Bruce Springsteen’s Biggest Hit Hides a 2,000-Year-Old Revelation About Creative Work
It was the song that made Bruce Springsteen a household name. Sure, by 1984 the growly voiced rocker-poet from New Jersey already had a decade of critical acclaim under his belt; it was nine years since “Born to Run” had cracked the Billboard charts. But “Dancing in the Dark,” with its urgently snappy beat and its feel-good, hip-swinging music video, was what finally catapulted him all the way to the top of the American mass consciousness.
So considering how much Springsteen obsession there’s been in the 30-odd years since then, you’d think that, by now, everything that could possibly be said about this landmark mega-hit by one of our greatest pop culture icons must have been said already. Right?
Nope. There’s something remarkable in “Dancing in the Dark” that’s never been dragged into the light. And it’s something that articulates an important truth about the creative process — not just Springsteen’s, but everyone’s who’s ever struggled to connect with the right audience.
Go Back and Try Harder, Superstar
See, “Dancing in the Dark” was the final song that Springsteen wrote for the Born in the U.S.A. album. He’d thought the record was done already, but his manager, Jon Landau, famously disagreed. “He suggested we didn’t have a [sure hit] single,” Springsteen would later recall in Rolling Stone. The two men argued, and finally the songwriter stormed off in anger to try and write a song that would somehow be more effective at capturing the ears of mass audiences than the dozens and dozens and dozens of tunes he’d already poured years’ worth of time and energy into first writing and then winnowing down to the last 11.
How maddening the demand must have seemed at that point: There was Springsteen, possibly the most highly acclaimed lyricist of his generation, being told by one of his closest supporters that his work wasn’t ready for prime time yet.
On the one hand, it’s the same experience that every commercial artist, regardless of whether they’re a songwriter or a graphic designer, goes through whenever their client wants revisions on a piece of work.
And yet, knowing how we creatives obsess over the quality of our own output, one imagines it must have felt to Springsteen as though Landau was the obstacle blocking his path to triumph — even as, at the same time, that little internal voice we all know so well was whispering in his ear: “It’s true. You haven’t had a hit in four years now. You’ve screwed up, and you’ll never again be loved by all the people.”
Looking back on that moment with historical hindsight, one wonders: Did Springsteen find himself identifying with other great writers and artists who’d felt stymied in their processes?
Because, in fact, one particular such figure comes to mind.
What Top Creatives Have Realized Ever Since Ancient Rome
Let’s back up briefly to note: We don’t usually associate Bruce Springsteen with the study of literary poetry. And yet it’s no secret that the title of his 1980 hit single, “Hungry Heart,” comes from a classic Tennyson poem that referenced ancient Roman mythology.
So maybe it shouldn’t be as startling as it is to realize that, 2,000 years ago, the hugely popular Roman poet Ovid — whose sexy verses made him pretty much the rock star of his day and whom the Emperor Augustus eventually banished from Rome to a distant province halfway across Europe — wrote this plaintive line angsting about how crappy it felt to be stuck in exile like that, far from his loving audience: “Writing a poem you can read to no one is like dancing in the dark.”
Yep, that’s where that phrase originally comes from. Think about that for a second.
Faced with creative frustration, Springsteen, a college dropout from the Jersey shore, sat down and wrote a song around the figure of speech that Ovid had used to describe his creative frustration — so far back in human history that when we say he penned that line in the year 12, we’re not talking about 2012, we’re talking about the year 12, as in A.D.
Ovid, trapped way out in the boonies and not allowed to come home to the big city where his fans were, discovered the same thing that Bruce Springsteen’s manager forced him to confront 1,900 years later: Creative work doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
It’s a truth all creatives eventually come to. However brilliant you might think your own art is, most of its real, substantive meaning will only come into existence once other people take it in.
A song that listeners don’t relate to won’t get replayed, no matter how sophisticated its harmonies might be. For that matter, a headline that readers don’t relate to won’t get clicked either, no matter how clever a pun might be in it.
To Ovid, separated from the people and places that inspired him, and surrounded instead by locals who didn’t share his frame of reference, his poetry now rang hollow, failing to connect the way he’d gotten accustomed to. And Springsteen, told that he still hadn’t managed to produce a song so universally true to the human experience that it would be irresistible to radio listeners everywhere, felt so gutted that what he proceeded to write wasn’t an intimate love ballad like “I’m on Fire” or a political rant like “Born in the U.S.A.,” but a big, desperate plea to the universe to please, please come on and grant him the gift of inspiration already:
I get up in the evening
and I ain’t got nothing to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain’t nothing but tired
Man I’m just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help
Is it ironic that Springsteen’s song about getting stuck and feeling unable to write a song turned out to be his most successful song ever? Maybe, but more so, it’s an object lesson for creative artists and professional communicators everywhere.
Because whatever any one listener may personally get out of the tune, the mega-success of “Dancing in the Dark,” two whole millennia after Ovid first coined that phrase, teaches us this:
Audiences respond to your thoughts and opinions, sure — Springsteen already had fans, after all — but bigger audiences respond more strongly to your raw, vulnerable yearnings, the ones that everybody feels, stripped bare of pretension and expressed in as honestly emotional a form as possible.
Especially if you can dance to it.
Stephen H. Segal’s newest book, coauthored with Valya Dudycz Lupescu, is Forking Good: An Unofficial Cookbook for Fans of The Good Place.