Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Sarah Kurchak recalls her struggle with childhood bullies, her struggle to appreciate Bruce Springsteen, and how overcoming one helped her overcome the other.
About a year before I became a semi-tragic bullying statistic, my best friend told me that she had something very important to share with me.
“You have to listen to what I’m saying,” she warned as somberly as any middle-class 10-year-old with no history of trauma could manage. “You have to listen. This is important.”
I tried to listen as she pulled out a cassette tape with an American flag and some guy’s butt on the cover. When she pressed play and the singing started, all I heard was “Born in the microwave.”
Up until that point, our shared musical history was almost entirely Weird Al-based, so I took the nonsensical lyrics I heard at face value and figured that she was introducing me to another comedian. And the fact that he kind of looked like he was peeing on the Stars and Stripes only fueled my suspicion. Why would anyone seriously want to piss on something like that?
I laughed. She didn’t. We never talked about Bruce Springsteen again.
Five years later, she unceremoniously dumped me so that she could be friends with my much cooler bullies. Fifteen years after that, I finally figured out what The Boss was really saying in “Born in the U.S.A.”.
See, I’m not great at reading people. And I’m even worse at reading unapologetically earnest rockers from Jersey.
One of the problems with the inability to read people is that you’re never really sure when someone has turned on you. When a group of girls who had ostensibly been my friends for a number of years decided that they hated me in the fifth grade, I failed to take the hint for months. I continued to bumble around, cluelessly believing in things like friendship and truth and honesty and my own likability, until their attacks became too obvious for even me to ignore. And when the damaged and stolen property, verbal abuse, and psychological warfare kicked in, showing any vulnerability whatsoever became dangerous. Being open to anyone, I concluded, only invited in predators. Showing any weakness only gave them more fuel.
One of the problems with being unable to read guileless Jersey rockers is that if this happens to you in the 1993-1995 window, you temporarily try to seek solace in the music of Bon Jovi. It was an imperfect solution, though. As much as I loved Jon Bon Jovi’s buoyant choruses and hair, his music, to paraphrase a soon-to-be-hero of my petulant and guarded adolescence, said nothing to me about my life.
Alternative music, as nebulous a term as that already was by the mid-‘90s, did speak to me with its recurring themes of isolation, frustration, and angst heavier than its riffs. More importantly, it did so in a way that felt safe. The emotions that I wasn’t afraid to express in public were always cranked to 11, whether it was the depression of Joy Division, the melancholy of half The Cure’s catalogue, or the unapologetic rage of Hole’s “Violet”. Pretty much everything else was couched in apathy and irony.
To me, irony in the ‘90s was a lot like porn: I couldn’t define it, but I knew it when I saw it. And I got a naughty, illicit rush every time I encountered it in Pavement’s disinterested sing-song melodies, Veruca Salt’s smirking sneer, and Sloan’s wickedly clever wordplay and nods to the ‘70s rock that we weren’t supposed to take seriously but still totally loved, even if we couldn’t admit it.
My love for this music was and is genuine. But for the rest of my teens and at least part of my twenties, I hid that love, along with everything else I cared about, behind the disaffected front that I’d cultivated over years of hanging out on the fringes of the alternative nation. If someone made fun of me for liking a band, or caring about, well, anything, I’d just shrug and say, “You know, I was just being ironic.” It was an all-purpose defense mechanism.
Which is why artists like Bruce Springsteen bothered me so much. There’s nothing to hide behind in painfully earnest rock songs about working-class life, factories, commitment, and plainspoken feelings. You can’t sing a line like “I believe in the love that you gave me/ I believe in the faith that can save me” from “Badlands” and then backtrack with claims of irony. The very thought of laying things on the line like that made me feel physically ill.
Even the way Springsteen sang those lyrics troubled me. Outside of his ballads, Springsteen has no inside voice and no use for one. He sings everything with a volume and enthusiasm that can only be described in homey cliches like “at the top of his lungs” and “all guns blazing.” As a child of the loud-quiet-loud alternative nation, I only like screaming when it was offset with whispering verses. Anything more boisterous than that just seemed like drawing too much attention to yourself and asking for trouble.
In fact, the very act of liking someone who wrote and sang like that felt too vulnerable to me, and I secretly judged/envied my friends who put themselves out there like that. Despite the fact that many of my colleagues and editors adored the man, I carried this belief well into my career as a music writer.
I didn’t mention any of my bizarrely cultivated Springsteen hang-ups when I was offered a gig to write a series of essays about The Boss that could appeal to women in the 18-34 demographic for his Canadian label.
When they asked me if I liked him, I offered a noncommittal “Who doesn’t like Springsteen?” and somewhat cynically took the job. Like every other freelance writer, I needed the money.
I was given a week to write the essays about whatever albums and DVDs I wanted from his back catalogue. Somewhere in the middle of that, my life turned into a bit of a moralistic rock and roll fairytale: I was punished for my cynicism with a rapid onset of Springsteen fandom and learned a very special lesson about the importance of being earnest.
For five straight days, I listened to nothing but Springsteen albums. I also decided to give The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town another try. I’d caught the documentary when it premiered at TIFF in 2010 and had given it a middling review. At the time, I felt it didn’t offer any particular insight that you couldn’t get from a thorough listening of the 1978 album itself. On second viewing, I thought there might be something in the film’s rumination on issues like reckoning with adulthood and struggling with fame that might appeal to a lot of people on either side of the quarter-life crisis who grew up with idols like Kurt Cobain.
