[For this particular AmericanStudier, there’s no better way to think through another anniversary of September 11th, 2001 than to consider some of the many lessons we can learn from the best cultural work depicting that moment: Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising (2002). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pairs of songs from that vital work—please share your own responses, nominations for other vital 9/11 cultural works, and further thoughts for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the vital role of art about sex in challenging times.
One of the more frustrating recent debates has been over whether sex scenes in film and TV are necessary or outdated. Part of my frustrations have to do with a significant historical mistake: many of those arguing against sex scenes seem unaware that films were quite sexy until the emergence of the industry’s restrictive Hayes Code in the 1930s, and thus that sex scenes are far more foundational and defining to the genre than they are modern. But even leaving those important details aside, it’s also very frustrating to see so many folks arguing that sex scenes in films or TV shows serve no storytelling purposes other than to titillate or appeal to the male gaze or the like. Of course some sex scenes might be superficial or unnecessary (or even sexist and shitty), but the same could be said for virtually any type of scene in cultural works; of course there are specific issues around intimacy that need to be addressed with this particular type of scene (and are being conscientiously addressed these days, it seems), but that’s a distinct question from whether the scenes themselves contribute to elements like plot, characterization, and themes.
Songs are sex are not identical to sex scenes in visual media (although there’s unquestionably a problematic history of blatantly sexist music videos), but many of the same questions could nonetheless apply. More exactly, I’d likewise make the case that songs about sex similarly can play important cultural and social roles, well beyond titillation or the like. And one of the songwriters who has most consistently included sexy songs on albums where they might seem out of place but instead contribute meaningfully to the whole is Bruce Springsteen. Take “Cover Me,” for example, which immediately follows “Born in the U.S.A.” at the start of that album and reflects the speaker’s desire for physical companionship (not limited to sex, but certainly including it) amidst that challenging 1980s world. Or “You’ve Got It,” for another example, which comes halfway through Wrecking Ball and importantly offers sex and romantic love as ways to counter that album’s dark and depressing themes.
The Rising includes not one but two such songs, a pair of sexy tracks that complement each other and collectively represent sex’s vital role in these kinds of fraught and fragile historical moments. The couple in “The Fuse” are already together, and so the speaker’s repeated plea of “Come on let me do you right” in response to a moment when the “Devil’s on the horizon line” reflects how existing companionship can counter such darknesses. Whereas “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” is as its title suggests a proposition, one that makes direct (and maybe slightly cynical, but it doesn’t feel that way to this listener at least) use of the moment’s uncertainties (“Don’t know when this chance might come again/Good times go a way of slippin’ away”) to make the case that the speaker and addressee “get skin to skin.” As with all of Springsteen’s sexy songs, both of these tracks exist not in spite of nor separate from their album and moment’s broader contexts, but as important layers to those contexts, reminding us as so much great art does that sex is fully part of art and world alike.
Last RisingStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 9/11 texts you’d highlight?