly engaging read. Hopefully The Fabulous Riverboat holds up better.

(3 stars based on the hope Riverboat actually is a better book.)

Riverworld, the current edition (2015), which contains both To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat.
Riverworld, the current edition which contains both To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat.