The penultimate episode of every season of Arrow (so far there are only three) is titled after a Bruce Springsteen song. I noticed before, but hadn’t commented anywhere. I realised, looking back over my recent posts, that the soundscapes in the trailers for both Daredevil and the new Avengers films had been very significant to the construction of genre and character in what are only bite-sized chunks of film. So, clearly I’m developing a theme here.
I’m a massive Springsteen fan, and have always been pretty sure that James ‘Logan’ Howlett is too. Springsteen is a man’s man, singing songs of working class male angst and, occasionally, triumph. At the same time, he picks apart conceptions of masculinity, depictions of maleness, and explores the very stereotypes upon whichhis work relies; his lyrics tell stories of the utterly expected (teen pregnancy, being laid off, heartbreak) but manage to tell them in unexpected ways. But Springsteen’s career, arguably, peaked in the 80s when he was himself in his 30s. Not that I don’t appreciate his more recent work – but, it’s no Darkness on the Edge of Town. That album is one of those great works that sears its creator’s artistic, political, personal vision into the listener. I challenge any rock fan to get through it without an emotional epiphany, or at least claiming to have something in their eye.
Bringing us back to the topic in hand though, it’s an interesting choice this Springsteen referencing in a superhero show. The demographic for the CW network is only now achieving almost gender parity in its audience, from a period of female-dominated audiences, and the average viewer age is still quite young – the mean is 35. Most of us viewers, myself included, weren’t even born when that album ‘dropped’, to use the current parlance. Who is this referencing for? Honestly, I have no idea. I love it, and I’m not the only nerd who’s noticed. It seems a little pointless, perhaps even retrograde, these references. After all, the first two songs referenced ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, and ‘Streets of Fire’ come from the above mentioned album, released in 1978. This is the peak of the ‘classic’ Springsteen and the E-Street band decade – from Born to Run in 1975, to Born in the USA (1984). It seems like a safe, conservative choice to reference this great icon of Americana from the past. But dude, have you hard those songs??
The first song is about a man is going to race cars in the street, which sounds utterly banal, until you hear the abject hopelessness Springsteen conveys in lyric and voice. This unnamed man has nothing left to lose, and is not willing to do the ‘anything, anyhow’ that seems to be necessary to achieve the good life, he might as well die on the road trying to have fun. The darkness on the edge of town in Starling City is the Glades, both as the area where men like Springsteen’s working losers live, and as an oblique reference to the threat that Merlyn’s earthquake machine poses – when it will make the Glades ‘go dark’. But it’s the middle verse lyrics that are striking for an Arrow fan – they’re all about secrets dragging you down and about hiding from them, or alternatively stepping up ‘onto that hill, with everything that I got’. Ultimately, it’s a song about overcoming, about hoping and dreaming, and wanting something better.
‘Streets of Fire’ is very much the angrier of the two tracks. Much more abstract, and full of emotions. It has a raw urgency to the delivery; utter desperation being howled into the night. This episode of Arrow sees the culmination of all Slade’s planning; Oliver has already come close to breakdown after his mother’s death, his plans are failing, his allies few. The song opens with hopeless misery – lyrics about ‘not caring any more’, ‘letting go’. But then, ‘in the darkness he hears somebody call his name’. And by the end, he ‘can’t go back’, but he’ll ‘walk with angels’ in those streets of fire. The anguished lyrics might not be full of hope, but they are full of defiance. Even the reference to ‘strung out on the wire’ made me grin when Oliver injects himself full of painkillers just to go on fighting.
These are tracks chosen with thought and purpose. But these are also tracks full of righteous, left-wing, class conscious fury for those being left behind as the ‘Greed is Good’ decade took hold. Just like Oliver Queen, Bruce knows who’s screwing with the people, and places, he holds dear – and it’s powerful men with money in their pockets. Songs like ‘Born in the USA’, with its direct references to Viet Nam, is a protest song for a specific generation. But a lot of that era of Springsteen’s work is ripe for reappraisal as a new generation battles neo-liberalism. Comic book nerd make jokes about Green Arrow being a bit of a hippy, and I think it might be growing on this latest version of Oliver Queen. I think the writers of Arrow are taking a clear stance on corporate corruption, and city hall politicos out for themselves at any cost. It’s clear that the problems of Starling City run far deeper than Triads and Bratva. The conditions that made it a haven for crime cartels from abroad are home-grown problems.
The penultimate episode of the current, third, season will apparently use a much more recent Springsteen track – ‘This is Your Sword’, from High Hopes (2014). Sounds like a battle cry. Well, partly – but we’re talking full-on, celtic tinged, folk rock. It’s Runrig with a Yank accent! Times may be dark, says the Boss, but your shield and your sword against the darkness, are (yup, you’ve guessed it) love. No longer the angry young man, he’s now urging us to ‘give all the love that you have in your soul’. See, I was right about that hippy thing…