Runaway American Dreams
Bruce Springsteen is one of this country’s greatest living artists, one who built his success by enshrining the stories of the working-class lives of the people he grew up with in songs that have become foundational parts of the popular music canon. His commitment to seeking justice in the real world has made Springsteen a liberal hero and a cult figure to many on the left. What to make then of the recent news that he was releasing a podcast with Barack Obama, just weeks after appearing in a Super Bowl commercial urging Americans to find “the middle”?
The announcement was not entirely without precedent: Springsteen has long supported Democratic presidential candidates. He endorsed John Kerry, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden; he stumped for Obama on the campaign trail and performed “This Land is Your Land” with Pete Seeger at the 2009 inauguration, including even the more political verses decrying private property, at Seeger’s request. Springsteen bought what Obama was selling in 2008, but then again, so did almost everyone to the left of John McCain. That 2009 Lincoln Memorial concert was supposed to be a moment of anointing, Seeger passing a torch to Springsteen even as the old Civil Rights veterans passed the torch to Obama. Twelve years later, Seeger is dead, the Civil Rights project remains as incomplete as ever, and Springsteen and Obama have joined forces with Spotify, Comcast, and Dollar Shave Club to bring you a podcast.
Was Bruce always a liberal, or has he changed?
Obama offered Springsteen his entrée into Democratic Party power politics as their relationship grew into a close friendship. In turn, Springsteen has stepped into the role of Obama’s white sidekick, Joe Biden’s election having left a sizable opening that only a car-loving boomer from a deindustrialized Mid-Atlantic town could fill. The story the men tell of bonding over drinks and music at White House parties gives the lie to even the title of the show, Renegades: Born in the USA. By now, both have made cottage industries of rehearsing their origin stories. Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, chronicled his cosmopolitan upbringing, his coming to embrace his Black Americanness, and his decision to pursue politics. Springsteen, meanwhile, has recently taken to recounting his own journey to self-acceptance, weaving together the tall tales that have long animated his concerts with more honest accounts of his struggles and insecurities even during his periods of greatest success.
Now, safe inside Springsteen’s own mansion on a hill, both men again dust off the memory machine to take stock of where they have been. But they do not answer the question of how Bruce Springsteen, draft dodger, hero of the steelworkers of the 1980s, former punching bag of the New York City Police Benevolent Association, came to enthusiastically embrace liberalism. Was Bruce always a liberal, or has he changed?
In 1981, Springsteen had released The River and was touring in support of the record; then, as now, the left was paying attention. The Marxist-Leninist Theoretical Review published an article on Springsteen’s contributions to class consciousness. Its writer, Neil Eriksen, highlights Springsteen’s indictment of a social system that has unilaterally failed to uphold its end of the bargain as the postwar class compromise disintegrated:
In his recent work, however, he sees the deterioration of opportunities and a decline in expectations that people experience with the deepening economic crisis, and the intense exuberance and youthful naivete have most often given way to sadness and discouragement. In this Bruce has his finger on the pulse of broad sections of young people, for he mirrors the real feelings and insecurities of the popular mood.
Eriksen understood what makes Springsteen’s best work so enduring. Springsteen knew that struggling to win a rigged game day after day wears people down and breaks their spirits. Over the course of his life, these conditions had only deteriorated: in the fifties and sixties, people like the Springsteens had held on, but had he been born into the same family twenty or thirty years later, he would have lived not a life of respectable near-poverty, but one of destitution.
At the same time, Eriksen faults Springsteen for what he sees as a failure to transcend the limitations of his own knowledge: he ought to connect personal experiences of alienation and domination to an explicitly anticapitalist analysis that lays the blame for these struggles at the feet of the economic system and its imperialist overlords. Instead, Springsteen redirects his anger into a personal drive to escape, to transcend, to endure, or to overcome. Where Eriksen looks for polemic, or calls to collective action, Springsteen offers only the rituals of adult life: marriage, nights out, nice clothes, long car rides, watching the person you love sleeping, asking how long you can hold it together until “they send someone to try and take it away.” This does not make Eriksen’s diagnosis of Springsteen’s mode of political understanding less correct, however: Springsteen is a storyteller, not a polemicist. In general, his audience has had to make the jump to collective action for themselves.
Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone writer and Springsteen biographer, read the Theoretical Review piece and wrote to the magazine claiming that Springsteen, though inherently distrustful of “highbrow ideas” and too wedded to “showbiz razzle dazzle,” had turned a corner. He’d discovered Woody Guthrie (and as Springsteen notes in Born to Run, Howard Zinn) and had taken note of popular struggles in the UK, where he expressed interest in an unemployment march sponsored by the Trade Union Council. Springsteen had already spoken out against Reagan, too. What Marsh characterizes as Springsteen’s naïve belief that capitalism “is exactly the opposite of its true nature” had begun to crumble, as reflected in his next album. The bleak landscape of story songs that make up Nebraska (1982) are as indebted to the folksong-as-protest tradition as they are to Springsteen’s observations of the suffocating horizons of the working class lives his parents and siblings were still living. While songs on Nebraska still chronicle the old impulse to run away and get a little something for yourself, they also document social structures that stand in the way: the veteran brother struggling with PTSD; the bosses who don’t like you; the break the salesman would give you if he could, but he just can’t; the debts no honest man can pay. In his memoir, Springsteen characterizes the turn his writing took after The River as a quest to find “the place where the political and personal came together to spill clear water into the muddy river of history.”
At the same time that Springsteen was refining his political voice, he was also beginning to grapple seriously with mental illness. Driving across the country with an old friend in 1981, Springsteen had his first acute depressive episode at a small Texas town fair. Watching the townies, he suddenly felt an overwhelming longing to be part of the scene he was witnessing:
I feel an envy of these men and women and their late-summer ritual, the small pleasures that bind them and this town together. Now, for all I know, these folks may hate this one-dog dump and each others’ guts and be screwing one another’s husbands and wives like rabbits. Why wouldn’t they? But right now, all I can think of is that I want to be amongst, them, of them, and I know I can’t. I can only watch. That’s what I do. I watch . . . and I record. I do not engage, and if and when I do, my terms are so stringent, they suck the lifeblood and possibility out of any good thing, any real thing, I might have.
Springsteen wanted what the residents of this town seemed to possess: regularity, solidity, a life lived in common, social cohesion. Throughout his work, the interior of the country has served as a canvas on which to project his illusions and desires about what the simple pleasures of common people might look like in another world and in other circumstances (in this, Springsteen shares a settler imagination with his hero Guthrie, whose signature anthem elides the question of who “this land” was really made for—not the plutocrats, certainly, but maybe not quite for Guthrie, Springsteen, or me, either). Like the songs on The River, these longings are as political as they are personal. They speak to the alienation that pervades life under capitalism, especially in the age of neoliberalism: alienation from ourselves, our work, our families and friends, from the sense that the life we live together is a communal project, that in the collective is a higher purpose.
Springsteen is a storyteller, not a polemicist. In general, his audience has had to make the jump to collective action for themselves.
By the time Born in the USA came out in 1984, Springsteen’s moment of greatest commercial success was also his moment of greatest political visibility. His repudiation of Reagan’s attempt to appropriate the title track is now legendary: equally important was his deepening relationship with, and advocacy on behalf of, Vietnam veterans’ organizations. Springsteen raised money for food banks at concerts and supported relief funds operated through the USW by and for laid-off Steelworkers in both the Monongahela Valley and in Los Angeles. He was moving toward a more coherent political ideology, and joined Steven Van Zandt’s Artists United Against Apartheid. (As an aside, if you have never read Van Zandt’s account of telling Paul Simon and Henry Kissinger to go fuck themselves, you owe it to yourself to do so.) In 1988, he took part in an Amnesty International tour in support of human rights, which included an anti-Pinochet concert in Mendoza, Argentina, highlighting the families of the desaparecidos of the Southern Cone.
