Springsteen’s Causes: Shifting Views of The Promised Land
Eric Alterman’s excellent essay in The Nation on the American phenomenon that is Bruce Springsteen, now in its traditional biennial flower with best-selling album and super-charged arena tour, pins the mantle of cause leader celebre on the rocker from Freehold and taps into his evolution from skinny beach bar bandleader to Obama cheerleader. And it shrewdly ties the musician’s past to the latest evolutionary cycle in Springsteen’s zeitgeist spinal-tapping: the anger on the latest record, Wrecking Ball, and its thematic ties to the protest movements that march loosely and leaderless under the Occupy banner.
In terms of charity and causes, entertainers have always sung for their black tie suppers and social commons street cred. Think Hope and Crosby and war bonds, Jerry Lewis and muscular dystrophy. George Harrison and the Concert for Bangladesh. No Nukes, the Secret Policeman’s Ball, We Are the World, Live-Aid, Farm Aid, the Concert for New York, and myriad nonprofit gigs where even the agents are sometimes known to waive their cuts. Nowadays, you’ve got to wear the ribbon and play the charity circuit. Yet what Alterman was getting at centered on the unique cause-oriented qualities Springsteen has offered from the stage (or foisted on paying customers who just want to rock, according to his critics) and the ways in which his story-telling has related to campaigns on the left side of the American political coin.
Springsteen “has no equivalent in American life and culture,” argues Alterman and in a somewhat narrow sense, he’s right because he’s making an argument not just for content, but for impact. Certainly in terms of post-war American musical voices, Bob Dylan has to sit at the head of the table – but in many ways, Springsteen is his hyperactive, stadium-packing cultural son. Dylan hooked clueless young American music fans into the stories and traditions of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and the rest. And he told stories that mattered, while angrily shucking off the velvet king’s mantle of generational conscience.
It’s difficult, writes Alterman, whose essay is adapted from his book The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, “to locate a proper political antecedent for Springsteen in American history.” But I’d nominate Dylan, which is pretty ironic since Springsteen had to evade the “next Dylan” label early in his career to embrace big rock stardom. Both men specialize in invention, including their own personal mysticism – Dylan as the hobo tramp with the beat-up guitar who was really the son of the Hibbing department store owner, and Springsteen as the workingman just out of the factory gates who never really held a job. And both men, it should be noted, refused to accept the traditional actuarial limits of popular music, reveling in stellar late career output. Yet Bruce travels a more easily-mapped road than the shape-shifting wizard from Minnesota. Springsteen’s Irish-Italian Jersey roots are as real as rain, and his father was a blue collar worker. His early picaresque story songs pick up characters from the towns he rattled through as a teenager – and some of those guys have been in the band with Springsteen since the 70s.
So when Springsteen’s social awakening occurred it unfolded slowly, and first revealed itself in the stories Springsteen chose to tell, and the rising anger on the land in the late 70s he chose to chronicle without any particular political bent or direction or cause. Writes Alterman:
This happened almost entirely by accident. Springsteen began his career singing about guitars, cars and girls before moving on to empty factories and abandoned quarries. His songs began as stories of individual characters divorced from what Trotsky called “the dialectic,” until, in the early 1980s, he began to read deeply in American history and literature. Springsteen began to ask questions of himself about what really determined the contours of the lives of the working-class characters whose tribune he had become. “A lot of the core of our songs is the American idea: What is it? What does it mean? ‘Promised Land,’ ‘Badlands,’” he would explain in 2009, decades after the transformation took place. “I’ve seen people singing those songs back to me all over the world. I’d seen that country on a grassroots level…. And I met people who were always working toward the country being that kind of place. But on a national level it always seemed very far away.”
Darkness on the Edge of Town was the seminal work of that period, and in my view, the best record of Springsteen’s career. It came after a period of personal disillusionment and it came at time when the young artist was deep into the realization that he wouldn’t be young very much longer. “I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man, and I believe in a promised land” carried a double meaning – Springsteen still believed alright, but he was unsure about the foundations those beliefs stood upon. On that blistering record in 1978, he was questioning the national set of values – and he’s been asking that question aloud in the 34 years since.
