Tour de force

Sometimes more is less
By MILO MILES  |  May 22, 2006

Thursday, August 29, was the day Bruce Springsteen would have performed for the first time in a full-size New England stadium. But as everyone within shouting distance of a newspaper or a radio knows, the town fathers of Foxboro -- who last year displeased most of the pop-music people by barring Michael Jackson -- this year displeased all the people, including themselves, by not being able to act on short notice. What a chorus of apologies echoed across the Commonwealth. Springsteen's manager was sorry to drop the date. Foxboro's selectmen were so sorry about the red tape that they rolled out two months' worth of red carpet. Boston's mayor was sorry that Fenway Park was such an unworkable playing field for a world-champion rock team.

Well, the hordes of fans who embraced the Boss only after Born in the USA can sob, groan, wail, curse, and scramble for radio-giveaway tickets to distant stands if they wish: Foxboro did right by them, though for pathetically wrong reasons. I'm only sorry I didn't cheer out the windows when I heard the show was scrubbed. The longer any fan -- neophyte or longstanding -- can delay seeing Springsteen in a stadium, the better. Performances to crowds larger than the population of most American towns are poison. Springsteen's generous planning and unshakable verve may make his initial round of stadium dates seem like a tonic. But every show he pulls off, or even mostly pulls off, makes the tightrope tauter. The thorny truth is that stadium dates push performers toward overgrown spectacles and overorchestrated moves -- and Springsteen has always stood for rock and roll with a difference.

How did we get here? There was a certain depressing inevitability to the decision to go superbowl. Once you break the quintuple- or sextuple-platinum barrier, the expectations and pressures applied by corporate logic and fan hopes merge: you have to hit the stadiums not only to give the tour budget some economy of scale (yuck, you're bowing to capitalist gospel) but also to show yourself to an honorable fraction of your audience (huzzah, you're a populist). In the case of Springsteen, that time has arrived, with ample validation from the media. Mass-market publications from Newsweek to the National Star have splashed him across their covers in a display of homecoming fireworks; the early-summer European tour alerted mainstream publications here that they had sold him and Born in the USA short last year. This guy left a success story and came back an international American-rock ambassador. While he was working up his stadium tactics across the Atlantic, the new album became the biggest seller in Columbia's lengthy history. More singles broke the Top 10 with ease (four now, and counting); 10 million units worldwide was suddenly a sure bet; Springsteen's no-fanfare marriage became a public event in print. Popping the fans with a surprise second US tour, one geared to the largest venues, was the explosive jolt -- but it was also just the QED in the proof of this superstar theorem.

Of course, the Boss could have filled yawning open-air monsters years ago: he had always sworn he wouldn't. His earliest supporters passed on the blessed news that their favorite performer never indulged in a stock live set, that the breadth of his passions could be relished only in sweltering clubs, that he made believers night after night and could be deeply loved only up close.

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