Who’s The Boss?
The evolution and defeat of Bruce Springsteen
Music bloggers ruined the new Bruce Springsteen album for me. After reading five or six reviews of Wrecking Ball, it was clear that music nerds everywhere thought the album was a throwback for Springsteen, that The Boss was channeling the “angry” sound that characterized his classic anthem Born in the USA. Sure, Wrecking Ball has several tracks that speak directly to the woes of the typical American (in the Springsteen mold): the average, everyday, unemployed American.
But the commentators are wrong. Springsteen can’t “return” to the angry version of himself from the mid-1980s because that angry Springsteen is largely fictional. He only has one truly angry song from the 80s – and it’s “Born in the USA.” The rest of his “angry” songs are cut from the folk mold of the 1960s and 70s, and focus more on the frustrations of individuals. Few, if any, Springsteen tracks from the 1980s elevate this anger to the level of the whole society like “Born in the USA.” That’s just a minor oversight on the part of reviewers, thought.
The whole discussion about Wrecking Ball and modern Springsteen is framed poorly. Where much of Springsteen’s early career was social critique of American workaday life, the past 10-15 years have seen a shift in his political activity that should leave us wondering what has happened to The Boss.
On his iconic Live: 1975-1985 album, Springsteen memorably muses to the audience while introducing “War (What is it good for?)” that, “blind faith … belief … in the government … in anything … will get you killed.” During this period – or, expanding it to include the first half of his career from the 70s to the 90s – Springsteen only repeats this sort of message towards the government and politics to distance himself and his music from it. His infamous row with Ronald Reagan over Reagan’s use of “Born in the USA” during his initial Presidential run (“I, too, am born in the USA!!”) was probably Springsteen at his most political. This stance, and the accompanying message of being anti-government and anti-political (or a-political and disinterested) was a large part of Springsteen’s Everyman appeal – he seemed to get it. He seemed to understand how the government was screwing mainstream America, and was happy to leave it at that and not delve into the political arena himself.
The Boss gets political
I wasn’t into a lot of early Springsteen, so let’s fast forward about 15 years. It’s the 2004 election, and I am watching MSNBC. By 2004, I am fairly ensconced in Springsteen’s music, due largely to his culture-shifting 2002 album The Rising. By 2004, the news du-jour on MSNBC on that day revolved around Springsteen’s endorsement of Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry – news that would have stunned his fans in the 1980s. Springsteen went on to tour extensively for Kerry, and received great praise and adoration from his fan base.
Much of the commentary Springsteen offered on the campaign revealed an angry Springsteen, but his was a different sort of anger. During his extensive interactions with the audience on this tour, Springsteen’s rage was mediated through his obvious use of Democratic Party talking points – a sure sign of the degree to which he’d been co-opted.
Then he did it again. In 2008, Springsteen came out again as a major celebrity endorser of a Democratic presidential candidate, this time in support of Barack Obama. Touring heavily with REM, John Fogarty, and other rock legends, Springsteen was part of a broader cultural wave that propelled Obama to the Oval Office in an election that most Americans still haven’t fully digested for its cultural significance.
Obama’s rise to the presidency is further connected to my relationship with Springsteen. A few days after Obama defeated John McCain, my landlord at the time – the Canadian leader of Democrats Abroad and a half-delegate to the Democratic Convention – sprinted up the stairs to my apartment to tell me, breathlessly, “Springsteen is singing ‘The Rising’ with a choir of 100 people at the Obama We Are One thing!”
I immediately turned on the TV and was speechless. Springsteen’s performance of “The Rising” was a musical and cultural revelation. It affected me in an intense way because it served as my introduction to the relationship between music and politics, and specifically, the degree to which music could be about something more than the fluffy pop I’d been used to. The message of “The Rising” still hits home for me after hundreds of listens. And why shouldn’t it? Springsteen talks about coming together in what makes us common – the common humanity of each individual – and about overcoming setbacks and obstacles.
But we are not one
A few minutes after singing “The Rising” on Obama’s We Are One thing, Springsteen made me speechless for another reason. He called folk legend Pete Seeger – complete with a woven toque – to the stage and together they played that most classic of folk songs: “This Land is Your Land.” Something struck me as strange then, but the thought has only just coalesced since reading reviews of Wrecking Ball and the return of the angry Springsteen. Here were Springsteen and Seeger, once icons of a worldview towards government and power that sought to deny or challenge the same (which was so essential to who they are and how they have been perceived), singing one of the most iconic protest songs to the President of the United States in the most stage-managed way imaginable.
Springsteen (and Seeger, and REM, and John Fogarty, and many more) were no longer the outsiders throwing rocks at The Man and the structures of corporate-governmental power that has done so much to harm so many people. No: now, they were campaigning for them, they were writing songs for them (take note of “Working on a Dream,” a song Springsteen has essentially admitted was inspired by Obama’s unlikely campaign in 2008), and they were shameless in their display of this new attitude.
But the problem – which is a fundamental problem in the Western world – with Springsteen playing “We Are One” is that, as 2011 made clear, we are not one. The central cultural purpose of “We Are One,” and indeed of most corporate-governmental campaigns for “unity” and “togetherness” is to manufacture consent and to ignore the very real ways we are not one. As the protests and riots from 2009 until now throughout the United States (including, it saddens me to say, the Tea Party’s efforts) have shown, the economic and social inequalities that have always been present have grown so severe that it now sounds like a tasteless joke to talk about social unity or coherence.
The Boss and me
What, then, are we to make of Springsteen’s shift from a-political rocker to Democratic spokesperson and Obama champion? If Wrecking Ball is a return, it’s not a return to an angry Springsteen – it’s a return to a socially conscious Springsteen. It is a strange mix of his 2008 album Magic with Nebraska and a dash of Ghost of Tom Joad. But what does it say about the broader society and its tastes, attitudes, and interests when the most iconic rock star in America can shift from a view framed by the comment that “believing in government … will get you killed” to crooning to Obama and the rest of the Washington power elite?
Springsteen was a harsh critic of the Iraq War. I wonder if he noticed, when he was crooning to Obama or at any time in the three years since, that the Iraq War is, you know, still going on? And I wonder if Springsteen took time away from preparing his We Are One performance to notice the 43 American military bases in the Middle East?
I don’t live above the Canadian leader of Democrats Abroad any more. Now I live in Kuwait, about 45 minutes from Basra. I see American military jets on a semi-daily basis. I queue up behind burly American military dudes at the grocery store. The comment that began this discussion was a suggestion that Springsteen’s new record was “angry.” It’s times like these where I wonder: where is the fist-pumping rage from “Born in the USA?”
In the end, maybe Reagan had Springsteen figured out; maybe he had it all figured out. Reagan was fond of describing the USSR as a crocodile. Reagan would tell audiences that, “To sit back hoping that someday, someway, someone will make things right is to go on feeding the crocodile, hoping he will eat you last – but eat you he will.” Ironically, the allegory isn’t far from Springsteen’s “belief in the government…will get you killed.” The neo-conservative critique of government (“government can’t do anything right”) sounds a lot like the a-political Springsteen of the pre-Kerry days – and they intersect precisely at the departure point of Reagan’s morality lesson. Reagan urged his audience not to trust the government; we were once able to trust Springsteen to be a watchdog on the corporate-governmental complex that has crushed millions of lives in the West.
But as Springsteen urges us that We Are One, I can’t help but feel that the crocodile has indeed eaten him last.