The period that followed was more politically fallow. Springsteen divorced, remarried, started a family, and retreated into personal introspection, but he never abandoned his commitment to social criticism. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) marked a return to Guthrie and Steinbeck-style protest art. Much of the album is defined by Springsteen’s love for California and his growing awareness of, and empathy for, the struggles of Latinx migrant workers and undocumented immigrants. This was the era of California’s exclusionary immigrant Prop 187, when even Democrats embraced nativist reaction, pushing pro-immigrant politics to the margins. And Springsteen’s most important contribution to the canon of American protest music came in 2000 with “American Skin (41 Shots),” written in the aftermath of the acquittal of the NYPD officers who murdered Amadou Diallo and performed in Madison Square Garden in the face of a boycott and smear campaign organized by Patrick Lynch and the PBA. “American Skin” has sadly become a durable classic as the country fails time and again to end police violence against Black people.
Springsteen has always spoken about race, but along with much of the country, he has been forced to reckon anew with the persistence of white supremacy as a defining feature of American life: on an episode of Renegades, he discusses with Obama the 1960s race riots in Freehold and highlights his debt to Black music, Black artists, and Black fashion, and his desires to connect more as an artist across the racial divide. The podcast also sees him dissecting his friendship with Clarence Clemons, his long-serving sideman and friend and the only Black member of the E Street Band. Though he has discussed the significances and the challenges of fronting an integrated band in the early seventies—in its original incarnation, the band was half Black—in his conversation on race with Obama, he describes in more detail the ways that living in a white world, with an almost entirely white fanbase, was not easy for Clemons. Clemons was beloved by Springsteen fans, and an essential part of the band’s live theatrics. But that did not mean the fans shared all of Springsteen’s attitudes. Even after the explosion of racist anger, and the 2013 emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, that marked Obama’s presidency, Springsteen’s 2016 performances of “American Skin” drew boos from some concert attendees in the United States.
The overwhelming political orientation of Renegades, from both hosts, is one of liberal faith in the possibility of the nation as redeemable (like any good Catholic, especially a lapsed one, Springsteen loves a redemption story). Yet the topics of racism and white supremacy put a momentary crack in that certainty: Springsteen admits to losing some of his faith in his neighbors after the 2016 election, and both men have read their Ta-Nehisi Coates. In one of the podcast’s few explicitly political exchanges, Springsteen presses Obama on the question of reparations for Black people in this country: Obama admits that they sound like a good idea, but not one that is politically possible. Again, they scratch their heads and retreat into the safe redoubt of the arc of history and its well-known propensity to bend toward justice.
The moment is one of multiple missed opportunities. At another point in the episode, Obama recalls Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, describing the scene in which Mookie, played by Lee, confronts Pino, the racist older son of the owner of the pizza shop where he works. Mookie’s point is that while Pino treats Black people he knows with hatred, he idolizes Black athletes, comedians, and performers. Pino cops to loving Magic Johnson and Eddie Murphy, but when Mookie asserts that Pino’s favorite rock star is Prince, he counters: “Bruce. The Boss.” I’d wondered what Springsteen thought of this moment in one of the film’s most famous scenes. Yet the podcast skips right over it: Obama describes the scene without mentioning the Springsteen reference. He uses the film to illustrate white Americans’ long history of loving Black culture without loving Black people, and Bruce happily picks up the thread. But they avoid the harder question of why Pino, or Spike Lee who wrote the screenplay, could see Bruce as a great white hope. Once more, the men return to the comfortable world of liberal platitude.
The overwhelming political orientation of Renegades, from both hosts, is one of liberal faith in the possibility of the nation as redeemable.