The causes came along with that questioning – which was really a challenge to the Emersonian notion of self-improvement, of Ameican opportunity and the idea of the American Dream, so often borrowed by marketers to reflect products or realtors to encourage home ownership. Springsteen backed returning Vietnam War vets, he put up tables at his concerts to collect money for local soup kitchens and homeless shelters and supported anti-hunger organizations like World Hunger Year. He played No Nukes, that rollicking 1979 starfest at Madison Square Garden (okay, he blew away No Nukes if we’re honest: I was there) – but he steered clear of policy speeches and politics. He rejected Ronald Reagan’s attempt to cast Born in the USA as a nationalistic anthem when it was really about the plight of the vets, but he stayed on the political sidelines. The messaging was more subtle: his stark Guthrie-like demo album Nebraskaportrayed dangerous losers on a cold landscape, and as Alterman says, “offered an intimate portrait of the people victimized by America’s winner-take-all economy.”
In the 90s, he gradually became more outspoken, taking on the causes of AIDS, immigration, hunger and poverty – and he stood centerstage after 9/11 calling the country to witness. But the wars of the Bush years finally brought Springsteen off the political sidelines, and into the realm of specific endorsements and campaigning. In my view, this did not go well in the end. First, there were the Kerry-Edwards rallies.
Then in 2008, Springsteen took sides in the Democratic primary and declared candidate Barack Obama ”head and shoulders above” Hillary Clinton. You could understand why: Obama was a writer of some accomplishment, and his constructions of a mythical, more open America jibed closely to Springsteen’s, who declared that the Illinois Senator “speaks to the America I’ve envisioned in my music for the past 35 years, a generous nation with a citizenry willing to tackle nuanced and complex problems, a country that’s interested in its collective destiny and in the potential of its gathered spirit. A place where nobody crowds you, and nobody goes it alone.”
In fact, Springsteen was just part of an avalanche of left-leaning musicians and celebrities who hit the bricks for Obama – think of Stevie Wonder and his “Bah-ha-rack Oh-ba-ha-ma” aria and Will.I.am’s famed Hollywood Squares style YouTube mash-up. Springsteen doubled down, declaring that America in 2008:
“…needs someone with Senator Obama’s understanding, temperateness, deliberativeness, maturity, compassion, toughness, and faith, to help us rebuild our house once again. But most importantly, it needs us. You and me. To build that house with the generosity that is at the heart of the American spirit….So now is the time to stand with Barack Obama and Joe Biden, roll up our sleeves, and come on up for the rising.”
Pretty heady: over-the-top praise for a living human being (and a politician at that!) and an evolving metaphor from the same man who wrote Mansion on the Hill. In some ways, Wrecking Ball feels like a course correction – the same one taken by many of those involved in progressive causes who came away from the first Obama term surprised by the compromising, centrist, third way tone of the Administration and its general continuance of U.S. military intervention overseas. Four years later, Springsteen’s more closely aligned with Occupy Wall Street, a collective often opposed to Obama, the Democratic Party, and indeed, the older order of the traditional organized left. He’s blasting away (with labor sideman and OWS voice of conscience Tom Morello on several cuts) at the government, the banking industry, big corporations, the military-industrial complex and those in power. This line from the best song on Wrecking Ball, the canonical Death to the My Hometown, pretty much sums up Springsteen’s current taste for Obama-like compromise:
So listen up, my sonny boy, be ready for when they come For they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well Send the robber barons straight to hell The greedy thieves who came around And ate the flesh of everything they found Whose crimes have gone unpunished now Who walk the streets as free men now
Of course, it’s not hard for political opponents and cranky critics to point out that Springsteen’s a rather successful and wealthy member of the one-percent crowd. For some, Bruce’s earnest attachment to causes both political and secular over the past couple of decades has gotten tired. The alternative Philadelphia Weekly ran a recent cover with Springsteen under a Photoshopped halo along with the headline, Enough Already – and music critic John Sharkey III went with the full-on freak over what he called “this faux working-class bozo.”
