It was the 25th anniversary concert celebrating the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at Madison Square Garden in 2009 when Bruce Springsteen bellowed to the crowd: “Are you ready for the bridge-and-tunnel summit meeting right here, right now? Because Long Island is about to meet New Jersey on the neutral ground of New York City!”
Out came Billy Joel, and the two performed a set together of their greatest hits. Springsteen crooned on Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” while Joel returned the favor on Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” The two had crossed paths occasionally in their hit-making careers, but never in such a high profile way.
In retrospect, it was surprising it had taken so long. The author Jim Cullen argues in his new book released in October, “Bridge and Tunnel Boys: Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and the Metropolitan Sound of the American Century,” that Springsteen and Joel’s careers had more uncanny parallels than most realize, and that their rise was a product of socioeconomic conditions of the era, particularly the growth of the suburbs. In fact, the author argues, it’s likely that Joel and Springsteen could only have become famous at the time they did.
Both were born within months of each other. Both are intrinsically identified with their home states — Springsteen with New Jersey, Joel with New York. They both came from the suburbs — Freehold, N.J., for Springsteen, and Hicksville, N.Y., for Joel. Both were signed to Columbia Records and released their first albums the same year, 1973. Their careers started off slowly — and almost sputtered completely — but broke through around the same time with records that would make them famous — Springsteen’s “Born To Run” (1975) and Joel’s “The Stranger” (1977).
Mr. Cullen, a historian who has written several academic books about pop culture, discussed the connection between the two that formed the thesis of his latest book.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What does the rise of Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s say about the era they were living in?
They lived in what you might call the golden age of the American dream. This was the period when the American dream was most realizable on a mass basis. As products of suburbia, they were sort of in the cockpit of this.
One of the things I found interesting when I started to look into their lives was that they were actually products of downward mobility. Their immediate families had suffered reverses in the generation before they were born. And then, of course, they caught the wind of this massive economic and social current in the aftermath of World War II.
What were the conditions in the music industry that helped make someone like Joel or Springsteen such a success?
The record business had been immensely profitable in the years prior to these guys making it. And so there was just a lot of money floating around to invest in new acts in a way that there really hadn’t been before or after this.
Another is that the business was designed at that point to reward the thing that these two guys did really well, which was to perform live. This was an era when touring supported records — rather than the age we live in, which is the other way around.
The last thing I would say is that the industry was much more tolerant of failure than it had been before or since. So both of these guys could literally afford to make a couple of records that stiffed before they built up enough of a head of steam to really take off commercially.
People might argue that when we talk about the rise of the suburbs, we’re really talking about the rise of a white middle class.
I don’t think there’s any question that these guys were beneficiaries of their racial identity. Broadly, their relative affluence gave them a leg up. That’s inarguable.
I will say that both of these people had a very strong vision of integration as sort of the aesthetic basis of their work.
Are there modern-day equivalents to Joel and Springsteen?
One of the ways in which they were also really beneficiaries of their time is that they were products of what I’ll call generally an age of broadcasting. And I mean that not just in terms of television, but especially in terms of radio. There was a kind of shared national audience.
I did a book on “All in the Family,” a television show [in the 1970s] that got 50 million viewers a week. The finale of “Game of Thrones,” people got excited because it got 10 million viewers. It’s just a different world. So it’s not easy for anybody to continue to do what Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen did. Not because Springsteen or Joel were sort of Promethean artists, but because they were beneficiaries of a media infrastructure that was very rewarding to them.
Having said all that, I do think that there are figures who approach what they did. Beyoncé comes to mind as someone who’s built a very large, broad audience over a long period of time and inspires a level of commitment and engagement that I think is comparable. The obvious other example is Taylor Swift, who in commercial terms, has probably exceeded them.