This newly zen attitude would have been foreign to the 2012 Bruce Springsteen, who wrote and released Wrecking Ball during Obama’s presidency. He intended it as a return to social critique; he wanted to write a statement on the financial crisis that would match the success of his post-9/11 The Rising (2002). The songs on Wrecking Ball celebrate resilience, but they also indict the plutocrats who turned the markets into casinos and threw billions of lives into chaos. Introducing the album in 2012, Springsteen praised Occupy Wall Street. He confirmed that while he’d campaigned for Obama in 2008, he wasn’t planning to do so in 2012. The President’s record was a mixed bag. Why, Springsteen asks throughout the record, did these bastards get bailed out? Wasn’t someone going to make them pay? Despite his protestation, he ultimately did campaign for Obama in 2012. Perhaps he got nervous after watching the debates. Perhaps, as a Guardian article from 2012 suggests, he was just scared of blowing his political capital too early.
While listening to the podcast, I hoped Springsteen would have the courage to disagree with Obama as he had done even as recently as 2017, in conversation with David Remnick (himself an Obama biographer). It never happens. Discussing Springsteen’s draft dodging, Obama agrees that the draft was bad, but he will not condemn the war. He asserts that the country matured after Vietnam, but not because people developed skepticism toward military intervention. Rather, it’s because they started performing troop worship: “I think something very valuable had happened and I think this was a hard learned lesson from Vietnam. The American public had come to recognize and revere the service of our troops, even those who were critical of certain aspects of U.S. Military interventions.” Springsteen offers only a weak “Mhm.” A later episode about class, money, and income inequality performs exactly the move that Eriksen wrongly accused The River of making: Obama and Springsteen rehearse the death of the class compromise, focusing on the ’70s and ’80s. Yes, there are some structural problems: plant closures, skyrocketing CEO pay, the decline of unions. Yes, Reagan is to blame. Both men see the situation as primarily cultural, however: we’ve lost our way amid the greed and the striving for what Obama calls “the almighty dollar.”
Despite its limitations, the podcast does achieve moments of real poignancy: After discussing the riots in Freehold, Springsteen plays an acoustic version of “My Hometown.” “There was a lot of fights between black and white / there was nothing you could do. / Two cars at a light, on a Saturday night / In the backseat there was a gun. / Words were passed, a shotgun blast. Troubled times had come.” Springsteen’s performance and presence, even in this impromptu rendition, are magnificent. In a later episode, the two relive Obama’s “Amazing Grace” speech, delivered as the eulogy for the parishioners of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston after their murder by a white supremacist. Describing his drafting process, his correspondence with the author Marilynne Robinson, his anger, sadness, and frustration at a country that would not, will not, stop murdering innocent people, and his own powerlessness to change it, you can sense the mask slipping. This is the tragedy of Obama-style liberalism, whether he knows it or not. The world’s most powerful man is not so powerful after all. It’s almost the stuff of a Springsteen song.
Sensing the weight of what’s just passed between them, the men fall silent, the soundtrack fades out, the episode ends. A lot of fights between black and white. There was nothing you could do.
In 2021, Springsteen returned to a little town in the middle of the country to film a Super Bowl commercial that he hoped would help heal the country after the nightmare of the Trump presidency. As images of Kansas flash across the screen, Springsteen in cowboy drag traverses a landscape of down-home Americana, with prairie windmills, diners, and shots of American flags hung on front porches, blowing in the breeze. “There’s a chapel in Kansas standing on the exact center of the lower 48,” explains Springsteen in a voiceover. “It never closes. All are welcome to come meet here in the middle.” This geographic middle is a metaphor for the sense of commonality and of participation in a shared civic project; it’s a middle “between red and blue,” but also “between our freedom and our fears.” Freedom, intones Springsteen, “belongs to us all. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from.” As the commercial builds to its crescendo, the symbolic language continues: “The very soil we stand on is common ground”; “ . . . we will cross this divide. Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there’s hope on the road up ahead.” At the end of the ad, the text “To the ReUnited States of America” appears on the screen, followed by the Jeep logo. Even this sentiment carries a double meaning, referring both to four years of political polarization and a year of pandemic-imposed isolation and alienation. It echoes Biden’s own messaging about moving past the pandemic and moving past Trump at once. And, of course, it’s a sales pitch. Whatever else the ad is after, it is primarily interested in persuading people to purchase Jeeps.
