October 4, 2019 | Feature
there’s something happening somewhere
what happens when a woman covers bruce springsteen, and I finally feel seen
I remember first hearing The Rising when I was around 11, sitting in the backseat of my dad’s car as he drove me to the mall in the next town over. Released on July 30, 2002, it is Bruce Springsteen’s twelfth album, dealing primarily with the aftermath of 9/11. Of all of The Boss’s albums, it should have been the one that spoke most directly to me. I was born in 1998, making me technically among the first batch of Generation Z babies. According to the Pew Research Center, the cutoff between Millenials and Gen Z is 1996. Given these distinctions, I am supposed to have grown up knowing the ins and outs of the Internet (I don’t), particularly social media and the constant connectivity it engenders (I do). Those of us Gen Zs who were alive on 9/11 likely don’t remember it, which is apparently a factor that distinguishes us from our predecessors. It’s odd how the scaffolding of a secondhand memory has defined the world I’ve grown up in, has determined the architecture of my generation. We weren’t allowed to “run wild” anymore—there was a conscious, collective recognition of the world’s inherent dangers. We grew up knowing that things could get bad—really bad—but since that was all we knew, we focused our energy on the universally hard task of trying to grow up.
From the backseat, I remember thinking The Rising was a good album, though it differed from the Top 40 pop that I favored in middle school. I remember it sounding raw; I could hear the scraping of Bruce’s vocal cords as he sang (screamed?). It felt like good music for driving, but I knew I probably wouldn’t willingly listen to it if my dad hadn’t picked the CD. It sounded like dad music, and while I had been raised on rock n’ roll breakfasts and the Rolling Stones, it wasn’t similar to anything I wanted to listen to—so, for the next decade, I largely ignored it. That all changed last week, when I was walking, now 21, to my first apartment and heard Lucy Dacus’s cover of “Dancing in the Dark.”
“I ain’t nothin’ but tired” she sighed in a low alto, “Man I’m just tired and bored with myself / Hey there, baby, I could use just a little help.” I stopped in the middle of the street. I was hooked.
Lucy Dacus is one of those musicians I have adored for years, a patron saint of the genre I affectionately call Sad Girl Indie. Along with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers (with whom Dacus collaborates as members of the supergroup boygenius), Dacus has lived at the emotional center of my college experience. I started listening to her in earnest when I was studying abroad in England during my junior year, feeling simultaneously ecstatic about my newfound freedom and completely lost because of it. Her lyrics are wry and affecting: “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit / I had a coughing fit,” she drawls on “Night Shift,” the first track on her 2018 album, Historian. And though she often sings slowly and in a melodic monotone, her guitar riffs send each song soaring to heights that make me want to bang my head and dance.
Dacus first covered “Dancing in the Dark” in a 2016 live show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, but she released a recorded version in 2019. “Happy birthday to Bruce,” she said in a statement, “but also happy birthday to my dad, the biggest Bruce fan I know and the reason I’ve listened to The Boss since birth.” Like me, Dacus resisted falling for the wiry man from New Jersey in part as a teenage rebellion against her father’s taste in music. “I hated him in middle school,” she told Rolling Stone, “but if you listen, it’s undeniable that he is a poet and a keen observer of the world … and the songs are bops.” Similarly, I like Lucy’s music because it sounds like poetry, and in hearing her words, I finally realized that Bruce Springsteen—despite his penchant for bombast and bravado—is one of Sad Girl Indie’s predecessors.
Bruce Springsteen wrote “Dancing in the Dark” because he was told he needed a hit. He fought with his manager, Jon Landau, over the request (how capitalist! How rude to demand profit from an artist!), but scribbled the song that same night. It was the first single on what is, to some, the quintessential Bruce album, Born in the U.S.A., and in 1985, it won Springsteen his first Grammy. It was also his first song to be directly marketed to a younger audience. The music video—a live concert performance directed by Brian De Palma—was filmed for MTV and features a pre-Friends Courtney Cox as a young, pixie-cutted fan brought up on stage to boogie with The Boss. It is truly an event. It begins with a slow pan up Bruce’s blue-jeaned legs, tapping in sync with energetic synth. He snaps his fingers, and the crowd cheers. His white polo is unbuttoned to a deep V, and with every beat he whips his torso backward, holding onto the mic stand as if it’s the only thing keeping him from full surrender. He spreads his arms as he sings—a bald eagle surveying the landscape of his accomplishment. His legs are spread wide, feet tapping, belt buckle shining under stage lights. The stance is supposed to be sexy, but I can’t help giggling a little every time I watch the video—at one point he swings one arm like a lasso, and it looks like he’s on a mechanical bucking bronco at a dive bar.
