Please Don’t Stop Me
Bruce Springsteen, Lana Del Rey, and Race in Americana
I’m on the light rail to the Mall of America listening to “Ride.” Lana Del Rey’s throaty croon in my ear, the flat winter-gray grids of suburban Minnesota sliding past, birds flying high, riding a chill breeze I can’t feel. I’m excited to get to the mall, and disturbed by my excitement. I don’t often go to the Mall of America. Two and a half years ago, I attended a Black Lives Matter protest there, where hundreds of us chanted and sang in the rotunda.
I lay down on the sleek, cold ground of the Mall floor as we staged a die-in. I later attended the court hearing for the organizers of this protest, in solidarity and support. I didn’t return to the Mall of America until several months later, when my friend suggested we go. I’ll go, I said to myself, but I won’t buy anything. I came back a couple times in the winter, when I wanted to be able to take a long walk in a climate-controlled environment. Each level of the Mall is a 0.57 mile lap. And, as its website boasts, it’s exactly seventy degrees, “whether its [sic] spring, summer, winter, or fall.” Perhaps that’s why I was returning again and again as if bewitched. The slick consistency, the sheen of seasonlessness. You don’t have to buy anything at the Mall to enjoy its sunlights, its endless corridors, its opportunities for people-watching. Its genius is that you inevitably do.
I usually ended up getting a cup of coffee from one of the several Starbucks or Caribou. These gateway purchases enabled others: a shirt from Ragstock, a meal from a sushi restaurant. Now I’m on my way to buy a swimsuit. A year ago, the idea would have been offensive to me.
I’ve got a war in my mind, Lana is singing, so I just ride... There are only a handful of us left in this train car. After a certain point on the route, everyone who’s going somewhere else in Minneapolis deboards. Now it’s just me and teenagers and several of the Mall’s eleven thousand employees. Everyone else who goes to the Mall drives there. There are 12,550 parking spots in two parking ramps.
“Ride” ends and the next track begins: “American.” Lana singing Springsteen is the king, don’t you think? I’d seen The Boss live, a few weeks ago. I went by myself, up in the nosebleed seats, surrounded by people my parents’ age. Everyone was white, except for me. I’m Asian, and a woman, and alone, and I found myself wondering why I was there. I was literally not Born In The USA. I wouldn’t have even started listening to Springsteen if I hadn’t borrowed my mom’s car last year. Driving is a prerequisite to listening to his music. Top 40 belongs to the club; Springsteen belongs to the road.
When I saw Bruce and Lana Del Rey were performing together at the Rock Werchter festival, at first I was surprised. Lana sings about cocaine and champagne. Springsteen sings about hard work and family values. She’s cynical; he’s idealistic. She’s wealthy; he’s working class. But then I remembered the music video responsible for Lana’s break-out fame: “Video Games,” the fuzzy clips of American flags spliced together with teens jumping into pools and boys driving their girls around on motorcycles. And her more recent song, “Ride,” the one I’d been listening to on the train, where she makes out with an aging biker and wears a misappropriated Native American headdress.
If Bruce and Lana were two circles on a Venn Diagram, the intersecting area would say, in all-caps: DRIVING. Which itself evokes a thistly, windblown cluster of other words: Americana. Lonely. Frontier. Pioneer. Escape. Lost. Freedom.
On my way into the Springsteen concert, my steel-toed boots set off the metal detector, an occurrence I found funny and fitting at the time. It was a relic from last summer. I’d just gotten back to Minnesota from a job as a deckhand and educator aboard an eighty-foot schooner. My duties included everything from teaching science labs to scrubbing the deck on my hands and knees, hauling line, and sponging out the bilges. After we took the boat out of the water, we spent long days sanding the paint from the hull, and then repainting it. We wore kneepads and safety glasses and masks over our mouths. I had my crewmate take a photo of me, covered in red paint dust, respirator and poncho on, carrying three Shop-Vacs across the boatyard. Later, I posed next to an abandoned semi-truck. I uploaded these photos to Instagram. “You’re so cool,” my friends all commented, heart eyes emoji!
The other week, my step-dad and mom cut down trees near the farm fields by our house. I was going to take off work to join them. “I wanna learn how to cut down a tree!” I said. My step-dad replied, “Learn to cut down a tree?” as if I’d said I wanted to learn how to tie my shoes. He grew up on a farm in a family of eleven. My mom also grew up near a farm. She’s told me stories about having to go rock-picking, when she and her sister would remove rocks from the fields by hand because they could break the farming equipment if they were left in the ground. Even if they’d had Instagram back then, I doubt they would have posted photos of themselves performing these exhausting and repetitive tasks.
