Thursday, May 22, 2014

Queen of the Supermarket

"Queen of the Supermarket" is one of Bruce Springsteen's most misunderstood—even hated—songs, off Working on a Dream, one of his most interesting but (seemingly impossible for Springsteen) underrated albums. 

(I'm about to post a full-throated defense of the song...and, even so, even I have to admit this is a really funny image. And, hell, it's not like it's worse than the official cover art for the album.)

The opening, with its soft piano and delicately strummed acoustic guitar supporting what sounds like a musical box-like glockenspiel, is lovely, sweet, giving hints of both the romance and the possible unreal nature of the rumination to come.

The opening lines are arresting:

There's a wonderful world where all you desire
And everything you've longed for is at your fingertips
Where the bittersweet taste of life is at your lips
Where aisles and aisles of dreams await you
And the cool promise of ecstasy fills the air

If we didn't already know the name of the song, we might almost think we were in sort of strange new gospel song. The language isn't quite right—"aisles of dreams"? "ectasy"?—but the general vision is certainly one of a heavenly afterlife.

But then we get to the first verse's last line:

At the end of each working day she's waiting there

Hm. Unless the narrator's speaking of the Virgin Mary—and certainly "Mary" is a name that's cropped up in far more Springsteen songs than is statistically likely—that's a pretty big tell that we haven't gone past the Pearly Gates.

I'm in love with the queen of the supermarket


As the evening sky turns blue
A dream awaits in aisle number two

Ah. So. What we've got, it seems, is one of those Springsteen songs that's not just humorous, ala "Local Hero" or "TV Movie," but flirts with parody, such as "Ain't Got You," "57 Channels" or "Crush on You."

Certainly the following lines would lend credence to this view:

With my shopping cart I move through the heart
Of a sea of fools so blissfully unaware
That they're in the presence of something wonderful and rare

These lines seem to be deliciously, delightfully taking the piss, as the Brits would say. They're so over-the-top in their descriptions and florid language that there's almost no way to take them seriously.

But then we get to the next few lines:

The way she moves behind the counter
Beneath her white apron her secrets remain hers
As she bags the groceries, her eyes so bored
And sure she is unobserved

And things become slightly less clear. Suddenly the description—"secrets remain hers," "her eyes so bored and sure she is unobserved"—is insightful, keen and unusual. Sure, we learn when we're young that everyone has their secrets, but it's something that's rarely remembered in a supermarket, of all seemingly unsecretive, mysterious places. And how easy is it to lose yourself in your own thoughts and forget you're surrounded by observers in that least isolated of locations? There's little sign of parody here, and even the humor's a thing of the past. Suddenly, this all feels sincere.

It's possible that, if nothing else, Bruce Springsteen is here finding and celebrating the extraordinary beauty in the most common, everyday place. He'd already paid tribute to the plain virtues of desert racetracks, illuminated turnpike signs, and baseball diamonds—why not a supermarket? The answer is both obvious and a little troubling. For what's more common and everyday than a supermarket? And yet what an unimaginable wonder it would have been to even the wealthiest people just a few centuries earlier, or technologically, just a few decades ago. And what a wonder it would be to huge percentages of the world's population. And yet somehow it obviously feel different to most Springsteen fans: lesser, somehow, not as worthy of a paean. Why would that be? It wouldn't appear to be a class issue, or one of rural v. urban, leaving the unsettling possibility that it's a gender matter.

I'm in love with the queen of the supermarket
There's nothing I can say
Each night I take my groceries and I drift away, and I drift away

Some of Springsteen's greatests triumphs as a recording artist have come when he's slyly juxtaposed an upbeat sound with a downbeat lyric, in such songs as "Glory Days," "Dancing in the Dark," "Hungry Heart," "Badlands," and so many others. And here's where the sound of "Queen of the Supermarket" becomes vital. It had been pretty, and unusually melodic for Springsteen, with the 60s baroque pop vibe of much of Working on a Dream, but here, as he sings "drift away"—with its subtle nod to the beloved Dobie Gray song he's sometimes covered—he not only swoops up into his higher register, the sound of the recording changes. His vocal comes forward in the soundstage, is doubled and joined by a sumptuous, heavenly chorus of oohing and aahing backing vocals:

With guidance from the gods above
At night I pray for the strength to tell the one I love
I love, I love, I love her so
I take my place in the checkout line
For one moment her eyes meet mine
And I'm lifted up, lifted up, lifted up, lifted up, lifted away

Unusual as the setting may be—although what's more "common man" than a guy buying groceries after work?—this all comes across as utterly heartfelt, and quietly, sadly beautiful. And as the final "away" fades out, Springsteen's earlier, lower, voice fades back in, falling down for the second line.

