There are so many things wrong with this David Brooks column, even aside from his apparent belief that Tupac was from Compton. (You know those gangsta rappers, they’re all the same.) Brooks’ main argument here – essentially, that Bruce Springsteen is popular in Europe because of the geographical specificity of his lyrics – seems fundamentally mistaken to me. People around the world love Bruce because of his universality. The river in “The River” could be the Hudson or the Danube or the Yangtze; he doesn’t tell us where that story takes place, and he doesn’t need to. When thousands of kids in Madrid pump their fists in the air during the chorus of “Badlands,” it’s not because they’re thinking about a physical location.
Brooks also makes some peculiar claims about art and locality more broadly: “If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition…you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next.” Does he think Gerry and the Pacemakers had more depth and definition than the Beatles? Would Dylan have made a more lasting impact if he’d remained a traditional Village folkie? This is a weird idea, and it’s not hard to think of many more counterexamples.