My childhood was softer. In the summers, I played Legend of Zelda on an N64 and read books in my bed, the shadows from the trees shifting in cool patterns across my sheets. Because my life has been easy, hard labor seems pure. “Out In The Street” pure. Sweat all day, crack open a beer, find a pretty lady. Buy a pack of Marlboros and hop in your pick-up truck, drive till you’re lost on the open road.
The other day, I was speeding down I-94 in a borrowed car, blasting the country station with the windows rolled down. I’m a prisoner of the highway! Ronnie Milsap wailed through my open windows. Driven on by my restless soul!
Red and blue lights behind me. I realized I was going 15 over the speed limit. The officer was a white man. I handed him my ID and wondered what I seemed to him, the Asian girl with a Scandinavian last name blaring country music. Most people in America believe the lie that race is a continuum ranging from black to white (read: from dangerous to safe). These people consider Asians to be an ambiguous, amorphous shade in the middle. They consider you a threat depending on what kind of clothes you’re wearing or how well you can speak English or what kinds of jobs you’re trying to take from hard-working whites; you’re either sinister or laughable. As a small Asian woman, I’m allowed to exist on a Danger Continuum that ranges from O-Ren Ishii to schoolgirl.
I have Asian friends who get profiled by the police. Personally, I have never been afraid of violence from police. I was raised by white people and know how to chameleon, how to speak like those in power, how to sympathize with Trump, how to love Top 40 country. “Threatening” is not part of the lexicon of slurs people have called me. I know how to apologize softly, how to smile wide-eyed at the officer. I’ve visited my race’s category on Pornhub, I know what gets the white man in a generous mood.
I know how to watch myself as if from a camera. I’ve spent hours alone in the bathroom with two mirrors, tilting them this way and that to see myself from all angles, as if from the eyes of a hostile stranger. I have been told ever since I could remember how cute, how small, how agreeable I look. Let me tell you how compliments are actually commands. I’ve pressed my finger into the back of my throat whenever I felt I wasn’t as petite as I should be. I’ve starved myself and joined exercise programs. I’ve performed so much and so often that I’ve become a well-oiled android, even in my most intimate moments. I’ve been indifferent and still said ‘yes’. I’ve said no and it’s been taken for a yes. After all, I’m so cute, and small, and agreeable, and I can never say no even when I’m saying no.
The officer let me off with a warning instead of a ticket. It was luck, and one way of saying “luck” is, again, “privilege.” And it is a complex privilege, to be considered so submissive that authority figures never question your performed obedience. A labyrinth of a privilege, to assuage a system that murders Native people and black people and trans people without consequence. A double-edged sword of a privilege, to avoid a fine from a white man because of the popularity of your porn tag.
I drove my borrowed car more slowly after that, exactly at the speed limit. The other drivers irritably tailgated me, then passed me in a dramatic flounce when I didn’t speed up. Ronnie Milsap was singing softer now, call me a prisoner of the highway, prison by the freedom of the road. I was reminded how some people must always drive exactly at the speed limit, keep their music quiet and their windows shut and watch all the other cars pass them and they still get pulled over and that’s probably why only privileged people can wholeheartedly believe in the freewheeling freedom of the road.
When my steel-toed boots set off the metal detector at the Springsteen concert, no one assumed I had a weapon.
I’ve tried to push the boundaries of the submissive, feminine box I was placed in because of my race. I grow out my armpit hair, I wear boy’s clothing. I carry around a knife and lift weights at the gym. I take up space; I find myself spreading my legs widewhen I sit down on a bus. I listen to country music and speed on the highway. These feel like small rebellions against the submissive China girl I’ve been told to be. But why do I equate freedom with the performance of whiteness? With imposing on other people’s space? With masculinity and its implicit violence? They tell middle schoolers that one reaction to being bullied is to become a bully. Perhaps it’s the same with oppression. In America, freedom is having the power to break the rules and get away with it. Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness: the motto of Silicon Valley. The motto of the European colonizers who arrived here and pressed westward, committed genocide against Native Americans, and called it heroic. To this day, you can drive the Lewis & Clark Trail; there’s a map online and highway markers on certain roads leading west. “Re-Live the Adventure,” the official website reads. You can drive to the Pacific and blast “Born To Run” with the windows down, imagining yourself a pioneer.
