Bruce Springsteen uses a teleprompter in performances: Does it matter?

March 30, 2012

As Bruce Springsteen rolls into our town for another long-awaited show at Verizon Center on Sunday night, a question rises from these dusty streets:

A teleprompter, Bruce? Really?

Well, yes. There it was the last time Bruce played Verizon and the time before that, too. Few of the many thousands of fans arrayed in front of and to the sides of the stage could see it, but for those looking down from on high behind the stage, it was plainly visible. As the band cranked up, a small monitor tucked discreetly at the Boss’s feet flickered to life, scrolling the words to some of his songs.

Many Springsteen fans will shrug. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t change the energy, the spirit, the tent-revival passion of a Springsteen concert.

“Honestly, this doesn’t bother me in the slightest,” says Chris Phillips, editor of Backstreets magazine, a fanzine that has chronicled all things Bruce since 1980. “He’s probably the best performer of the modern rock era. If this helps him put on a great performance, why should I have a problem with that?”

That’s more than a rhetorical question.

As performance-enhancing devices go, a teleprompter might best be defined by what it isn’t. It certainly isn’t like lip-syncing or piped-in music. Those kinds of fakery violate the implied contract between a performer and concert-goer: We pay to hear an artist actually sing and play. With a teleprompter, what you see and hear is what you’re really seeing and hearing.

And yet . . .

It’s also true that Springsteen isn’t the only superstar who sings with a little lyrical helper. As it happens, dozens of musicians use prompters in their shows. Paul McCartney has one specially built into his piano, which feeds him a line at a time (answering the eternal question of just how many “Na-na-na-nananaaas” there are at the end of “Hey, Jude”). Tom Petty, Elton John and Barbra Streisand use them, too, according to news accounts.

Sophisticated prompters do more than just provide a karaoke-like scroll of the lyrics. They can be programmed to display set lists, vocalist parts, chord progressions, venue greetings (“Hello, Washington!”), band and guest introductions, and those seemingly impromptu stories that performers interject between songs.

Artists like Springsteen tend to use prompters for newer songs and in the early dates of a new tour, when the band and singer are still getting used to the material, says Gary Bongiovanni, the editor in chief of Pollstar, a publication that covers the concert business. “I can’t imagine he’s using [a prompter] for ‘Born to Run,’ ” Bongiovanni says.

Still . . .

There are other good reasons to rely an on electronic assist. A Los Angeles company called McPrompt, which markets prompters to rock musicians (slogan: “You rock. We scroll”), says on its Web site, “It’s easy to forget the lyrics in the middle of a show,” especially if an artist has a large catalogue of songs. Even when an artist has sung a lyric thousands of times, “once they go blank, they have no way to recollect where they are,” McPrompt says.

What’s more, the company adds ominously, “the audience knows every word and they know when the singer messed up.”

True. We live in an iPhone and YouTube era, when the whole world can watch every public flub (and some private ones, too). Messing up the words to a song a singer is known for would be a mini-disaster, and everyone would see it. A prompter is thus insurance.

But here’s the “and yet . . . ” part.

And yet, Springsteen has always seemed different.

Springsteen is such an exciting performer precisely because his art has always seemed to lack artifice. He is exuberant but also sincere, and he makes his fans believe it, too. His tunes aren’t just tunes; they’re mini-anthems of hope and possibility and unrealized dreams. They’re little musical novels.

Which is why a teleprompter tampers, ever so slightly, with the spell Springsteen has cast for nearly 40 years. If he believes as deeply as we assume he does, why the need for a cheat sheet?

According to Phillips’s reporting, Springsteen sings about 25 songs each night on his current tour. As with all Springsteen shows, the set list varies somewhat from night to night, but only somewhat. Most of the songs are the same each time out, from old standbys such as “Badlands” (and, of course, “Born to Run”) to material from his new album, “Wrecking Ball.” Which means the total number of songs he’s likely to perform on any night might range to fewer than 40.

Republicans have criticized President Obama’s use of teleprompters; they say it betrays a kind of scripted quality, an insincerity, even phoniness. But this seems different. Can we reasonably expect the leader of the free world, whose every utterance can cause an international crisis, to memorize every word he speaks?

On the other hand, shouldn’t we expect a musician, especially one as accomplished and experienced as Bruce Springsteen, to know the words to 40 songs?

There’s a reason a rock god like Springsteen might keep the prompter out of sight of his adoring fans. Because if they saw it, would they wonder: Is he singing from the heart? Or is it just from the McScroll?

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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