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Almost Famous: Uncoolness and the Spirit of Rock and Roll

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Written by Niccola Somers

Earlier in the semester, a musician named Stewart Francke visited our class to discuss his music and his connection with Bruce Springsteen, who sings on Francke's song "Summer Soldier (Holler If You Hear Me)." I'm not a musician, so whenever I get to talk to one I always have lots of questions. As we were talking with Francke, I imagined myself as William Miller from my favorite movie of all times -- Almost Famous, a semi-autobiographical film by Cameron Crowe. The movie follows 15-year-old William Miller as he is hired by Rolling Stone magazine to tour with and write an article about a fictional band named "Stillwater." The beautiful thing about the movie is how it truly embodies rock 'n' roll. Stillwater represents every great rock band that ever was, and William is every crazed fan that ever followed those bands. My question to Francke was basically the same question that William asks the lead singer of Stillwater in the movie:

William Miller: "Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song? Do you have to be in love to write a love song? Is a song better when it really happened to you?"

Francke answered that it is more exciting to write about experiences that are not his own, and that singers who focus solely on their own lives are "confessional singer-songwriters," a phrase he said in a tone that made it clear they weren't his favorites. If I ever had the chance to meet Bruce, I would ask him a similar question. The first time I began to look into Bruce's music I was truly confused as to why he continuously wrote about the lives of fictional characters like Spanish Johnny and Rosalita. And who is Mary? I always thought that the greatest songs were written from personal experience because, well, that's what you know best -- your own life -- but it seems I misjudged.

And since I love Almost Famous so much I just had to include a few more quotes that I thought were appropriate...

Jeff Bebe: "I connect. I get people off. I look for the guy who isn't getting off, and I make him get off."

This comment is made by one of the members of Stillwater in regards to his responsibilities as the lead singer. According to anyone who has attended one of Bruce's concerts, this is exactly what goes down between Bruce and his audience.

Dennis: "If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age fifty, then you are sadly, sadly mistaken."

False. Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Bono, Peter Frampton, Neil Young, Gregg Allman, Bruce Springsteen -- just to name a few.

Lester Bangs: "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool."

And here we have rock 'n' roll summed up into one sentence.

I recently watched Bruce's SXSW keynote speech where he describes his idol Roy Orbison as "the coolest uncool loser you've ever seen." Every rock 'n' roll artist that has ever been has been cool in their own right, but when we dig a little deeper we find that every rock 'n' roll artist that has ever been was actually uncool. In his childhood years John Lennon was described as a troublemaker and a class clown, Duane Allman rarely left the confinement of his bedroom, and Bruce Springsteen's college classmates thought he was so strange they collectively asked him to leave the school. These artists were never cool and they still aren't, but what gives them the illusion of coolness is that they embrace their uncoolness. When we look at our favorite rock musicians we idolize them for their coolness, but seeing as they are actually uncool, we are actually recognizing this mutual uncoolness that we share with the musicians -- a common currency if you will. When we see that they can make their uncoolness cool, it makes it okay for us to be uncool -- and this is where Bruce attains a powerful connection with his fans. The way in which he acknowledges his uncoolness is what draws his audience to him, and the fact that he is uncool is what allows his audience to connect with him.

Jeff Bebe: "But what it all comes down to is that thing. The indefinable thing when people catch something in your music."

Bruce obviously has that thing, but what it is isn't easy to pin down.

Niccola Somers is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is currently a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she is majoring in African Languages and Literature.