Tied (down) and true

Album Cover, The River, 1980, Bruce Springsteen, Columbia Records
Bruce Springsteen, The River (album cover), Columbia Records, 1980.

Rejecting the necessity of marriage, Joni Mitchell sang on 1971’s Blue, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall, keeping us tied and true.” Referring to her romance with onetime love Graham Nash, Mitchell offered a striking break from the recent past, when a piece of paper from city hall, along with an engagement ring, a wedding gown, an elaborate reception, and the titles of “husband” and “wife,” were regarded as fundamental to “legitimate” unions.

In her essay, “‘That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be’: Baby Boomers, 1970s Singer-Songwriters, and Romantic Relationships,” Judy Kutulas credits Mitchell—and her musical contemporaries Carole King and Carly Simon—with contributing to a seismic shift in many young Americans’ imaginings of love and romance. Inspired by sweeping cultural challenges, women’s liberation, and their own experiences, Mitchell, King, and Simon developed and popularized alternative views about romantic pairings—”relationships,” as the new term had it—at the dawn of the 1970s.

In the 1970s, Kutulas explains, “relationship,” became the catchall term for the flexibility of love and romance, which might include everything from the casual hookup to the still widely taboo practice of premarital cohabitation (692). Singer-songwriters of the era viewed marital expectations critically but also expressed a measure of optimism in thinking that relationships could be shaped to fit their desires rather than the expectations of an outdated mainstream. And even when they were uncertain about popular expectations, they felt comfortable expressing their uncertainty, as Simon did in “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” rather than feeling compelled to follow the path laid before them.

Photo, Album Shoot, Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen, 1975, Eric Meola, Columbia Records

Eric Meola, Bruce Springsteen in Born to Run (album shoot), Columbia Records, 1975.

The freedom and flexibility suggested by these singer-songwriters to their middle-class and student fans contrasted sharply, however, as the ’70s rolled on, with the responsibilities and concerns of a blue-collar population jeopardized by inflation, energy shortages, and the rise of multinational corporations and automation. As the decade progressed, the declining optimism about the future—both the nation’s and the individual’s—inevitably affected expectations of romantic love and its representations in the broader culture.

Consider, for example, Bruce Springsteen’s music from the latter half of the decade.

In contrast to Mitchell, King, and Simon’s songs of the early 1970s, Springsteen didn’t sing about boundless possibilities, but an age of limits. The heroes and anti-heroes of Springsteen’s songs didn’t have the option to reject the piece of paper from city hall. As Kutulas notes, the teenage Springsteen protagonist of “The River,” upon getting Mary pregnant, received “a union card and wedding coat” (Kutulas 701). In a world where “they bring you up to do like your daddy done,” the older generation’s Silent Majority values exerted a very real influence. One can imagine that the “we” who went “down to the courthouse” when “the judge put it all to rest” included parental witnesses. There is no freedom or distance from authority. Romantic love, if we can call it that, offered little choice or flexibility.

While Springsteen clearly spoke to the declining options of men, he recognized, too, the limited possibilities for women of his time and place. In 1975’s “Thunder Road,” the opening track of Born to Run, he reminds Mary, already aware that she “ain’t that young anymore,” of the “ghosts in the eyes of all the boys [she] sent away.” While he “ain’t no hero” and she “ain’t a beauty,” the options for these rapidly aging young people are what they are. The idea that something or someone newer or better would come along their “dusty beach road” held little traction.

Springsteen’s characters must be satisfied with momentary escapes (often on the road or to the sea) and flashbacks to recently lost youth. Kutulas suggested that listeners embraced the singer-songwriters for their ordinariness, for their songs’ presentation of a lived reality to which listeners could relate (686). By decade’s end, Springsteen may have presented a similarly recognizable set of figures and experiences. The familiarity he offered, however, was marked not by heartening possibilities but by the anxieties of an uncertain future.

Kutulas, Judy. “‘That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be’: Baby Boomers, 1970s Singer-Songwriters, and Romantic Relationships,” Journal of American History 97 (Dec. 2010), 682-702.

Karen Dunak

Karen Dunak is an assistant professor of history at Muskingum University, New Concord, OH, and author of As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America Find out more about Karen Dunak.

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