Bruce Springsteen’s career is built on appealing contradictions: He is both an unremarkable everyman and a genius who wrote rock ’n’ roll history. That neither aspect of his identity can be considered in isolation is part of his allure. Springsteen revels in the hallmarks of an almost clichéd manhood—leather, sex, cars and women—but he is never boxed in by this archetypal masculinity. Though a multimillionaire, he is still able to illuminate and empathize with the working class. Springsteen even remains charming and relatable while delighting in the worship of his fans.
While Springsteen seemed to have mastered paradox long ago, this year fans and critics alike appeared to forget his complexity when reacting to his discussion of his decades-long struggle with depression in his recent autobiography.
In his book review of the memoir Born to Run in The New York Times, Dwight Garner describes learning about the musician’s history of serious depressionl. “I will admit that this information shook me. If Bruce Springsteen has to resort to Klonopin, what hope is there for anyone?”
In the eyes of Garner, and perhaps many others, Springsteen's power as both a man and a rockstar is at odds with how he understands mental distress. Mental health problems, depression especially, are often wrongly associated with weaknesses of character. According to the cultural wisdom, people who experience depression should have something to be depressed about; otherwise they are regrettably—even culpably—oversensitive to life’s grievances.
Along with drawing attention to these stereotypes, discussion of Springsteen’s experience with depression has highlighted an alternate, and equally misleading, stereotype: that mental distress is the necessary flipside of exceptional talent. Jim Beckerman, of the Asbury Park Press, raises this mad genius stereotype somewhat facetiously. “Of course Bruce Springsteen is a great artist,” he writes. “Look at how depressed he gets.... Think of Woody Allen...Virginia Woolf, Leonard Cohen.... All, in their different ways, important artists. All, in their different ways, depressives.” In this version of the stereotype, Springsteen becomes another type of person: an impossible example of how to be acceptably depressed.
The two opposing stereotypes, one of weakness and one of genius, overlook the complex causes and manifestations of various mental health issues. Conditions like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, among others, are caused by an intersection of genetic, economic, social and circumstantial factors. What’s more, these conditions do not explain the entirety of sufferers’ lives or personalities, but rather indicate certain aspects of their experience.
These stereotypes are not just untrue—they can actually intensify mental distress. In many scenarios, perceptions of inherent weakness or superhumanity prevent people from receiving and seeking the emotional support they need from their parishes, friends, family and coworkers, and even from receiving adequate treatment from medical professionals.
With this broader understanding of mental health in mind, news that Springsteen has experienced mental health issues should not disappoint fans, but enrich how they understand a musical legend. Let’s allow Springsteen to teach us another lesson about complication. Mental health problems are neither the fault of sufferers, nor their saving grace.