Exploring the Songwriting Style of Bruce Springsteen - inSync (2023)

Exploring the Songwriting Style of Bruce Springsteen - inSync (1)

Adult life is dealing with an enormous amount of questions that don’t have answers. So I let the mystery settle into my music. I don’t deny anything, I don’t advocate anything, I just live with it. — Bruce Springsteen

Saying that Bruce Springsteen is a rock ‘n’ roll icon is an understatement. He’s sold millions of albums over his 4-plus-decade career, and his energetic, marathon live performances are amazing. But that’s not what has cultivated such a loyal following. It’s his songs that reel you in. Teeming with cinematic imagery, his lyrical commentary on blue-collar life has earned him a top spot among the great American songwriters. Like we did previously with John Lennon, this article will explore Bruce’s songwriting style and discuss how you can use some of his composition methods to improve your own songs.

Hide ‘Neath Your Covers and Study Your Pain

The appeal of Bruce’s songs lies in his ability to find heroism in the struggles of normal, everyday life. His songs connect with his audience on an intensely personal level — it’s not hard to find pieces of yourself lurking within the characters that inhabit his songs. So how does he achieve this mystical connection? “You’re always writing about yourself,” said Bruce in a 2005 interview, “…you hide it in a variety of ways, and you meld your voice with other lives.” When he was a child, Bruce’s parents struggled to make ends meet, with his mother working as a legal secretary and his father employed sporadically in a succession of blue-collar jobs. This experience fuels songs like “Factory,” “Youngstown,” and “Jack of All Trades.” “The River” is a song written explicitly about his sister, who married in her teens and dealt with adult issues at a young age. Bruce’s difficult relationship with his domineering father is explored in “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Independence Day,” and “My Father’s House.” Bruce’s entire Tunnel of Love album is an ode to troubled marriages.

Bruce’s music is chock-full of working-class imagery, unfulfilled dreams, parental conflict, and troubled relationships — all the things that he has encountered throughout his life. So what’s the lesson here for aspiring songwriters? Simple — keep it real. Write about what you know. Look around yourself. What do you see? Who do you see? What are they feeling? How does that make you feel? Try to answer those questions with your music.

Nobody’s Kidding Nobody About Where It Goes

Another place to search for inspiration is in literature and poetry. Bruce is extremely well read, and that level of literacy informs his songwriting. Some references are obvious, such as “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (ripped directly from Flannery O’Connor’s short story of the same name) and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (referring to the character in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath). He’s also stated that his lo-fi acoustic masterpiece Nebraska was influenced by Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, along with James M. Cain’s noir novels, while Steinbeck’s East of Eden clearly inspired “Adam Raised a Cain.” Beyond that, many of his songs, especially his earliest material, are brimming with biblical imagery. If you know what to look for, you can find all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle literary references sprinkled throughout Bruce’s work.

So what’s this mean for you? Well, besides exposing you to new writing topics, reading books and poems can also teach you new ways to use language.

Something’s Dying Down on the Highway Tonight

Bruce’s music has remarkable continuity, providing the listener with compelling narratives that extend between songs. There are countless stories contained within his massive body of work, but a back-to-back listening of “Thunder Road,” “Racing in the Street,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and “The Promise” is a great entry point for the uninitiated. When listened to sequentially, these songs follow a man who escapes a dead-end town with his girlfriend to chase their dreams. When they reach their destination, they’re crushed by the bleakness of the real world, and the man seeks redemption in street racing. His girlfriend eventually tires of their dreary working-class existence and leaves him. In the end, the man recognizes that his dreams aren’t going to come true, and his heart breaks.

There’s a huge takeaway here for songwriters. Rather than writing each song as an island unto itself, strive to build an entire world for your songs to inhabit. Give your audience a place to escape to when they listen to your music. That’s one of the key differences between becoming a one-hit novelty act and a respected artist with a long career and rabid fan base.

Exploring the Songwriting Style of Bruce Springsteen - inSync (2)

Hey Ho Rock ‘n’ Roll, Deliver Me from Nowhere

In a review of Bruce’s 2010 collection of unreleased songs, The Promise, Pitchfork remarked that he’s “a brilliant editor of his own material.” And it’s true — even a casual review of Bruce’s back catalog of unreleased songs reveals a tendency to take lyric snippets from lesser songs and transplant them into better ones. For example, the 1977 Darkness on the Edge of Town outtake “Spanish Eyes” contains lyrics that popped up later in his 1985 Top 10 hit “I’m on Fire.” Lines from the unreleased song “Santa Ana” appeared on his 1975 breakthrough Born to Run album in the song “She’s the One.” And the 1979 The River outtake, “Living on the Edge of the World,” appeared almost word for word on Nebraska’s “Open All Night” in 1982.

It’s easy to think of each of your songs as individual entities, but most seasoned songwriters don’t work that way — they look at their body of work as a whole. Bruce, in particular, is known to jot down ideas into a notebook then refer to them later when he’s piecing his songs together. All songwriters should take note of this. After all, that brilliant idea that you’ve buried inside of an otherwise mediocre song might be what takes one of your better songs over the top!

Got to Find Out What You’ve Got

When artists are self-conscious about their abilities, it’s an absolute creativity killer. If this describes you, remember — it’s not vocal or instrumental prowess that sets a songwriter apart from everyone else; it’s their unique story. In his autobiography Born to Run, Bruce writes, “My voice was never going to win any prizes. My guitar accompaniment on acoustic was rudimentary, so that left the songs. The songs would have to be fireworks … the world was filled with plenty of good guitar players, many of them my match or better, but how many good songwriters were there?”

You’ll hear lots of folks criticize Bruce’s vocals as pitchy and overly raspy — something that he’s admitted. But a songwriter of Bruce’s pedigree knows how to write songs that respect his voice’s limitations. The takeaway here is simple: you don’t have to be Pavarotti to write great music. Just tell your story. Show the world that you have something unique to say, not just something to show off. There are already loads of virtuosos out there, but only one person can tell your particular story.

I spent most of my life as a musician measuring the distance between the American dream and American reality. — Bruce Springsteen

Get to That Place You Really Wanna Go

We hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through Bruce Springsteen’s incredible body of work as much as we have — it’s been a crash course in effective lyrical storytelling.

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