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Harry Potter, Bruce Springsteen and the limits of perception

The news that there’s a version of the Harry Potter stories in which Hermione is played by a black actor has, apparently, surprised and shocked some people.

I am not this blog’s expert on Harry Potter. In fact, it’s safe to say Harry and I are complete strangers. Nevertheless, the idea that some readers might have pictured Hermione as being white is no surprise, but the idea that they might get upset about her being played by a black actor is almost hilarious.

This could have been a blog about Red Dwarf, with its intriguing approach to species and gender, but instead it’s a blog about what I know, Bruce Springsteen.

Back in 1984, the album that stopped me, and all my friends in our tracks was Born In The USA. The starting point in understanding the album was the title track, a bitter rebellious angry song hiding in the mask of a chart friendly stomp along rocker. For Springsteen fans the switch from the bare acoustic sound of Nebraska to an album dominated by synth sounds and top heavy production was a shock. Where was the authenticity, the openness and the brutal honesty that made Nebraska and The River so essential, so elemental?

Buried beneath the bombast, the flag and the anger was a wistful, uncertain story telling that invited curiosity. Bobby Jean was the song that cracked the album open for me. Like Glory Days it had a backward looking, nostalgic feel that suggested loss and regret. In retrospect, from today, the video for Glory Days featuring both Julianne Phillips and Patti Scialfa, the once and future wives, has a certain tragic element to it, but it was Bobby Jean that captured the uncertainty of Springsteen in the early 80s.

At first listen I imagined Bobby Jean to be another stereotype, a hard working woman with kids and regrets about a past she wants to leave behind. The heroine I imagined was the heroine of ‘From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)’, an outtake from The River that had become a hit for Dave Edmunds.

I was wrong of course. My imagination had led me astray. There’s not a single pronoun in Bobby Jean that makes sense of what I assumed. Most listeners now assume it’s about the schism between Springsteen and his longstanding confrere Steve Van Zandt, who left the E Street Band  for a solo career that only happened because The Asbury Jukes didn’t record the album of material he had written for them.

So why did Bobby Jean become an androgynous song about two men who clearly cared for each other, loving each other as brothers? Part of the answer, or course, is that the E Street Band was powered by the close but ambivalent relationships between Springsteen, Clarence Clemons and Van Zandt. Were they really just good friends?

Once you accept there’s nothign to tell you it’s about a woman Bobby Jean is a great break up song, but it was two men breaking up, moving apart from the close personal and professional friendships.

We’re a long way from Harry Potter, but getting closer to the Hermione non controversy.

JK Rowling wrote the books, but they’re consumed by individual customers. In the absence of any explicit statement by Rowling, Hermione’s whiteness, like Bobby Jean’s femininity, exist only in the head of the consumer, not in the text.

These days, as I drive to work, singing Bobby Jean just after Dowmbound Train, it’s not a song about a former lover; it’s a lovesong about friends we’ve lost as paths have diverged. That still may not be what Springsteen meant when he wrote it, but it’s what it means  to me now.

To assume that how we, as individuals, read a text is the only way it can be read, so that Hermione must be white, or Bobby Jean must be female, is to surrender to our own preconceptions, to imprison the text within our own frames of reference. If you feel moved to protest if Bobby Jean is male or trans, or black, or if Hermione isn’t the same skin colour as you, a little relfection on the narrowness of your frames of reference might be called for.



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This entry was posted on December 22, 2015 by in Uncategorized.

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