Retrofit Dialogue: Bruce Springsteen’s “Your Own Worst Enemy”

The subject: Bruce Springsteen’s “Your Own Worst Enemy,” from his 2007 release, “Magic.”

I think it’s one of Springsteen’s best. “An intricate weave of straight-forward music and elaborate production, with lyrics that tangle personal observation and social commentary,” and etc.

Kasey, on the other hand, thinks: “It’s vague and cliched in the worst way; (and) musically it’s a clusterfuck.”

Say what? But then, you’ve gotta listen because  Kasey is Kasey Anderson: The  singer/songwriter/bandleader extraordinaire, whose latest album, “Heart of a Dog” is entirely kick-ass, and whose “Nowhere Nights” was by my lights one of the best albums of 2010. You definitely want to check out his work, if you haven’t yet.

Even if he’s totally wrong about “Your Own Worst Enemy.”

 PETER

Like virtually every song on the “Magic” album, “Your Own Worst Enemy” is quite a complex song: an intricate weave of straight-forward music and elaborate production, with lyrics that tangle personal observation and social commentary into a narrative that can be perceived on a variety of levels.

Just for context, let’s recall that “Magic” came out in late 2007, right when frustration and, increasingly, outrage over the Bush administration’s antics were climbing to all-new heights. Consider the botched campaign in Afghanistan; the pointless war in Iraq, the start of the financial crisis, etc. And yet the administration’s particular brilliance — their magic, as it were — resided in their ability to ignore any information that didn’t fit their pre-conceived sense of how things ought to be. The good old truthiness ideal: if it feels right, no point in thinking about it anymore.

Much of “Magic,” particularly the title track and the kick-ass “Livin’ in the Future” deals with this specifically. So does “Your Own Worst Enemy,” albeit with a metaphorical veneer. Here’s the first verse:

You can’t sleep at night

You can’t dream your dreams

Your fingerprints on file

Left clumsily at the scene

Your own worst enemy has come to town.

Which creates questions: Who is ‘you’? What accounts for the person’s psychic static? Was he/she involved in some literal crime?

More details arrive in the second verse:

Yesterday the people were at ease

Baby slept in peace

You closed your eyes and saw her

You knew who you were

Now your own worst enemy has come to town

Check out the reference to “the people,” which gives a glimpse of a wider arena. The sleeping baby, the beautiful object powerful enough to define another person’s existence. (In this case, You.)

What this begins to tell me is that this song is about far more than one ordinary lovelorn or solitary person. This is a story with much broader significance. One whose ‘enemy’ amounts to an idea, rather than a human antagonist.

I also like the strings and bells producer Brendan O’Brien folds in. Because it makes it all the more bejeweled and stately. And as a result: Creepy.

Is this not compelling? I think it’s pretty fucking compelling. And there’s more.

KASEY

I want to preface everything I’m about to say with this: Bruce Springsteen is not only one of the greatest songwriters of the last century, he’s one of the most important artists in Rock ‘n’ Roll, ever. There’s not a Springsteen record I don’t own, love and listen to constantly. That being said:

This song is just loaded to the gills with platitudes. It’s vague and cliched in the worst way, which is awfully surprising given how adept Springsteen is at transcending cliches as a lyricist. His themes are always enormous and universal, and, far more often than not, he gets to the heart of the matter without a lot of ornate dancing around, and still manages to be poignant, literate, and poetic. Not here. Here it’s clumsy line after clumsy line. “You can’t dream your dreams.” OH I GET IT. “Dreams” works on TWO levels! Not just the dreams of the sleeping but the larger, American dream! How incisive! “Once the family felt secure / no no one’s very sure.” Cool! Feel free to dress it up a little bit Bruce. That’s one half-step removed from “We used to feel very safe / but now we do not.” That’s some borderline remedial sentimentality and expression right there and it is so far below the bar Springsteen has set for himself that I’m tempted to believe he either completely phoned this one in or there’s some really incredible subtext that is just so far over my head I can’t even recognize it.

Musically, the song’s a clusterfuck. Magic is a sweeping pop production album in the way Born to Run was (or that’s what we’re to understand, anyway), with Springsteen sacrificing some of the grittier elements of his band for lush, layered melodies. That’s fine. I can dig that. But O’Brien’s production is such a directionless muck of piled-on schmaltz for this song I can’t even begin to imagine what the concept Bruce had in mind would have been. “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” on the other hand, is equally robust but focused, every instrument and melody headed for the finish line. “Your Own Worst Enemy” is a herd of blind cattle slamming into one another and, ultimately, collapsing.

What say you to that!

And furthermore, who is the Enemy in this song, in your opinion? Bush? Government in general? Self-deception? The one thing I do like about this tune is that he uses the word “own.” To me, saying “your own worst enemy” rather than “your worst enemy” suggests that, whoever or whatever the enemy is, we’re responsible.

Then again, given the rest of the song, he could have just tossed the word “own” in for cadence.

PETER

I’m completely flummoxed by your aesthetic call here. I hear all the same things you do on that tune, and it all works for me. Throw in the intensity of your dislike — a little noxious cloud of sulfur erupts from my computer screen every time I open one of your emails — and I’m left to ponder the quirkiness of individual taste.

So I can’t refute your opinions, exactly. All I can do is explain why I feel precisely the opposite way.

Musically, and production-wise, I think O’Brien’s ideas are fine. (and I don’t always agree with his production calls…and might have mixed this album in a different way, too…) Given how dry the strings sound – the cellos are high in the mix, and the creak of the bows adds to the tension of the track, I think — and how far to the back the timpani and bells are — the orchestration’s grandeur underscores what I hear as the real point of the lyric, and the song.

