In case you haven’t been paying attention, the recent Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band tour has stirred up quite a buzz in the national media. Not for the epic “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” closers or the raucous “Born To Run” singalongs, but rather for the use of a teleprompter on stage.
This is a debate that has raged on for several years now, with artists like Paul McCartney, Elton John, Tom Petty, Dave Matthews, and Trey Anastasio all using the lyrical aid on stage during their respective shows. To give a younger perspective, Chicago jam band Umphrey’s McGee even props an iPad up on their microphone stand to help with new tunes/covers or whatever the need. So the argument “it’s for the old guys” doesn’t hold much water when there are young bands doing it as well.
However, the question for me is simply: What’s the big deal?
When people say things such as “it cheapens the experience” or “he should learn the lyrics”, I have to shake my head in amazement. Cheapens the experience? Really? Your whole night is ruined because Bruce Springsteen needs a teleprompter to make sure he puts on a great show for YOU?
That is simply ridiculous.
Let’s play a game: Here are two videos from Dave Matthews and Bruce Springsteen that showcase some of the best songwriting both have to offer. One is a disaster, the other is a masterful performance. Enjoy.
Now that you’ve made it through that, did you notice anything about Dave’s performance? Did you happen to see him looking down to his right side? Yeah? Well, that’s where his prompter is located. Does it cheapen the performance for you? It certainly didn’t for me as I stood 15 feet in front of Dave on that night in Charlottesville.
As for Bruce’s performance, what do you honestly gain from that? With a delicate, heartfelt tune like Spirit in the Night, doesn’t it cheapen the experience to have him fumbling through the midway point of the song? It sure would be nice if he had the lyrics nearby so he wouldn’t have to come to a dead pause in the middle of the bridge. But, we wouldn’t want to ruin it for the traditionalists out there.
So really, what are we arguing? I think it has to do with this desire to view the “human” side of the people we idolize. People love when athletes make mistakes just like they love when musicians forget the words. It shows that human element that proves “they’re just like us”, but is that what it’s really all about? With the absorbent amount of money people are paying to get into concerts these days, they should be guaranteed to get a great show. They should at the very least be guaranteed a mistake-free show. You don’t want to go home and say “I’m so glad Phish played Lifeboy tonight, but I sure wish Trey didn’t forget the words” because that is no fun for anyone.
My point is, don’t get so hung up on the idea of the teleprompter. Don’t let it get in your head and make you think less of your favorite lead vocalist. In fact, if you read guitarist Nils Lofgren’s response to the Washington Post article, you’ll see he raises some very good points. He notes that the prompter is used during the “fan request” portion of the show, and has aided in the bustout of several old Springsteen tunes over the years. In that vein, it isn’t even a crutch, but rather a tool to enhance the show and give you, the paying customer, a better experience.
In this age of technology where every note is analyzed, and every performance scrutinized, musicians can’t afford to make a mistake. And neither can you.