It’s to Springsteen’s credit that his vision of freedom includes the disenfranchised. Just this April, he cancelled his North Carolina concert because of its newly passed transphobic bathroom law. “Born In The USA” isn’t about patriotism – or maybe it is, but rather patriotism disappointed, a scathing anti-war critique. Regardless, as Springsteen’s image is consumed en masse, his progressive politics are often stripped from his music till all that’s left is an American flag and an endless highway, the musical equivalent of a Levi ad. “Even in my decade-plus of loving Bruce Springsteen’s music,” Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib writes for MTV, “I have always known and accepted that the idea of hard, beautiful, romantic work is a dream sold a lot easier by someone who currently knows where their next meal will come from.”
In Springsteen’s song “Roulette,” the narrator runs away from his sterile home, fleeing in his car with his wife and kids. Something’s gone wrong; his life is not his life. The police are looking for him. There are searchlights and patrols. They put him in detention and ask him questions; they have mysterious plans for him. He escapes – the song builds to its climax: Roulette, with my life! Roulette, with my kids and my wife! Roulette, the bullet’s in the chamber!
This song makes me think of The X-Files. I’ve always wondered why Mulder, a straight cis white guy, is so afraid of the government. Why are the ones who are running the ones who least have reason to run? But I realize that’s why he’s allowed to be on TV. If Mulder wasn’t white, he’d be a Black Panther. If Springsteen wasn’t a man, he couldn’t sing about being working class. Thus, you have Lana, with her daddy’s money and expensive cars.
“All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men,” intersectional feminism warns. All the working-class are white men, all the women are white and rich. No one is trans. This is Americana. Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness: a motto useless to those shot by police before they have the chance to ask.
I still love Bruce Springsteen, because he knows that autonomy is more complicated than guns and trucks. His questions of individualism and free will are more like the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke in their tortured idealism. I don’t love Lana Del Rey, but I find her poignant, especially when I’m feeling tragic. What calls to me about their music, that lunges from my speakers to grab me by the throat, is the fact that their longing for freedom is self-hating, cynical, and essentially suicidal. They say they believe in America and what’s so compelling about them is that they’re lying. They follow the American dream to the cliff’s edge of caricature, and thus show how miserable and unsustainable it is. Springsteen is more self-aware; I like to think Lana knows more than she lets on. I’m tired of feeling like I’m fucking crazy, she sings, I’m tired of driving till I see stars in my eyes. In the same music video, she murmurs that she had “an obsession for freedom that terrified me to the point I couldn’t even talk about it, and pushed me to a nomadic point of madness that both dazzled and dizzied me.”
That’s what driving is about – the terror of freedom. The tyranny of choice. The realization that true independence is the same as suicide, because individuality can only come at the expense of belonging, at the expense of nurturing, at the expense of any animal warmth that holds you close you to your fellow human beings.
I’m driving a stolen car on a pitch black night, Bruce keens in his characteristic rasp, and I’m telling myself I’m gonna be all right. But I ride by night and I travel in fear, that in this darkness I will disappear.
They’re never with anyone in these songs about driving. They’re driving to, or driving away from. Caught between the impossible future and the unreachable past. I knew a man who drove his motorcycle from Brooklyn to San Francisco, and by the time he reached me in Minneapolis, was complaining bitterly of his loneliness. The highway is cold and lonesome and exhausting, numbing in its endlessness. And yet we call it romantic.
The lure of the highway is, in some ways, the lure of the mall. You can forget the rotten corpse of violence and exploitation from which your freedom blooms. You can forget you’ve forgotten. The invisibility of the past’s invisibility. The highway and the mall both hide their ghosts with the illusion of movement, of endless selections. And it blinds me. I blast country music as I drive across stolen land. I go to the Mall of America even though, two and a half years ago, I pretended to die there. I’ve forgotten my own ghost.
I’ve got a war in my mind, Lana is singing again, so I just ride.
The train rolls to a stop in the basement of the Mall’s parking garage. After I get inside, my phone keeps setting off shoplifting sensors in all the stores. I apologize, red-faced, each time. The staff wave me off. “Go on, you’re fine,” they say.
“We know you’re not stealing anything.”