The only people, I’ve found, who romanticize the up-at-dawn, back-breaking blue-collar lifestyle are people who’ve never lived it. Like the bearded, skinny jackasses I run into at parties I wasn’t invited to who lovvvvve Bruce because he’s “the realest” artist they or any one of their other freelance web designer friends have ever heard.
This Everyman image Springsteen has cultivated over the years—my god, how did he pull it off? His first record came out when he was 23. Twenty-three. Unless he was working in a coal mine at age 7, he knows very little about the kind of broke-down toil of which he croons so sincerely.
A more temperate flavor of criticism comes from Bruce Edgar Walker of the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank. Walker praised Springsteen in 2004 for his many acts of personal charity, but finds the lead single on Wrecking Ball – the ringing We Take Care of Our Own, which questions Americans’ commitment to helping the next guy – lacking in the portrayal of our philanthropic commitment. “It’s more than a little strange to be lectured about our ‘fair share by an extremely wealthy American celebrity,” writes Walker, who hustles to point out that Americans give to charity at historically high rates, particularly in response to disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
While some of Springsteen’s work on the campaign trail a few years ago seems a bit cringe-worthy in the rearview mirror, I find the avenue of criticism centered on his success and fortune less convincing. Why shouldn’t he continue to portray the world as he sees it, and suggest the changes he’d like to see in it? Artists who have found wide audiences – and the money that comes along with that feat – have rarely felt the need to withdraw from the production of the same socially-conscious works that brung ‘em. Charles Dickens leaps to mind. So does Bob Dylan.
Moreover, the singer on that stage is playing a part – and the songwriter is telling a story. The suspension of disbelief that theater and movie productions demand also extends to the rock and roll stage, where we’re called to believe that a 62-year-old man from New Jersey is a nearly divine rock and roll preacher from down on the Garden State, invested with the powers of transcendance for a few hours in a basketball arena. I don’t care that Springsteen doesn’t really swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang, knocking down cross ties, working the rain – and either should you. Here’s news for you: that tenor singing the part of the Emperor Altoum in Turandotdoesn’t really have any experience in medieval China either, bub.
Marc Dolan, an associate professor of English and Film Studies at John Jay College, CUNY, and the author of the upcoming Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll, wrote in Salon recently that there two ideological pulls on the Springsteen narrative: “Springsteen may be a lifelong individualist, he may be every bit as suspicious of institutions and bureaucracies as Ronald Reagan was, but he clearly doesn’t believe that success is wholly individual either. There isn’t a Social Darwinist bone in his body, and Ayn Rand may very well be his ideological antipode.”
Indeed, since I’ve been following his narrative since the mid-70s, Springsteen has written about loners most of all in terms of his characters – but a communitarian theme most of all in his commentary. Of all his contemporaries, Bruce Springsteen has pushed causes to the forefront of his recordings, his concerts, and his ongoing conversation with fans. Springsteen’s recent keynote speech at the South by Southwest festival in Austin dealt mostly with his musical evolution. For now, he seems to be done with politics and is finding the rhythm back in the streets. After launching Wrecking Ball this spring, Springsteen told The Guardian that Occupy Wall Street has changed his thinking.
“The temper has changed. And people on the streets did it. Occupy Wall Street changed the national conversation – the Tea Party had set it for a while. The first three years of Obama were under them.
“Previous to Occupy Wall Street, there was no push back at all saying this was outrageous – a basic theft that struck at the heart of what America was about, a complete disregard for the American sense of history and community…”
Thirty-four years after his angriest record proclaimed: “Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland. Got a head-on collision, smashin’ in my guts, man,” Bruce Springsteen is pissed off again, and he’s marching with a new set of social allies who have no allegiance to the Democratic Party or mainstream politics. Jack of All Trades tells the story of a man taking odd jobs just to get by in an economy ruined by men of power, a world in which “the banker man grows fatter, the working man grows thin.” At the end is Springsteen’s latest version of the American promised land, and it’s his bleakest vision yet:
If I had me a gun I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight I’m a Jack of all trades We’ll be alright