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Lessons from The Boss: Bruce Springsteen announced as SXSW Music Keynote Speaker

The SXSW Music 2012 Keynote Speaker was announced today, and — in the tradition of the event — it’s someone who’s both so obvious that you have to double-check to make sure that they haven’t already keynoted the event before, and so perfect for the gig that you wouldn’t care even if they had. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Bruce Springsteen.

There’s no word yet if The Boss will perform at SXSW, or if his involvement will be limited to delivering the keynote address. In years past, it’s gone either way — the speakers the last two years, Bob Geldof and Smokey Robinson, both took to the stage later in the night for a set, while previous presenters Quincy Jones and Lou Reed did not have official showcases at the festival.

Tracing back the keynotes for the past decade, it seems to go about 50/50. If Springsteen does perform, it’s hard to imagine what SXSW venue could hold him — it would make for a magical night at the Austin Music Hall, ACL Live or Stubb’s for a few hundred badgeholders, and a major heartbreak for thousands and thousands of others.

But regardless of whether he slings the guitar over his shoulder and tears through “Darlington County,” “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” or “Working On A Dream” to cries of “Bruuuuuuuuce” in a venue a fraction of the size that he normally plays, or if he only appears at the Convention Center, this is exciting stuff.

The keynote addresses at SXSW offer an iconic figure with years of experience in the industry the chance to share the wisdom accumulated through his or her career, and there aren’t five people alive who are likely to have learned more — or have a better perspective on it — than The Boss.

Last year’s address from Geldof was a fiery exhortation of the problems that the Live Aid co-founder saw in the contemporary music industry at all levels, with a focus on the artists who make disposable music. It’s hard to imagine that Springsteen, whose defining characteristic has always been his populist tendencies, will similarly disparage the widespread democratization of the means of music production, but that’s part of what makes the Keynote so exciting: Bruce Springsteen’s perspective on the current state of music, in an hour-long, direct-from-his-own-mouth setting, is something that anyone interested in pop culture in the current climate should be psyched to hear.

It’s also probably not going to go where you think it is, given how Springsteen’s career has evolved from his Born In The USA peak. While there haven’t been many valleys in the ensuing years, he’s lately taken to the dual roles of iconoclast and mentor, appearing onstage with his fellow Jersey boys in the pop-punk outfit The Gaslight Anthem at a gig at England’s Glastonbury Festival, endorsing his spiritual heirs in The Hold Steady and making a guest appearance on a 2007 solo record from former D Generation frontman Jesse Malin (who reunited with his glam punk bandmates at Fun Fun Fun Fest last month).

In short, Springsteen has clearly recognized that his stature, success and legacy is of real significance to younger acts — even ones who are fairly under-the-radar — and he’s made an effort to make himself accessible to those artists in ways that a lot of his peers haven’t.

That’s promising, when it comes to the keynote. While it’d certainly be worth an hour’s time just to hear Bruce Springsteen reminisce over Born To Run-era war stories, the odds are strong that there’ll be some new things to learn from The Boss. At this stage in his career, and at this point in the music industry, we can’t imagine there are going to be a whole lot of better teachers out there.

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