A song that occupies a unique stylistic place in Springsteen’s catalog, “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” debuted at a 1990 concert as a rock novelty song (see video below), then showed up, two years later, on Springsteen’s Human Touch album with minimalistic music, a steady, unwavering beat and half-spoken lyrics.
It’s weird and haunting at the same time, and shows that Springsteen was influenced, to some degree, by the rise of hip-hop. There’s no other Springsteen song that sounds much like it.
You have to be of a certain age to relate to the lyrics. Back in the Dark Ages (aka the the 1950s to the 1970s), television didn’t offer many choices. But with the explosion of cable television in the 1980s, all of a sudden you had dozens of channels to choose from. And, sadly, often very little that was really worth watching.
It sounded great on paper: All those extra channels. But still, there was a good chance you’d end up watching “Honeymooners” reruns, just like you always did.
That becomes not just a metaphor for the emptiness of modern life, but for a relationship gone bad (“our love’s 57 channels and nothin’ on”). And in the spirit of Elvis Presley (one of Springsteen’s artistic role models), the singer goes nuts and shoots the TV.
His defense in court: “57 channels and nothin’ on.”
Springsteen made a music video for the song (see below). In 2014, he wrote about it on Facebook, self-deprecatingly: “I have no idea what we were aiming for in this one outside of some vague sense of ‘hipness’ and an attempt at irony. Never my strong suit, it reads now to me as a break from our usual approach and kind of a playful misfire.”
Background facts: “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)’ ” is from Springsteen’s 1992 album, Human Touch. Springsteen plays guitar and bass on the track, with Roy Bittan on keyboards and Jeff Porcaro on drums. A remix produced by Steven Van Zandt (listen below) added more aggressive guitar, percussion and topical references via news clips.
According to Brucebase, Springsteen performed the song in concert 110 times from 1990 to 1993, and never after that.
Folksinger Odetta performed a memorable cover of it at a Springsteen tribute concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, in 2007.
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence, though, depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of $10, or any other amount, to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJ Arts Daily to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.