Thoughts on Hero Worship: Bruce Springsteen and I

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: Our modern obsession with musicians.

Hero worship involves us entirely, uncritically, and excessively adoring another human being. There are sports heroes, political heroes, teacher heroes (for the nerds), but no category of hero is more worshiped than that of the musician. The film Bruce Springsteen and I exemplifies the way we idolize certain bards. How we anticipate and hang on to every note they play or syllable they speak.

The movie was quite touching, actually, a series of video love letters from fans to their beloved Bruce. One guy actually broke down in tears while driving as he described his obvious affection. A woman described an ongoing affair with Springsteen, admitting that the Boss, of course, had no idea she even existed.

Others were less dramatic but no less authentic: a collective sample of ordinary individuals, most of humble means, who simply seized the opportunity to express appreciation for music that taught them life lessons that were personally and pointedly profound. The film culminated with a concert, of course, and then a backstage meeting that seemed to mean a great deal even to Bruce himself.

The movie made it easy to understand the attachment that fans have for their heroes, especially when the songs resonate with a deeper meaning and the narratives seem to parallel their lives. Though Springsteen puts on a hell of a show, one that's capable of rallying every rock 'n' roll enthusiast, it's those lyrics and those heartfelt sentiments that seem to stir something deep within. Bruce represents the heartland. His edge and emotion -- that restless spirit that drives his best songs -- resonates so meaningfully, that it's actually capable of bringing us back to a time when we were young and rebellious and believed the possibilities were endless.

There seems to be a fine line between that sense of nostalgia and the god-like reverence so many feel for musicians. Last summer, I attended a weeklong summer camp curated by Todd Rundgren. I witnessed the unwavering devotion of fans who literally follow him around the globe and convene on special websites wholly devoted to Todd's past and present. I'm an admirer of his music too, but here were people giving an abundance of their time, energy, and finances to physically be in his presence. And when they weren't, to wholly obsess over him. Idol worship? Yes. I'd have to say that clearly qualified.

Of course, Todd fans and Bruce devotees aren't the only ones for whom fanaticism runs rampant. Most artists and bands can claim a similar degree of devotion, even if their numbers aren't quite as overwhelming. Artists as diverse as Jimmy Buffett, Metallica, and Jay Z can all claim a similarly devoted following: an intense bond and a cultish captivation that extends far beyond the music.

I understand how people can get fascinated by a celebrity and feel something so irresistible that it draws them closer. However, the trend of giving that kind of power to an individual seems dangerous. It's that cult of personality, that blind devotion to someone followers believe is elevated and enlightened that inspired Jim Jones' and Charles Manson's disillusioned followers. Granted, Springsteen and Rundgren aren't going to drag anyone down that path. But they do hold a certain power of persuasion, be it the trumpeting of a political cause or the ability to influence someone into thinking their life isn't worth very much unless that musician gives it meaning. Tom Jones once caused otherwise sane women to toss their undergarments onstage. Devoted denizens still weep at Elvis' grave. Mark Chapman was so captivated by John Lennon that he murdered him, thinking himself a victim of Lennon's betrayal.

"Live your own life," a famous rocker once told me when I became overly enamored with his legend. Another artist told me recently, very simply: "They're only songs."

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Lee Zimmerman