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Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen

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I thought of putting this in the Music area. It also would've fit in the Politics area, if we still had one. I settled for Literature because, well, this is a book about a music artist.

Here's an essay summarizing the book, by the author.

I read it with skepticism. I've heard for decades that Springsteen's lyrics, particularly Born in the USA, have been widely misunderstood by heartland-type conservatives as endorsing their views of God and Country, when, in fact, the song criticizes blind patriotism, Republican policies, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush ... wait, I've gone too far.

You know the drill. And it's hard to argue that that song hasn't been misunderstood in exactly that way. But even so, I've always regarded Springsteen as, well, a bit of an opportunist in this area. I'm not saying he shifts with the political winds. He doesn't. But I've always suspected that he hopped on to certain causes, with good timing, and rode certain waves of interest in those issues.

I don't condemn him for doing so. It's a savvy business approach. I'm just not sure he's as pure in his political motives (whatever THAT means) as some people give him credit for being.

Share your thoughts, Springsteen fans. And progressives. And everyone else.

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I'll start by saying I have no desire to enter into political debate, as that's one of the key things that drove me away from A&F a few years ago. But if I'm reading you right, Christian, that doesn't sound like your intent, and I think you raise an interesting question in your post. And please don't take any of my subsequent comments to be combative; I most definitely reserve the right to be wrong in my opinions here.

I'm certainly no expert on Springsteen's music, but I'm less cynical about his motivation. My understanding is that 'Born in the USA' was written and released well before it became trendy to tie yellow ribbons and 'support our troops.' Released less than 10 years after the end of the Vietnam War, it movingly captures the disenfranchisement and societal rejection of that group of veterans, as the song speaks of their rejection in the workplace and by the 'VA man,' men who have nowhere to run and nowhere to go, while grieving the deaths of their buddies at Khe Sanh and elsewhere. With these lyrics behind him, Springsteen's prolonged scream at song's end seems positively primal.

And perhaps I'm naive, but all of this has a very genuine, un-bandwagonesque feel to me. (It also meshes very well with the sentiments of the veterans to whom I dedicated 6+ years of my professional life, before I finally decided to preserve my soul and sanity by fleeing the heartless, cynical, incompetent bureaucracy of the VA system.) Similarly, 'The Devil's Arcade' seems very real in its somber yet hopeful portrayal of injured soldiers returning from our current wars. Again, I could be wrong, but I detect empathy and comprehension in the music and lyrics of this song.

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I think it's worth noting that Bruce Springsteen is a storyteller. He writes songs about characters, and the characters have names like "Mary" and "Wendy," "Miguel" and "Rosalita." Rarely, if ever, does he write about anyone named "Bruce." For that reason, I think it's a mistake to build any kind of overarching political philosophy out of his lyrics. He's writing about people -- everyday Joe's and Jane's -- who struggle to survive in the midst of a world where they have no voice. So Bruce gives them a voice. But he's telling personal stories. He's been writing about the marginalized and the disenfranchised long before anyone knew who Bruce Springsteen was. So I'm inclined to think that he is driven by something inside him, and not by any cynical attempt to capitalize on topical issues. I don't think Bruce Springsteen has a progressive political vision, or any other kind of political vision. But I think he has a vision, and it involves writing and singing about people about whom nobody else writes songs. It is only the politicians who mistakenly take him up as some sort of red-blooded American hero. I don't think Springsteen can be bothered with that nonsense.

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Andy, FWIW, your post reminds me of a comment that someone made 17 years ago, when Springsteen recorded 'Streets of Philadelphia', the theme song to the AIDS drama Philadelphia; they remarked how unusual it was to hear a major pop star explicitly adopt the persona of a gay character, with first-person lyrics written from that perspective. So what you say about Springsteen telling stories from the point-of-view of marginalized people, without actually BEING any of those people or sharing every aspect of their personae, makes sense.

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Andrew: No, I'm not trying to introduce a political discussion into the board again, but thought the book might be worth discussing. Because the book is about Springsteen's supposed "political vision," I don't know how to dance around the political angle. I'm questioning the premise of the book, but I've never been a huge Springsteen fan and am curious to know if his fans agree with the book's premise.

