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Lost in the 1980s: Springsteen's Tunnel of Love

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Written by Stacy Heder

Anyone who has seen a rerun of the late 80's classic Saved By The Bell knows that some media doesn't transfer well decades later. It's hard not to laugh when Kelly Kapowski enters school with hair to the sky or Slater comes along in MC Hammer pants. It's hard for television or movies to get past this decade problem simply because they are visual. Music, however, has at least a chance of being timeless. There are no giant perms or shoulder pads that block your view of the music, and messages in the songs can be timeless. But it's not automatic. Even if I was in complete and utter Springsteen time ignorance, I could tell you that Tunnel of Love was made in the 80's.

From his first album, Springsteen has defied his time period. Nothing on any of his first seven albums would give the theoretically time-ignorant version of myself a clue as to the decade. That powerful E Street Band sound could be from decades past or future. It could be a throwback to the early rock n' roll greats. Or it could be that Bruce Springsteen is, as Jon Landau so famously stated, the future of rock n' roll. "Born in the U.S.A." is the classic rock anthem or the innovative new form of social consciousness. "Incident On 57th Street" is the great old blues story of tragic lovers or a musical masterpiece with elaborate new character development.

So why does Tunnel of Love sound like it's stuck in the 80's? What exactly is the 80's sound? This is a tough question. The "sound" is indescribable but you know it when you hear it. Mostly it's just a computerized beat found all over the 80's from Tears for Fears to Flock of Seagulls to Madonna. There are many elements to it, including that synthesizer, the high tinkling piano, and the same beat in many versions and many songs. There is a slower Rumba-like beat as in Springsteen's "One Step Up." There is the pounding, computerized opening of Tunnel Of Love. This sound is so dated that I can't focus on anything but. When I really listen to the song lyrics I hear the same Springsteen genius and emotion but it is hard for me to not be distracted by this 80's noise going on over the top. He is trying to fit into that world but is a thousand times better on his own terms. The computer is trying to take the place of the E Street Band and, in turn, the dime-a-dozen sound takes the place of unique human power.

There are exceptions on the album, "Ain't Got You" being one of them, but overall this album is an attempt at the 80's pop sound that doesn't work for me. The main issue is the E Street Band being replaced by a synthesizer-based sound. We talked a lot in class about the synthesizer in relation to autotune which is so popular today. I was one of those claiming that it makes the music fake. It was a contested term and many were saying that it's still real music being made by real people. Maybe fake was the wrong term. What I mean to say is that it is dehumanized. The beauty of the E Street Band is the way I can picture each individual person playing their instrument along with Bruce. It's a human, communal experience and makes the music a more human, communal product. The way that auto tune restricts the voice also restricts my favorite element of music, the emotion. Springsteen has emotional, powerful music in all of his albums up until this one. Again, there are exceptions on the album. Songs like "Spare Parts" or "Valentines Day" are still powerful but all together I cannot connect to this one on the same level. At the end of class, Craig told us to keep this one in our iTunes for a future listen when we could perhaps appreciate it more. I am going to take his advice, but I won't be coming back to it for a long time.

Stacy Heder is a freshman at UW-Madison who comes from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is a fan of a "huge variety of music from Bob Dylan to Green Day and MGMT."