In Defense Of Bruce Springsteen’s “Queen of the Supermarket”
In light of the renewed interest in Bruce Springsteen that seems to have cropped up in the wake of his inauguration concert and Super Bowl halftime show performances, let me preface this post by saying that I am not a die-hard fan of the Boss. I like him, I very much enjoy some of his songs, and I am happy when they come on the radio. But I am unfamiliar with most of his discography and have never been to one of his concerts, and I know enough actual Bruce Springsteen fans to realize that this places me firmly in the category of “just a normal dude.” So when I say that the highly disliked “Queen of the Supermarket,” from his new album, is a great little song, this does not come from the realm of fanboy mind-blindness.
Like right, OK, I get the point of this video—the song would make for an unusually well-produced A&P ad. But I think Bruce is on to something nevertheless. Here’s how he explained the inspiration for the song:
They opened up this big, beautiful supermarket near where we lived. Patti and I would go down, and I remember walking through the aisles – I hadn’t been in one in a while – and I thought his place is spectacular. This place is… it’s a fantasy land!…If there’s a supermarket and all these things are there, well, there has to be a queen. And if you go there, of course there is. There’s millions of them, so it’s kind of a song about finding beauty where it’s ignored or where it’s passed by.
What else would you want from Bruce Springsteen, right? Sanctifying American iconography is what he does, and what people love him for. Roads, radios, bars, Saturday night—they pass through his pen and they seem immortal. But the almost universally negative reaction it’s receiving reveals that Bruce’s ultimate talent is not so much in the sanctifying as in picking iconography that everyone can already agree deserves to be sanctified. There’s nothing particularly noble about the things he sings about, after all—roads are as often a source of frustration as they are of freedom, being a teenager sucks on the whole, and America has more than its fair share of problems. But in the abstract, and surrounded by the massed sympathetic American symbolism of drums and guitars, we can think of these things with a rosy glow. There’s no reason to think supermarkets would be any different.
Maybe this is just a matter of taste, after all—when Blender‘s Rob Tannenbaum says that “it accidentally turns into a Meatloaf song,” he apparently means it as a criticism—and if the song doesn’t actually convey the beauty Bruce finds in the supermarket, then that’s certainly a failure of his work as a songwriter. But I don’t think he’s wrong to find it there in the first place, and a lot of the reactions (as with the video) seem premised on the idea that the very connection is inherently ridiculous. It’s not. Supermarkets represent a kind of perfection previously unfulfilled in human history, an absolute denial of the deprivation and constant drive for survival that have driven us as a species. The climate is perfect; the lighting is gentle and soothing; the layout is roughly similar from one store to another. You will never, ever die in a supermarket. They are a kind of immanentized heaven, and for that reason necessarily offensive from a certain perspective. But as an actual experience, and as a representation of the kind of wonders America as a thing has been able to achieve—setting the consequences for everyone not inside the supermarket aside for a moment, as all of Bruce’s songs do—they hum with amazement. Maybe Bruce could’ve used a few more guitars to get that point across, but it remains.