SXSW: Bruce Springsteen hits a lot of notes in keynote address


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Delivering the keynote address at the annual South by Southwest conference on Thursday, Bruce Springsteen was introduced as “the Boss of rock ’n’ roll” but spent his hour on the podium suggesting he was no fount of wisdom and urging listeners to embrace the music in all its diverse forms despite its uncertain future.

Springsteen acknowledged that “no one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore,” adding “there is no keynote. There is no unified theory of everything.”


With 2,000 bands spread among more than 90 stages, the 25-year-old SXSW increasingly represents a music fragmented industry. Earlier panel sessions debated new business models and the financial viability of music streaming services.

But Springsteen’s message was about inspiration. Noting some of the more unusual genres represented at the festival — Nintendo-core, pagan rock, heartland rock, screamo, swamp rock, death ’n’ roll — he said such a lineup would have been an “insane teenage pipe dream” when he first picked up a guitar in 1964.

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Today, Springsteen declared, we are living in a “post-authentic world,” where “authenticity is a house of mirrors.” This means that the hype, the methods of making music and the story are second to “what you bring when the lights go down.” He then traced his own musical influences with stories and small performances on an acoustic guitar and at one point admitted to a packed convention center room that he still practices his rock ’n’ roll poses in the bedroom mirror.

He name-checked the Sex Pistols, Public Enemy, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and more and said most everything he’s ever done with the E Street Band incorporated these influences. But, he said, it was English rhythm & blues rockers the Animals that had the most profound effect.

It was an arms-wide-open embrace of all that SXSW represents from a musical standpoint. Already the festival has welcomed soulful newcomers the Alabama Shakes and saw the return of pianist bad girl Fiona Apple to a major stage.

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Springsteen talked about music like recalling a first love. He crooned a little doo-wop — “the sound of bras popping across the U.S.A.,” he said — and played a few bars of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” declaring the first time he heard the band as “a revelation, the first records with full-blown class consciousness.” The chorus of the song, in which working stiffs are simply looking for a better life, can be heard, Springsteen said, in every one of his albums.

“That’s every song I’ve ever written,” he said. “That’s all of them. I’m not kidding, either. That’s ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Born in the U.S.A.’” Springsteen even went further and strummed the opening notes of the Animals’ take on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and segued into his own “Badlands.”

“It’s the same … riff,” Springsteen hollered. “Listen up, you youngsters, this is how successful theft is accomplished.”

Springsteen laid out a theory presented by late and noted rock critic Lester Bangs — his assertion that “we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.” His aim wasn’t to persuade SXSW attendees that the world should again have a unifying star who could “create a transformative self” but simply that the tuneful passion awakened by Elvis is in no danger of fading and rock ’n’ roll continues to “celebrate a sense of freedom that was Woody [Guthrie’s] legacy.”

He left the audience with a word of advice: Remember, he told the SXSW hopefuls, that “when you walk on stage tonight, to bring the noise. Treat it like it’s all we have, and then remember it’s only rock ’n’ roll.”


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--Todd Martens