presenting at the bruce springsteen conference

I just got some of the best and potentially most fun conference news I’ve had in a while. My abstract, “Of Queens and Candy Aisles: Desire, Decaying Society, and the Literary Tradition of ‘Queen of the Supermarket,'” has been one of 140 papers accepted for the 2009 conference: Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium (Sept 25 – 27, Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey).

Writing the abstract was great fun because, as many know, I am a huge Springsteen fan, but also because it was one of those rare moments (these days) that get me back in touch with my former life as a literature student. It also spawned a wonderfully exciting Twitter discussion about movies, songs, and poems that are about or mention or take place in supermarkets. Most of the examples in my abstract I owe to my friends in the Twittersphere. I expect writing the paper this summer will be equally exciting and I plan on opening up drafts to the same folks so they can add, enhance, and undoubtedly improve the discussion. Here is the full abstract:

Though Brian Hiatt in Rolling Stone wrote that the “twisted pop fantasia” of “Queen of the Supermarket” “has a Sixties AM-radio vibe reminiscent of Manfred Mann’s ‘Pretty Flamingo,’ the song has received some of the harshest critiques of any Springsteen song, ever. The Philadelphia Inquirer suggested that it “might be the worst song Springsteen has ever released.” The Detroit News was more certain: “The worst song Bruce Springsteen has ever written.” And Blender cooked up a devastating comparison: “At the 3:00 mark, it accidentally turns into a Meatloaf song.” Upon first hearing the song I, too, wondered just what was going on with this hokey, pining song.

However, because of the influence the Beat generation has had on Springsteen, one cannot hear the word “supermarket” without making an immediate connection to the most famous of all supermarket poems, Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California.” In this poem, Ginsberg invokes and objectifies Walt Whitman (just as Springsteen’s hero invokes and objectifies the cashier) while fantastic streaming of consciousness descriptions of directionless lives amongst the avocados and tomatoes suggest that neon-America has lost its way. This is Springsteen’s supermarket—one filled with the desires of working-class people at the end of the day longing for those things just out of reach: groceries, overt action, love.

And, yet, it is also a place of inaccessible, cloaked royalty. The queen of this super market—like Mary, the Queen of Arkansas, whose loose love has the hero teetering off the tightrope—is so built up in the hero’s mind that though she is a mere foot away she might as well be perched on a throne high above the mindless masses.

Sexual desire, lifeless humanity, and decaying society in the supermarket (or grocery) have a rich literary tradition in work by John Updike, Charles Bukowski, Denise Levertov, Langston Hughes, and Randall Jarrell, among others. The word “supermarket,” first used in 1933, had a similar negative connotation of a decline in society and pillaging of small-town life that “big box store” has today. Contemporary examples in popular media of such loss include The Clash’s, “Lost in the Supermarket”; Pulp’s “Common People”; the pet store in Rocky; Retail Rodeo in The Good Girl; and the supermarket in Moscow on the Hudson, where Robin Williams’ character is so overwhelmed by the amount of coffee in the aisle, as compared to Russia where he had to stand on a coffee line, that he collapses uncontrollably repeating, “Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee.”

This presentation, then, will contextualize “Queen of the Supermarket” within the Springsteen oeuvre as well as the socio-economic traditions of supermarkets in literary, music, and screen history. As a result, we will see that the song breaks new ground for Springsteen’s writing about men, women, and society.

Updated August 20, 2010

Here’s the Prezi for the talk.

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