“Man, I ain’t gettin’ nowhere,” he sings, “I’m just livin’ in a dump like this.” Springsteen’s music is often categorized as “heartland rock,” a genre characterized by straightforward lyricism, its focus on blue-collar American life and its conviction that rock music is a communal affair. These ideals are present in his performance, shiny as it is. It seems like he has gotten somewhere, though. He’s singing to a massive, cheering crowd in St. Paul, Minnesota—not quite a dump, despite Bruce’s words. He’s undeniably confident, performing with his full body, filling the expanse of the stage. The mood of the video is triumphant, and ironically, this makes it feel even more dated than the heavy synth beat does. Bad things had happened, that’s for sure (indeed, Springsteen wrote “Born in the U.S.A.” to protest the maltreatment of Vietnam veterans), but it still seemed like a hopeful time. The kids in the audience—kids like my parents—knew they would probably own a house one day, could have a steady job with a salary instead of a cobbled together resumé of freelance work under the gig economy, and didn’t have to worry much about the hellfire of climate collapse, which seemed more like science fiction than reality back then. The video is still an exhilarating watch, but it feels like the kind of thing only accessible through my computer screen. I cannot imagine myself as Courtney Cox—though I have twice chopped off all my hair, and I do love to dance to ’80s music.
The ’80s have influenced my adolescence and young adulthood, perhaps more than they should. All the John Hughes movies were filmed in and around the suburbs of Chicago, where I grew up. I have a Spotify playlist of ’80s alternative called “The Sixteen Candles House is Down the Street from Mine” because the Sixteen Candles house is, in fact, down the street from mine (it looks largely the same as it does in the movie, except I bet the inside is no longer fully carpeted). I know the family who lives there; the eldest son and I were in the same third grade class. All of this pop culture has felt so real to me, like it captured something integral about my teenage experience (which is, after all, the point of art manufactured by adults who want to tap into adolescent hearts), but for some reason, Bruce Springsteen didn’t feel like a part of it. I had always connected him to adulthood, to dad rock. I preferred The Smiths, Joan Jett, and David Bowie—songs for kids who feel a little weird, a little out of place.
Lucy Dacus changed that. Her version of “Dancing in the Dark” is also available on Youtube as a cell-phone video from a concert-goer at the 2018 End of the Road Festival in the U.K. She, too, is wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. Her shirt, however, is a crew neck, and slightly too big—it’s probably a men’s undershirt. Her black, electric guitar is strapped across her body, replacing Bruce’s synth and shielding her from the audience who sings along. She bops on her toes as she sings, a soft, shy smile playing across her face when it becomes clear the audience is completely on her side. She walks around the stage, awkwardly, endearingly. Her male guitarist folds his body in two, overcome by the music. Lucy remains upright, composed.
“I check my look in the mirror,” she wails. “Wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face!” This sounds different coming from a woman. I can believe that she does, truly, want to change her face. It is, after all, hard to escape in a society constantly trying to sell us products designed to do that very thing. But it’s more than that. The song reaches a different emotional plane when it’s toned down and sung in a higher octave: In its buoyant beat, there is sadness. It’s not that Bruce didn’t explore these nuances, it’s just that, when sung by a woman starting her career, rather than a man at the height of his, they’re more immediately apparent. Lucy is only 24, which means her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood have all been steeped in the same fear, uncertainty, and (it sounds awful to say it) unavoidable hopelessness that mine have. I know I’m prone to catastrophizing, but I do not know what my future will look like; I do not even know how long I have to figure that out. Lucy captures these notes—which were, in the original song, barely hidden—in her performance. She, too, is uncertain, is tired, is living her life nevertheless because what else can anyone do? Lucy is not yet ready to fill a stadium in St. Paul, but she’s playing her heart out all the same.
In her video, Lucy shakes her head, her brown hair flying. I dance in my bedroom in Providence, hair pulled into a ponytail, zit cream on, wearing my own too-large shirt. I spin around as Lucy does, slightly off-balance. Despite years of ballet training, I still lack rhythm. I am trying to find my own movement, trying to feel the beat in my body, and I think I’m getting there. My vocal register is like Lucy’s, low for a woman, and I feel my voice slot effortlessly into hers as I sing along. I have lived life on the cusp—pulled toward old movies and old songs I can only access via the Internet, on the border between generations, between adolescence and adulthood. In my last year of college, I am tired—of myself, of school, of everything I’ve done. I know “there’s something happening somewhere,” and I don’t know where it is or what I’ll do there, but I want to go. According to Lucy herself, Springsteen’s lyricism is “embedded in my own songwriting inextricably at this point.” Words and rhythms bleed into and build on one another, whether they’re made for stadiums or Sad Girls, which sometimes, might even be the same. “Stay on the streets of this town, / And they’ll be carvin’ you up alright,” Bruce and Lucy tell me. Providence has carved me up, simultaneously home and hell, and like any of the places I’ve lived in for a while, I’m ready to leave it. But it’s only October. There’s still more to this place to discover and more music to give it all meaning. Until I find out, I’m fine turning up the volume, and just dancing in the dark.