In the 1970s, Stevie Nicks and Bruce Springsteen made impressions on pop-music culture with romantic rock landmarks, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album and Springsteen’s Born to Run. But their new 2020 releases, Nicks’s single “Show Them the Way” and Springsteen’s Letter to You film and album, make the wrong impression. These artistic flops matter only because Nicks and Springsteen cast long shadows on the empowered generation that’s soon to be ejected from control. These middle-aged musicians set the wrong cultural tone (emulating social media’s naïve young influencers), thus ushering in their own irrelevance while also muddying the cultural and political path forward.
In the music video Show Them the Way, directed by Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire), the final shot shifts from Nicks, wearing comare widow weeds, to focus on the word “Vote.” As an answer to our current malaise, this political suggestion should be beneath the concern of an artist who once moved audiences by her personal, purely emotional expression. But “Show Them the Way” is Nicks mourning her apolitical past, which is also the theme of Springsteen’s new dirge-like album.
These Seventies artists, like many aging liberals, are in intellectual retreat, although they proceed as if they were in the vanguard. It is bizarre, indeed, when Nicks suddenly, for the first time in her career, sings about social issues and race, invoking John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as metaphors for her previously hidden desires and newly acquired social consciousness. Equating the troubled present to the nostalgic past is a typical Boomer move, but, with Nicks, it merely reveals her political naïveté. The same can be said of Springsteen’s poignant appeals in Letter to You, which, much more than “Show Them the Way,” is overstuffed with nouveau riche hubris.
While Nicks plies her quasi-mystical shtick (meeting MLK in a dream, she regards him like a ghostly butler — as critic John Demetry noted), Springsteen adopts a messianic posture. Letter to You continues the heartbroken resignation of Springsteen’s previous album Western Stars, where he attempted to escape from his elitist post-Obama disillusionment. Now, feeling post-Trump despair, Springsteen faces the mortality of others. The Letter to You film, directed by Thom Zimny, is chock-full of the Boss’s pensées, reflecting on life, death, friendship, family, and the holy institution of rock music. It made a one-time fan like me recall a Dave Marsh Rolling Stone article in which every Springsteen quote was worded like holy writ; all that was missing from Marsh’s epistle was a rubricated text to highlight the bard’s dominical sayings. (Marsh’s wife, Barbara Carr, is one of the film’s co-producers and also one of Springsteen’s co-managers.)
What Nicks’s sentimentality and Springsteen’s ultra-sentimentality tell us is that old-guard liberalism has lost perspective on the heinous, satanic confusion of today’s disingenuous political movements. Realigning themselves with sophomoric virtues, the stars sell their souls in accommodation to the insensate new era. “Overwhelmed by destiny,” as Nicks puts it, they intentionally use the music-video vanity-project format as political campaign ads. Cameron Crowe makes Nicks’s philosophical gibberish seem worse than it is by contrasting her private schmaltz with predictable Boomer iconography — from JFK, RFK, and John Lewis to Obama and George Floyd — while she bleats, “I didn’t know these men, but they knew me.”
Crowe’s mess of incongruous pop imagery makes Show Them the Way the ultimate in Hollywood liberal political kitsch, although triggered by Nicks’s uneasy lyrical musings at her Hamptons abode. It almost outdoes the solemnity of Letter to You, where Zimny’s shots of wintry, snow-covered New Jersey (a poor imitation of Andrew Dominik’s gorgeous B&W luminosity for Nick Cave’s 2016 One More Time with Feeling) tries for phony mythos. This is an instantaneous, narcissistic monument, and Springsteen’s inflated narration sounds like something he inscribed: “We’ve not been made perfect by God, but here I try to speak in the voice of my better angels.”
Throughout the recording-studio scenes, Zimny elides the hard work that fine-tools art, which Godard captured in his Rolling Stones film Sympathy for the Devil. The E Street Band’s routine bombast matches Springsteen’s pomposity. “We all have our own ways of praying. I restricted my prayers to three minutes and a 45 rpm record. The power of pure pop . . . If you get it right, it has the power of prayer.”
These unctuous revelations sound dull-witted next to Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic single “Murder Most Foul,” which revisits the same assassination trauma and mortality as Springsteen, who, like Nicks, misses the complex, mordant humor that makes Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways album a truer, richer depiction of these conflicted times.
Springsteen dares a faux-Dylan lyric — “The criminal clown has stolen the throne / He steals what he can never own” — that offers a liberal’s view of President Trump. It is self-contradictory, in the banal, partisan sense of a liberal’s anti-fraternal hatred. Partisan pop such as this doesn’t help listeners think through the complex circumstances in which they feel cut off from power despite being already empowered, despite MLK’s dream having already been realized — and now betrayed by Black Lives Matter.
Show Them the Way and Letter to You are works of self-pity and self-mythologizing, as in Nicks’s unctuous refrain “The dream is not over / The dream has just begun.” These songs and videos are not made by leaders but by celebrities who won’t get out of our way.