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'Secret Garden' Is Bruce Springsteen's Worst Song and Here's Why

I am a devoted fan of Bruce Springsteen and I hate 'Secret Garden'

By Sean PatrickPublished 4 years ago 8 min read

I have a deep, dark, confession to make as a Bruce Springsteen fan and as a fan of the Cameron Crowe movie Jerry Maguire: I hate the song "Secret Garden." This will come as a shock to friends with whom I have discussed this song and movie with previously. I lied to you. This song is bad and terrible and in this random song review, I intend to explain how I came to despise the song that brought Bruce back to prominence in the mid-90s after a brief, fallow period of his superstar career.

Background: "Secret Garden" was written and produced as an original song to add to Bruce Springsteen’s remarkable two disc Greatest Hits collection in 1995. There was a trend of this sort of tacky marketing of greatest hits records in the 90s. In order to convince fans to buy a record filled with songs they already had on records they’d already purchased, record companies would ask that the artist toss off a new song or two that could only be acquired if you purchased the greatest hits record.

Music buff and film auteur Cameron Crowe heard "Secret Garden" when it was submitted to him by the record company as he was building the soundtrack for his 1996, then future Academy Award nominated movie Jerry Maguire. I love Jerry Maguire. Despite the use of this remarkably bad song, tossed off by a bored superstar known for so many far better songs, Jerry Maguire has a soul and when Tom Cruise’s mega-agent’s cold heart is fully melted by Renee Zellweger’s plucky assistant, I cry, every single time.

So, why is "Secret Garden" Bruce Springsteen's worst song? Let’s start with the lazy instrumentation. "Secret Garden" begins with an almost accidental piano stroke that has to slow down as if the piano player had stumbled, fell behind, jogged to catch up and fell back into slow step with the rest of the band. The droning piano has a dull, sing-song quality, a lulling, uninspiring up and down that might make for a great sleep aid but not a great song.

"Secret Garden" is also the absolute nadir of the career of ‘The Big Man’ Clarence Clemons. Known for his powerful riffs as a member of Bruce’s E-Street Band, "Secret Garden" calls for Clemons to lazily drone through the single dullest moment of his legendary career. Having someone of the strength of Clarence Clemons laze his way through "Secret Garden" is like asking a power-lifter to help you move a couch; sure he can do it, but it’s not very impressive or challenging for him.

Lyrically, "Secret Garden" is a confusing melange of metaphors. Bruce Springsteen is known for his lyrics, powerful, poetic odes to wild, reckless abandon, love at all cost, and elegies to things lost. He’s one of, if not the greatest Bro Poet in American history. Springsteen’s words bristle with electric energy that send little bolts of lightning right into the soul of the listener.

"Secret Garden" plays like a Springsteen impostor wrote it. It’s filled with the kinds of lyrics that almost sound like a Bruce Springsteen song but just don’t quite come together. Let’s start right at the top with the opening lyrics:

“She'll let you in her house

If you come knockin' late at night

She'll let you in her mouth

If the words you say are right”

Springsteen introduces his female protagonist as if we already know her and he’s recounting for us how he sees this character we’re already familiar with but don’t know as well as he does. That’s the first two lines anyway. The next two lines however, are just weird and a little creepy. "She’ll let you in her mouth" is one of the strangest ways I’ve ever heard a kiss described in a song. It’s the kind of thing that sounds romantic if you don’t spend too much time thinking about it.

Let’s continue this perhaps too close examination of the lyrics of "Secret Garden":

“If you pay the price

She'll let you deep inside

But there's a secret garden she hides

She'll let you in her car

To go drivin' round”

If you pay the price is simple enough, you have to pay a particular emotional price to earn your way into this character’s life. It’s a generalization with broad applicability but it has a poetry to it. That’s more than I can say for the line “She’ll let you in her car, to go drivin’ round," which is uninspired on a level I can barely register. This reads like a filler lyric, as if Springsteen put this line here to hold the place while he came up with something better.

“She'll let you into the parts of herself

That'll bring you down

She'll let you in her heart

If you got a hammer and a vise

But into her secret garden, don't think twice”

By now, we’ve come to understand that we are dealing with a woman who is very guarded, she doesn’t let men in close to her. She hides away the important parts of herself and perhaps, if we want to give Springsteen a great deal of leeway, maybe the more mundane lyrics are intended to underscore the more important things that the main character of this song won’t give away to this person she supposedly loves.

That said, this particular lyrical stanza about how she’ll let you into her heart if you have the tools to get there, reads poorly. First of all, how is a vise going to help? A vise holds things tightly in place. How often does one use a hammer and a vise together? Yes, I am being overly literal, but it's a nonsense lyric. That lyric exists here to sound profound about the work that goes into getting into this woman’s heart but it’s clumsy and more than a little lazy as he can’t even bring himself to use the proper metaphorical tools.

