Bruce Springsteen’s Lyrical Evolution, In Word Clouds
A handwritten draft of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” recently sold at auction for $197,000. The sheet does not feature the song’s final, famous lyrics, but rather catches in sharp strokes of blue ink a moment in Springsteen’s songwriting process: The song’s all-too-familiar refrain surrounded by ideas and images not fully fleshed out. Possibilities fill the margins. A student of the “kill your darlings” school of writing, Springsteen’s been known to rewrite, revise and redraft his lyrics until he’s satisfied. Painstaking a process as that might be, it’s a quality you’d expect in a man who’s made a career out of communicating the inexpressible moments of triumph and angst on the great march to both self and communal understanding.
This week, Springsteen will release his eighteenth studio album, High Hopes, riding the hot streak of his 2012 effort Wrecking Ball and its characteristically massive world tour. He’s the kind of musician who doesn’t slow down. The kind of musician so in-tune with himself and the rest of the world that you figure it’ll be a cold day in hell before he finds himself at a loss for words (and melodies, for that matter). But Springsteen is also the kind of musician so steeped in the rock and roll tradition, both by his own musical doing and our own need to canonize, that there’s a certain predictability to his lyrics. “Love,” “rise,” “road,” “night,” “car,” “dream,” “street,” “town,” “run”: These words express core rock and roll themes that Springsteen was weened on, and then helped perfect. Like so many other musicians, he’s woven these words into countless songs with a remarkable degree of success that dwarfs the moments where he trips over himself and into the pit of rawk cliche. Yet even then, it’s hard to fault the man when he still so obviously believes in the power of the rock and roll lexicon.
If he didn’t, those aforementioned words — and their various conjugations and cases — wouldn’t have shown up approximately 321, 84, 70, 358, 45, 139, 140, 101 and 66 times, respectively over the course of Bruce Springsteen’s discography. In honor of the Boss’s new album, we’ve broken down the lyrics on every studio effort — from 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park to 2012’s Wrecking Ball, as well as the deep cuts, B-sides and rarities off the 1998 collection Tracks — into word clouds as a way to examine how Springsteen’s language and beliefs have changed over his four-decade career.
Using lyrics provided on Springsteen’s own website, we went decade-by-decade, combining the lyrics of his ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s records (the last one including Wrecking Ball, and the songs on Tracks were placed in their respective decades) and plugging them into a word cloud generator. We also put together a diagram that combines all of Springsteen’s career, all of which are below. The program naturally eliminates most common English words from the count, but since original diagrams included words like “just” and “well,” we used the actual word counts provided to manually narrow the focus to the most Springsteen-ian terms. Lastly, variations of the same words were lumped together; so “love” also includes “loves,” while “rise” also includes “risen,” “rose,” “rising,” etc.
On first look, there doesn’t seem to be much change: Springsteen has always loved the word “night” and he’s always written about “girls” and “boys” “born” to “run” through “towns” and “cities” on empty “streets” and “roads” fueled by “dreams” that can split a “dark” “sky” in two like a “car” straddling the lanes of a “highway,” “engines” and “hearts” roaring like “thunder.” As you’ll also notice, the two biggest words on nearly every chart are “up” and “down,” basic words that can be used any number of ways and certainly aren’t as purely thematic as the ones above. But, amazingly, each word appears 384 times throughout his career. A striking, totally coincidental equilibrium that encapsulates pop music’s joy/misery dichotomy — the same one that allows so many Springsteen anthems to burst at the seems.
But for every slightly expected consistency in Springsteen’s language, there are subtle shifts that reflect his musical and philosophical evolution. As his career’s progressed, he’s shown a stunning ability to tap into what makes a jungle like New York City tick as much as the promises that bring someone down to Darlington County. Though he doesn’t seem to necessarily favor one over the other, Springsteen’s shown something of a shift towards the heartland as his career’s progressed — there are far more towns in his later material than cities — while he’s also opened himself up to more overtly religious language. (Not that it wasn’t there before; as Art Bechstein, the protagonist of Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh posited, Born to Run, with its visions of Mary and mansions of glory, might be “the most Roman Catholic record album ever made.”) Of course, if we were gonna slap a sticker on the bumper of Springsteen’s pink Cadillac, it’d read “Jesus was a socialist.” More to the point, the more blatant presence of his faith has also coincided with shifts in his personal life, including a struggle with depression, falling in love, getting married and having children — all the while solidifying his spot as one of the most successful and adored musicians on the planet.
As Springsteen mentioned in his excellent keynote at SXSW back in 2012, a key turning point in his life was moving from Hank Williams’ near-defeatist statement “There’s a Hole in My Bucket,” to the Woody Guthrie-inspired question, “Why is there a hole in my bucket?” Springsteen’s always used his position as a rock star to proselytize the glories and majesties of the music that saved him. As he’s gotten older and assumed responsibilities for lives other than his own as a husband and father, he’s willingly taken up the activist mantle, preaching rock and roll and social justice in the same breath. Love may not be Springsteen’s most common word, but it’s unsurprisingly his most potent constant. The wild, explosive, uncertain love of his younger days was borne out of a very personal need to break free from any and all constraints, whether they were societal, familial, political or religious. While he can still capture that kind of lightning, Springsteen has higher hopes for his love these days. It’s more controlled and universal now, a force of good and betterment that extends far beyond himself.
Springsteen lyrics – entire career:
— Words by Jon Blistein for Radio.com, word clouds by Jillian Mapes & Jon Blistein