Bruce Springsteen’s “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”

Sure, most of us can trace the broader consequences of the Cold War signing off, but what happened on Thunder Road when the Berlin Wall came crashing down? Bruce Springsteen’s sleeper hit “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”, lifted from his 1992 album Human Touch, tackles the question head-on, providing an understated commentary about the meaning of the American Dream in an age of post-Cold War ennui that resonates deeper with every listen. Driven by Springsteen’s moody vocals and hypnotic bassline, at the song’s heart is a bourgeois social climber with a recently-acquired home in the Hollywood Hills who settles in with his honey for a relaxing night of cable TV, 1992’s Netflix and chill equivalent, only to discover, as you probably guessed, “there was 57 Channels and nothin’ on.” It’s right there in the title, after all. Seeking to salvage his “baby’s wish” for ample home entertainment, our protagonist drives into town to pick up a satellite dish. Sure enough, the end result’s the same: “57 channels and nothin’ on.” Are you sensing a pattern here? Yet the boredom these star-crossed lovers experience at home watching television acts as a broader metaphor for the empty husk of their relationship, which collapses in an abrupt note saying, “bye-bye, John, our love is 57 channels and nothin’ on.” Don’t you just hate it when that happens? Summoning the ghost of Elvis Presley, the story’s “dear John” then buys a revolver and blasts his TV to pieces, drawing the ire of a judge who asks for an explanation and is met with the classic “57 Channels and nothin’ on” defence, which doubles as the Boss burying criticism of his 90s output. While many dismiss “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” as a throwaway narrative of love gone wrong, with even the Boss himself classifying it as a “playful misfire,” the track’s timing bears huge significance. Rather than a true peace dividend, the fabled economic benefit of reduced military spending and a brighter future, the post-Cold War era instead witnessed the violent breakup of the Soviet Union and civil wars in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. “57 Channels (And Nothing On)” serves as the perfect soundtrack for the period’s hungover disillusionment and sense of “what now?” – a feeling we’ve arguably never shaken. Bruce’s compelling imagery of pointing a satellite dish at the stars when firing up his idiot box points to humanity’s constant search for meaning in this life, as well as our fruitless efforts to find it through consumer gadgetry. It’s a criminally underrated gem from the Springsteen catalogue. And be sure to chase down the original with the terrific Little Steven Mix of “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”, which samples and plays with some of the messages coming in “from the great beyond” referenced in the song’s lyrics. Although it feels a bit like that toxic ex trying to get your attention from across the room, given the E Street Band’s dormant status in the early 90s, it’s still worth a shot. No, Steve, my appreciation of your remix doesn’t mean we’re a “thing” again. Our love was always “57 channels and nothin’ on.”

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