Ah, but what if that’s the point, that he doesn’t have the right tools and that’s why he can’t get into the Secret Garden? Ugh! Okay, maybe, if we are desperate to try and give The Boss the benefit of the doubt, that is a very generous reading of those lyrics. That doesn’t ease the burden of the image of someone putting a heart in a vise and beating it with a hammer to get inside but I will allow for the generosity of interpretation.

“You've gone a million miles

How far'd you get

To that place where You can't remember

And you can't forget”

The line “You’ve gone a million miles, how far’d you get” is tinged with a little bitterness that the song really needs more of. Until this moment, Bruce’s vocal on "Secret Garden" had been absent for me, breathy, forgettably modest, not a bad piece of singing but not memorable. In this moment, the accumulated failures to reach the main character of the song combine with that very generous interpretation of the song I mentioned earlier, the one about having the wrong tools to reach this person and the bitter futility briefly gives the song life.

“That place where you can’t remember and you can’t forget.” This is the first line that actually reaches the poetry of a Bruce Springsteen song. And yet, if you drill down a little, you realize just how vague this lyric is. That place, what place? I get that we are speaking of an emotional place but where are we if we can’t remember and we can’t forget? What the hell does that mean? I had actually begun, in a draft of this review, to defend this lyric as one that reminded me of a great Springsteen song. Then, as I attempted to interpret the poetry of this line, I stumbled over how empty it is.

“She'll lead you down a path

There'll be tenderness in the air

She'll let you come just far enough

So you know she's really there”

So, she’s a liar and she manipulates you to keep you at a distance. Stop Bruce, the romance is overwhelming. Okay, maybe the song isn’t meant to be romantic. Maybe "Secret Garden" is supposed to be a meditative linger on being unable to get close to someone you want desperately to be close to. That’s not exactly what the music is telling us and that’s certainly not the context in which Jerry Maguire places the song. Then again, if we don’t take time to properly contextualize the song, whose fault is that?

“She'll look at you and smile

And her eyes will say

She's got a secret garden

Where everything you want

Where everything you need

Will always stay

A million miles away”

The final realization: you’re never really going to be close to this woman. She will always have a place inside her that you can’t reach. It’s a sad realization and one that "Secret Garden" only kind of gets to the heart of. The song lacks the impactful sadness to make this point feel resonant. After this the song peters out with Clarence Clemons sax solo that just sort of lingers and fades slowly and at a distance.

As someone who has worshiped at the altar of Bruce Springsteen for years and tried desperately to love this song because of Bruce and my love for the movie Jerry Maguire, it was hard to come to the realization of how empty and lazy "Secret Garden" is. Much like its origin as a marketing tool for Bruce’s greatest hits, "Secret Garden" is an adult contemporary commercial meant to sell the product of Bruce Springsteen. It is not the pure expression of his romantic soul that we are supposed to see.

"Secret Garden" is the ultimate generalization of Bruce Springsteen. "Secret Garden" pretends toward the deeply romantic but in reality it is the kind of soulless, tossed off, halfhearted effort that would only appeal to the kind of people who say they like Bruce Springsteen but have never really listened to his music. "Secret Garden" is your mom’s favorite Springsteen song, a safe, pleasant faux poetic bit of fluff that allows anyone to say they are a Bruce Springsteen fan without having to actually put in the work.

That is why "Secret Garden" is Bruce Springsteen's worst song.

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About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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  • Paige Turner7 months ago

    And I want to share my thoughts on the lazy riffs n music! Imagine being so sad so lonely so disconnected n so defeated from trying everything and nothing works to tap into this person! It’s exhausting so the musicians absolutely draw out the soul n complexity of the battle of the disconnect!! Trying so hard to just love this person n feel loved back! It’s straight melancholy! The joys n pleasures aren’t there! The sadness of not being allowed in is what’s strumming the guitar! So imagine a defeated exhausted person you aren’t going to get a tone of breath and excitement u r going to get exhaustion

  • Paige Turner7 months ago

    What’s funny is I don’t like the boss 😂 this is the one relatable song that I love! If you don’t understand the song it’s because you’ve been in healthy relationships probably! I’m married to an introvert and the disconnect is real!!!! She is so closed off - and it doesn’t matter how hard I try that connection really is a million miles away! She’s got her traumas from childhood that shut her down at an early age! And she’s beautiful and she’s deep and she’s mine and I love and adore her - but she definitely is a closed book that just won’t let me in to certain chambers of her heart! Time and trust will never mend her scars and it’s a challenge and a struggle to be with someone so guarded! But I wouldn’t change her for anyone else in the world! I’ll try forever and she’s the love of my life! it’s sad and it’s lonely for both of us but She’s definitely got a secret garden and only she has the key and only she visits that part of herself! She is happy having that to herself as well! She’s a creative writer and you can tell when her inspiration comes from there in tiny snippets!!! To be with my wife is like dancing with a stranger! It’s a mystery but it’s sexy and I want to take her home with me every night! So the song has meaning to some of us! His worst song to you is his best song to me! Because it’s Fn deeper than you can ever imagine! And to understand the song - is no reward! 😎👍🏻 it just is what it is God Bless -

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