Elvis will always be “The King,” Jeff Lebowski will always be “The Dude,” Frank Sinatra will always be “The Chairman of the Board.” And Bruce Springsteen will always be “The Boss.”
Now The Boss has BOSS – the Biannual Online-journal of Springsteen Studies, an academic journal focusing on scholarly studies of Springsteen. Jonathan Cohen, a graduate student in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History who holds the Newman Family Jefferson Fellowship, is the driver behind BOSS, which he sees as an online crossroads of Springsteen studies. The journal’s debut issue came out Aug. 8.
“There have been three academic conferences on him, and there is a course on Springsteen being offered at Rutgers University,” Cohen said. “I see the journal as a stable hub of Springsteen studies instead of just having a conference every three years.”
Cohen, 23, of Boston, who graduated in 2013 from McGill University in Montreal, focuses on 20th-century cultural history, including the working class, race, economics and labor – issues Springsteen often touches on in his music. His master’s thesis examines “deindustrialization and working-class memory” in Freehold, N.J., Springsteen’s hometown.
Grace Hale, Commonwealth Chair of American Studies and director of the American Studies Program, praised Cohen’s energy, saying few graduate students would consider starting an academic journal.
“I admire the way he is fusing his intellectual interests and his love for Springsteen,” she said. “Cultural historians do work on popular culture, but most writing about popular music is done by music critics and music scholars. He has a great deal to offer the field of Springsteen studies.
“Some of the people introduced to Bruce Springsteen when he got big in the 1980s grew up to become academics,” Cohen said. “Studies of popular culture are considered more legitimate these days and this is an opportunity for academics and Springsteen fans to combine their loves.”
Cohen, interested in The Boss since he was a teen, has been to several concerts and wrote about Springsteen’s impact when he got to college. “I write about things I love,” he said. “But it is not easy for fans to write academic papers.”
As editor of the journal, Cohen accepted five pieces for the first issue. One deals with how the spontaneity of Springsteen’s raw performance generates authenticity; another analyzes Springsteen’s signature song, “Born in the U.S.A.”; a third deals with Springsteen’s impact on fans in Australia. Each paper passed through three stages of peer review, examined by several professors and reviewers.
“One of our essays places Springsteen’s creative process in conversation not only with Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but also William Wordsworth and T.S. Eliot in an effort to illuminate a speech Springsteen gave in 2012 as ‘a discussion of the creation of art within a lineage of artists discussing the processes of composing,’” Cohen said. “Another invokes [political philosopher] Edmund Burke to help consider how Springsteen’s music comes to mean what it does.”
In another article, Jason Schneider, assistant professor of writing, rhetoric and discourse at DePaul University, writes that the lyrics of “Born in the U.S.A.” describe “multiple anxieties, pains, joys and perhaps even impossibilities” in the relationships individuals have with their governments and communities. The song “suggests that there can be no easy answers to questions of patriotism and national belonging; that these are paradoxical human experiences,” he writes.
As a fan and a scholar, Cohen understands the dangers of intensively studying a subject.
“All art can be destroyed if you look too closely, “ he said. “Some things can be over-analyzed and you can go into it too deep. Trust the art, not the artist.”
While Springsteen has generated a large body of work since starting his songwriting career in the 1970s, Cohen believes the Boss takes his real risks on stage, in shows that are a perfect mix of the planned and the spontaneous.
“He uplifts, inspires and empowers,” Cohen said of the performer. “The show is where he shines, he is an incredible live performer.”