Speaking of which, I linked to an essay by the author of the book that appears to have vanished completely from the Washington Post site! Here's a link to the author's Web site.

It is only the politicians who mistakenly take him up as some sort of red-blooded American hero. I don't think Springsteen can be bothered with that nonsense.

That's what I was thinking as well, which makes me suspicious of any author who writes a book called "The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen."

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I'm strongly anti-partisan and not much of a Springsteen fan, but earlier in the week I did wake up with "Born To Run" in my head. Although, those three words are really the only words to the song I know.

Edit: OK, "Baby We Were Born to Run" makes six words I actually know.

Edited by Persona

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I never doubted for a moment that Springsteen was a progressive--specifically a populist progressive. His popularity among "heartland conservatives" isn't accidental, it isn't necessarily because they're misunderstanding his messages but because his songs speak to their realities in a way that their political leaders don't.

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I never doubted for a moment that Springsteen was a progressive--specifically a populist progressive. His popularity among "heartland conservatives" isn't accidental, it isn't necessarily because they're misunderstanding his messages but because his songs speak to their realities in a way that their political leaders don't.

I don't know. Springsteen is certainly a populist songwriter. But I'm not sure if it's appropriate to speak of him as a "progressive." That implies a political agenda, and I'm really not convinced that Springsteen has a political agenda, at least in his songs (his public appearances at presidential campaign rallies are obviously a different matter). Unlike, say, Woody Guthrie or the early Bob Dylan, who wrote topical songs about pressing social issues of the day, Springsteen writes short stories set to music. The viewpoints expressed are those of his narrators, and his narrators change from song to song. "I" in a Bruce Springsteen song almost never refers to "Bruce Springsteen." I have no doubt that these songs speak to the realities experienced by millions of Americans, and I'm sure that's part of their appeal. But there's a level of abstraction there that doesn't apply to more straightforward political songwriting. Springsteen's songs are political only in the sense that they sometimes touch on larger societal issues that affect the narrator of the song. He's "progressive" only in the sense that he's sympathetic to unemployed yobs who need to support their families and poor grunts in Iraq who simply want to make it home alive. This is, of course, progress devoutly to be wished. But I wouldn't read any overarching political agenda into it. To be sympathetic to these issues is what I would simply label as "human," not "progressive" or "conservative" or whatever other political ideology one could attach to the sentiments.

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I don't think Bruce Springsteen has a progressive political vision, or any other kind of political vision.

Springsteen has never struck me as being anything but sincere in his writing and the people he chooses to write about. From what I remember of the biographies I've read of him, he wrote the Nebraska album after reading Flannery O'Connor and Howard Zinn and realized that telling an injured Vietnam vet that he was born to run wasn't going to solve any of his/her problems. I also believe, though I could be mistaken (BITUSA did come out the year I was born, after all), that Bruce was one of the first to champion veterans' rights, that, by and large, the Vietnam vets associations were lagging in support until Bruce began to get involved, which I believe was sometime in 1982. Dave Marsh in Glory Days tells the story of Bruce's engagement with the Vietnam vets associations, but I don't have it in front of me to quote from at the moment. Like Andy said, Bruce is interested in the stories of people whose stories aren't being told, largely because as a suburban New Jerseyite in the late 60s, that's exactly who he was and who he knew. It's a testament to his integrity that he hasn't lost that touch over the years.

I might argue that he has a political vision, but I don't think that it's a cynical one. He's not trying to coddle personal support by cozying up to issues; at this point in his career, he doesn't really need to do that anyway. I don't think he sits around reading political theory (well, not anymore than the average person), and if he is political for cynical reasons, he's done a good job of keeping it out of his music. Even blunders like "Queen of the Supermarket" sound sincere, for all their goofiness.

FWIW, there are also books about Springsteen and philosophy and Springsteen and theology, both of which seem slightly ridiculous and, I imagine, make good arguments for why the average person doesn't need to read philosophy or theology.

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Christian, would you mind posting the link to the essay again? I'm having trouble getting it to work and a quick google search didn't help me find the essay either.

I think much of this this Stephen Metcalf essay offers an interesting perspective on Springsteen and gets at thoughts I have tried to formulate on many of my favorite writers such as Daniel Woodrell and Chris Offutt, who often seem to be expected to play the part of their characters.

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