Then I watched it a third time.
Whether it was the Scientology-like indoctrination I subjected myself to or the sheer power of the music, I emerged from the experience a full-blown convert, furiously typing away at my essays and babbling about nothing but Darkness for days on end.
“You can’t approach Springsteen as just some random rocker, and you can’t approach him with cynicism,” I’d proclaim at a less than becoming volume to anyone who cared or was willing to pretend to care. “He’s barely a human at this point. He is actually the Platonic ideal of earnestness temporarily taking corporeal form. You can’t be cynical about that! You can’t be ironic about that! You don’t have to like him. But you have to take him at face value and assess him accordingly.”
Taking my own wild and wide-eyed advice, I really listened to Darkness at the Edge of Town, and I found that the album actually did say something to me about my life in far plainer terms than I’d really wanted to face before.
I couldn’t identify with Springsteen’s struggle with fame because I was a no-name freelancer who had never scored a byline in places like Time and Newsweek, let alone landed on the covers of both publications at the same time like Bruce did in 1975. But the rest of his soul-searching resonated with me.
Darkness is a reflective album about small-town life made by a man wrestling with adulthood. He wanted to come to terms with his home and himself and wanted to grow up with some sense of maturity, conviction, and passion. Given the personal soul-searching and ambivalence that went into the writing of the album, the conviction inherent in so many of the lyrics is astounding.
In “Prove It All Night”, he sings, “But if dreams came true, oh, wouldn’t that be nice/ But this ain’t no dream we’re living through tonight/ Girl, you want it, you take it, you pay the price.” In the title track, he doubles down on that sentiment with “’Cause tonight I’ll be on that hill, ’cause I can’t stop/ I’ll be on that hill with everything I got/ Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost/ I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost.”
And then there’s “Badlands”, the song that used to make me feel so nervous, which kicks off the album like a fist-pumping thesis statement. In the midst of my sleep-deprived Springsteen madness, it felt like The Boss was singing every single lyric in his booming ALL CAPS voice just for me. I did wake up in the middle of the night with a fear so real that my dream wouldn’t happen! I was afraid that I was wasting my life waiting for that moment that just won’t come! I did want to find one face that wasn’t looking through me and spit in the face of my hometown! And, damn it, I did want to believe in love and faith and hope that it would raise me above my past! And I was willing to let my broken heart stand as the price I’ve gotta pay.
The best way to face all of this head on, I concluded, was to go back to my hometown. An old non-bullying buddy of mine from my elementary school days was having a stag and doe in town, and I would go to it. In the name of “Badlands”.
I’d originally rejected the idea of attending the event because I knew there was a very good chance that my bullies would be there and, 18 years after I’d switched schools to escape them and 12 years after I’d skipped town entirely, I was still afraid of running into them again. When I’d visited my parents back home in the past, I’d carefully planned my public forays to avoid running into them and prepared a series of snotty, ironic remarks to hurl at them in case I did. Sometimes I still had nightmares that I did see them and that I only embarrassed myself further and subjected myself to more abuse at their hands. The idea of finally sucking it up, owning my impending humiliation, and wearing my broken heart on my sleeve like a Boss was an intriguing alternative.
On the night of the event, I hopped into a car and, honestly, drove past a couple of factories to a clubhouse at the edge of town. On my first lap of the venue, as I wandered through various figures and ghosts from my past, I ran right into one of the bullies.
We paused and made eye contact. She showed no sign of recognition. I smiled at her and walked away.
I had spent a truly sad amount of my life thinking about that moment with alternating excitement and dread. Like many bullied kids, I grew up with the narrative that some day I’d be so much cooler than the girls who were making my tiny life such a living hell and that they’d be serving me fries when I became famous and beloved for all of the weird qualities that were making me a pariah on the playground. It was a dream that got me through the hard times, but it became a burden I couldn’t escape. What would it mean if I could never shove my success in the face of those girls? What if I never got that sweet revenge that would make my “The Promised Land”-like misery meaningful?
Standing face to face with her in that moment was, if you’ll forgive my overly earnest Springsteen paraphrasing, a twister that blew away the dreams that tore me apart and the lies that left me nothing but lost and brokenhearted. When we tell kids that it gets better, we should tell them that the best part of all is that you might be able to meet your bullies again and feel nothing. That you can reach a point where the worst real-life villain you can imagine becomes just another person that you can pass in a hallway before you continue going about your grown-up existence.
Two drinks later, I walked into my favorite teacher from those years, the kindhearted and bigmouthed woman who would take care of me when she found me crying in the cloakroom again or defend me in the middle of class when things got really bad.
“It was brave of you to come here tonight,” she told me with teacherly pride.
I shrugged. “I guess. It’s taken me a lot of work, but I just felt ready.”
“That’s because you’re better than them,” she said.
“No,” I said. And then I went into full Darkness mode. “I’ve just been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen lately, and it’s made me think about dealing with your past and facing adulthood and all of that stuff, and I know it’s weird, but I really feel like that helped me.”
My rambling monologue didn’t faze her. She just gave me a hug and behaved as if I’d said something halfway rational.
I sang along to “Badlands” on repeat the whole way home. Earnestly and at the top of my lungs. That’s the only way to sing a song by a man who doesn’t give a damn for just the in-betweens.
Sarah Kurchak is a writer from Toronto. She has previously been published in Spinner, Huffington Post, Noisey, National Post, and AUX. She tweets.