Brilliant Disguises: Persona, Autobiography and the Magic of Retrospection in Bruce Springsteen’s Late Career
Keywords:musical persona, autobiography, narrative, authenticity, late voice
Popular musicians with long careers provide rich source material for the study of persona, authenticity, endurance and the maintenance (and reinvention) of significant bodies of work. Successful artists’ songs create a soundtrack not only to their own lives, but also to those of their audiences, and to the times in which they were created and to which they bore witness. The work of singers who continue to perform after several decades can be heard in terms of their ‘late voice’ (Elliott 2015), a concept that has potentially useful insights for the study of musical persona. This article exploits this potential by considering how musical persona is de- and reconstructed in retrospective, autobiographical performance. I base my articulation of the relationship between persona, life-writing and retrospective narrativity on a close reading of two late texts by Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run, the autobiography he published in 2016, and Springsteen on Broadway, the audiovisual record of a show that ran from October 2017 through to December 2018. In these texts, Springsteen uses the metaphor of the ‘magic trick’ as a framing device to shuttle between the roles of autobiographical myth-breaker and lyrical protagonist. He repeatedly highlights his songs as fictions that bear little relation to his actual life, while also showing awareness that, as often happens with popular song, he has been mapped onto his characters in ways that prove vital for their sense of authenticity. Yet Springsteen appears to be aiming for a different kind of authenticity with these late texts, by substituting the persona developed in his recorded work with an older, wiser, more playful narrator. I appropriate Springsteen’s ‘magic trick’ metaphor to highlight the magic of retrospection and the magical formation of the life narrative as an end-driven process.
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