I work at the Astrowash on Sunset and Vine”
- Car Wash, Tracks (Disc 3)
The narrator in this song, Catherine, views her identity as tied to her profession and is unable to distinguish between the two. She dreams of being a professional singer instead of her current job at a car wash and can't imagine doing both simultaneously. She complains about her boss and views work as “doing her time.” She’s stuck in a dead end job and doesn’t have the drive to change her lot in life. It’s familiar territory for Bruce Springsteen. But what is so surprising about “Car Wash” is that Bruce chooses to sing from the perspective of a woman.
It’s not unusual for Bruce to sing about a woman, as he does in “Queen of the Supermarket” for example, but it’s hard to think of other cases where Bruce sings from the perspective of a woman. He does it for a verse in “American Skin (41 Shots),” but in that case he’s quoting rather than inhabiting character. Gotham Gazette notes that “Into the Fire” is sung from the perspective of a fireman’s widow and while the song suggests its from the perspective of a woman, the gender is not made explicit as is the case with “Car Wash.”
Gender-reversal between performer and narrator is a rare occurrence in general, especially in pop music. But it feels extra startling to hear a first-person female character coming from Bruce's ragged baritone. Perhaps the Bruce of “Hungry Heart” would be less jarring but there's no attempt to neuter his gender here (besides, we’re still not convinced Bruce actually sings “Hungry Heart.”)
“Car Wash” was originally written for Born in the U.S.A. As with several Bruce songs from the era, it's possible he originally wrote it for a female performer like he did with “Because the Night” and “Fire.” But even if that was the case, he could have easily swapped the gender when he performed it himself. Instead, he sings unambiguously from the perspective of a woman. Why does Bruce do that? Perhaps it's a bid for equal opportunity. Perhaps it's to change routine. Perhaps there’s something deeper.
Personally, I find “Car Wash” to be a very moving character study and feel like Bruce really does get in the head of his character, Catherine. Does the gender-reversal have an affect on your appreciation of the song? Would it have been too experimental for Bruce to put it on an original album? Are there other notable songs where the gender of the singer doesn’t align with the narrator?