I'm in love with the queen of the supermarket
Though a company cap covers her hair
Nothing can hide the beauty waiting there

But come the repeat of the "beauty" line, he again soars upwards, lifted up by his majesty and grace.

The beauty waiting there

The backing vocalists sing the praises of the queen a few times, before almost everything dies out—an unusual move for Springsteen, musically. And to the heartbeat of Max's bass drum, the narrator—Springsteen, again in his lower register, and not doubled—sings the lines that send any lingering thoughts of parody, should any remain, away on the breeze:

As I lift my groceries into my cart
I turn back for a moment and catch a smile
That blows this whole fucking place apart

There's nothing funny here at all, not any more. Instead, we're left with something beautiful and sad, a narrator so very in love—and who's to say it's not real?—with someone he seems to feel is utterly unattainable, and given what we've learned in the past few minutes of his behavior, it seems as though she is, even if she just dropped a hint his way, a hint he's unlikely to ever act upon.

I'm in love with the queen of the supermarket

And then comes the strangest part of the song. After a few repeats of the refrain, everything shifts into an odd coda. Unlike "Thunder Road," or its antecedent "Layla," however, this doesn't seem to bring some sort of spiritual solace or thematic summation. Rather, its ethereal, somewhat spooky nature is reminiscent of the coda to "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight," by Springsteen's old friend Peter Gabriel's first band—or even more apropos, that song's musical bookend, "Aisle of Plenty."

Unlike the straightforward 4/4 of the main body of the song, the coda is in a dreamy waltz time. Instrumentally, it's almost all waves of strings, accompanied by disarmingly disembodied vocals of an almost Enoesque nature. The only instruments which are carried over from the usual Springsteen orchestration are Max's bass drum and ride cymbal, hints of piano here and there, and some barely audible echoes of single-string lead guitar, none of which are mixed nearly as high as the strings and vocals. But strangest of all is the most noticeable percussive element, a rather loud, familiar beep which seems to sporadically fall out of time with the rest, a beep which is recognizable to anyone who's spent any time in a hospital or even just watched medical dramas on television.

What does this mean? Has the narrator been in a coma, dreaming this entire time? Has none of this been real? "Queen of the Supermarket" is a wonderful, strange, complex, perplexing song, but never more so than in its coda.

I'm in love with the queen of the supermarket

This song, coming on the heels of the previous album's stunning "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," gives the impression that the narrator is middle-aged or even older, even though there's no textual evidence to support such a claim. Yet for me it strikes a chord that brings me all the way back to some of my earliest memories.

I remember being 4 years old and watching shows like The Brady Bunch, where little boys would do utterly incomprehensible things such as yell and run away from little girls their age, claiming an outbreak of cooties or some such nonsense. Later, when I began to go to school, I discovered that boys in real life were just as stupid as their fictitious counterparts, and was even more perplexed. "What is wrong with you?!" I would think. "Girls are awesome!" (True story.) A few brief years later, when I went to college, I recall feeling as though I were falling in love a dozen times every day—sometimes that many times just walking to a single class. (Turns out: it wasn't true love.) I had a crush on the teller at the bank. And the girl at the soft ice cream stand. And the girl at the record store. I was way too shy to actually speak to any of them, of course. All I could do was look forward to seeing them again the next time and pretend I'd have the guts to speak to them then. I never did, of course.

I don't know whether Bruce Springsteen was that kind of kid, but the narrator of the song seems to have been. And now that he's (perhaps) quite a bit older...he still is.

When we lived in New York city, there was a bagel place my then-girlfriend, now-wife stopped at every morning on her way to work. Amazing bagels, still warm, the kind that just melt in your mouth. After only a few weeks of going there, one of the old guys behind the counter began to wave her to the front of the very long line and hand her a bag, which always contained her usual—an everything bagel with a little cream cheese on the side—rather than make her wait for ten minutes, because he knew it was a simple order and would only take him a few seconds.

Or so she told me. But one day I went with her. He didn't know I was with her, so he waved only her to the front, while I stayed put way at the back. (She also had to be at work before me, so it was no big deal.) But I watched the way he lit up when she smiled and thanked him and told him to have a nice day. He got a look on his face that hadn't been there before. And it stayed for the next ten minutes as he helped the other people. One smile from a cute girl absolutely made his morning and turned his day around. Such is the power of beauty, even if it's a stranger and nothing ever comes of it.

I'm in love with the queen of the supermarket

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