I think the person he’s addressing in the song is George W. Bush. And while I don’t agree that the dream he can’t dream is the American one (on the contrary, I’d say Bruce is describing what he imagines to be a scene from Bush’s own internal life) it’s easy for me to hear how certain phrases and word choices could fit the experience of a failed chief executive, right at the moment when the extent of his own failures overwhelm him.

He can’t sleep at night. He recalls the thrill of his first taste of power (“you knew who you were…”). Only now he sees it through the bitter truth that he only made everything worse. “Everything is upside-down.” No one feels secure. So what was the administration’s answer? Think back to the days when those roc
k-solid guarantees of WMD’s in Iraq (this is why we fight!) proved absolutely false. When the guarantees of a hero’s welcome in Baghdad turned into bombs and firefights. Did Rove, Cheney, et. al even pause to acknowledge their errors? Um, not quite. And thus: “The times, they got too clear/So you removed all the mirrors…” Which only works to an extent, as Bruce imagines Bush (the decider) realizing, constantly (“there’s a face you know/staring back from the shop window/The condition you’re in/Now you just can’t get out of this skin…”

Then comes the final couplet, which cinches the personal and political even closer together: “Your flag it flew so high/You drifted up to the sky…”

In the name of American glory — and the unfortunate confusion of personal glory with the national good — Bush has lost himself in his own facade.

I’ve got more to say about all of this, but I think this amounts to a compelling — and surprisingly empathetic — peek into the heart Bruce knows Bush still had, and has. He’s tasted his own kind of power, too. He understands what leads an ordinary man to believe he might be something more than ordinary. And he also knows how it feels to wake up one morning and realize that you’ve just made a huge mistake.

In a business where confidence means everything even a whiff of failure strikes the deepest kind of terror. It is, without a doubt, your own worst enemy.

To hear a lovely stripped-down version of the tune, check out this video from the Light of Day show on Jan 15. Bruce opened with an acoustic arrangement of the tune, and from where I was sitting that night, nothing but shivers.

KASEY

I like that performance. The performance. Doesn’t change the song for me, but I like the way he plays it there.

I think O’Brien’s ideas are fine, too. He’s an excellent producer and whatever problems I have with his production on Springsteen records is countered by how much I think he has enhanced the way Springsteen’s band sounds. It’s give and take and he has given Springsteen – and, by extension, his audience – plenty. I just think “Worst Enemy” is clumsy and oversaturated with sound as compared to “Girls” or even “Last to Die” (a far better song about a very similar subject).

What’s really interesting to me is where we differ on lyrical interpretations. You see him addressing Bush, but I hear the narrator say, “you closed your eyes and saw her / you knew who you were,” and wonder, if he is indeed addressing G.W., who is “her?” Certainly not Laura. This leads me to believe one of two things is true: 1) the song is more a “relationship song” than it is a social commentary (the lyrics still make plenty of sense that way) or 2) it’s lazy writing. I believe option #2 to be the more likely option, in this case.

But – BUT – maybe that’s the brilliance of a song. It is both specific and broad, depending upon the listener. Maybe that’s Springsteen’s trick here, he uses this very broad, generic language and lets us project the rest upon the song. In most other cases, I’d say, “No, you’re giving the writer too much credit; it’s just lazy writing, not some ingenious songwriter’s trick,” but in Springsteen’s case, you really never know. But, y’know, he’s capable of horseshit songs, too. There’s some flat-out schmaltz on Human Touch and it’s not all an ingenious use of negative lyrical space, y’know? He takes a big cut and misses every now and again, like anyone else.

So, if it is about the Bush administration, or more specifically George W. Bush, who is “her?”

PETER

First thing, I’d like to back off half a step from my rock-solid declaration that the song is a straight-forward  letter to GW Bush. That’s how I hear the song, but it’s silly for me to foreclose any other options for other listeners. Or, for that matter, for B. Springsteen himself, who may be thinking something different.

And yet part of what I love about the tune — and the whole “Magic” album — is how it scans on more than one level at the same time. How it compresses the larger societal mood down to a story about self-image, doubt and loss. Think about the narrator of “Radio Nowhere,” the guy in his car in the middle of the night, lost in some kind of radio-less zone just when he’s craving human connection. “I just wanna hear some rhythm,” he chants, thereby boiling down the gloom of social disconnection into musical/rock ‘n’ roll terms. “Livin’ in the Future” takes its own path to the same destination — this time confabulating a sexy temptress with the cowboy swagger of GWB in the fall of ’00. (On one hand, the narrator is kissing a girl;  on the other, the whole saga is set on election day, as an attractive stranger comes strutting into town “bootheels clickin’ like the barrel of a pistol turnin’ round…” So – social malaise; political hi-jinks; seduction/deception. It’s a love story gone wrong…a faithless chick; a cocksure leader whose collection of cattle reside entirely inside his spotless designer cowboy hat.

So the ‘her’ in “Enemy?” Another seductress: In this case, that taste of globe-rocking power. Suddenly you knew who you were – the leader of the free world, motherfucker. If you can dream it, you can do it. Only once you do, it’s not a dream anymore. It’s stone cold reality, complete with death (“Last to Die,” “Gypsy Biker”) widespread alienation (“Magic” the song; “Long Walk Home”) and on and on. The ‘she,’ then, feels less like a literal person to me. She’s a wraith; a hallucination; the demonic power of the ring at the core of “Lord of the Rings.” “Ahhh, the pretty! The pretty!”

Literal meanings are for you to hear. What sticks with me now, three-plus years later, is the memory of how it feels when one man’s much hoped-for vision collapses in on itself, and everyone else pays the price.

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