The commercial’s reception was proof of Springsteen’s ability to bring everyone together, if only for the common purpose of declaring the ad cloying and insubstantial, or worse, a misguided attempt to neuter Trumpism by adopting some of its own political symbology. At his best, Springsteen has animated even the most eye-rollingly earnest lines with feeling: for every great Springsteen lyric that displays his craft and originality in turning a phrase, there is another great one that reinvents a cliché and gives it new meaning in the song. His project of reinventing the signifiers of American identity and turning them to populist purposes goes at least as far back as Born in the USA. But such reappropriations always leave open the possibility of multiple conflicting readings; Ronald Reagan was not the only one who missed the point.
No wonder the progressive theory of history that subtends liberalism now has such appeal: it’s another exercise in Springsteenian projection, this time on a national-historical scale.
In another sense, the ad is a return to a different primal scene from the 1980s: not the flag-waving defiance of Born in the USA, but the quiet depression he experienced while passing through that little Texas town. But even as Springsteen invented lives of unalienated life and labor for the residents he observed, he knew he was spinning yarns. He was looking inside himself, realizing that whatever experience he’d had of collective life and common purpose was lost, either a nostalgic childhood memory or a relic of a postwar moment when it seemed like people shared values, depended on one another, and took care of their own, before the conflict of the sixties, the despair of the seventies, the open class warfare of the eighties.
Springsteen’s autobiographical turn has made it possible for him to collect accolades, and checks, from cultural institutions where a shy working-class kid from Jersey might previously have felt out of place. He has been a confirmed rock legend for many years, but can now add bestselling author, Broadway star, and yes, podcast host, to the list. Credit for some of his career renaissance goes to younger boomers eager to enshrine their own pantheon of cultural heroes as they themselves enter old age. Since Trump’s election, moreover, liberals have urgently sought cultural representatives of the white working class, or what they imagine to be the white working class, to translate Trumpist grievance and soothe their own sense of disconnection. And Springsteen has never been one to deny an audience something they badly want. Perhaps all this establishment confirmation of his success has encouraged him to tone down his populist rhetoric. Perhaps it’s softened his opinion of the elitist forces arrayed against the working stiff.
Whatever else Springsteen’s recent turn to the self-historical accomplishes, it has forced Springsteen, and us, too, to admit that he is now old. His most recent album, Letter to You, inspired by the 2018 death of his old bandmate George Theiss, is mainly an exercise in revisiting the past, taking stock of what has been, what is gone for good, and, perhaps, of what’s left to look forward to. “You count the names of the missing as you count off time,” sings Springsteen on Last Man Standing, “I’m the last man standing now.” No wonder the progressive theory of history that subtends liberalism now has such appeal: it’s another exercise in Springsteenian projection, this time on a national-historical scale.
Springsteen’s best work has always been about struggle, for dignity, security, self-determination, respect, and a decent life. But it’s a struggle neither he, nor Obama, have personally confronted in many years. Trying to think his way back into that struggle has required a double movement—one, into his past, to recover the man he once was, and another, into a less-than-convincing embrace of liberalism that posits the national experience, too, as one of gradual maturation. It is an attempt to forge a future from a nostalgic vision. But you can’t go back to a past that never existed. The same might be said of the Democratic Party mainstream in its current incarnation: whatever its contemporary desires to return to the style and substance of the Obama project, it’s clear now that to do so would be just another exercise in sitting back and trying to recapture a little of the glory days.