Bruce Springsteen is, to put it plainly, in his flop era.
It’s at the point where I am genuinely embarrassed to admit that I love him, this rapidly aging icon of Dad Rock, whose name is synonymous with activities such as drinking beer, being noisy in public for no reason, fixing up ancient cars for no reason, and stubbornly maintaining a chest-thumping patriotism that both repulses and fascinates me. I hear him preaching vaguely about “hope” on his podcast with Barack Obama and I can’t help but cringe. I watch him offer up scripted platitudes about political unity in a Jeep commercial and feel slightly ill. He’s the great-uncle at your family reunion who means well, but keeps telling the same three anecdotes about serving in Vietnam while you’re trying to enjoy your meatloaf.
If anyone asks who my favourite musicians are, I’ll rattle off a far cooler list: Fiona Apple, Noname, Kate Bush, Talking Heads. But I’m not here to mock my beloved Bruce. I won’t keep him a secret, but I’m hesitant to discuss how much he means to me to someone I’ve just met—largely because I am afraid of sounding completely unhinged.
I would love to locate a person willing to listen to me ramble about how Bruce employs themes of nostalgia, desire, isolation, and nationalism to craft subtly subversive narratives about masculine identity, but no such person has made themself known to me. Therefore, I am condensing my stream of Springsteen consciousness into this piece, which I admit is deeply self-indulgent. But give Bruce a chance! He might seem corny or washed up or emblematic of a terrible subsect of American manhood, but he’s also a brilliant poet, and a far more radical figure than we give him credit for. Lately he’s been disappointing me, so let’s take a trip down memory lane, way back before he sold out and did an ad for the Super Bowl.
Bruce Springsteen burst onto the New Jersey music scene in the mid-1970s, armed with a killer backing band, a taste for melodrama, and a gravelly voice that carried for miles. His 1975 album, Born to Run, cemented him as a paragon of Americana: a bard for the people, translating working-class pleasures and tragedies into Odyssean poems. The closing track, “Jungleland,” turns an ordinary night on the town into a ten-minute rhapsody about urban loneliness and teenage existentialism—while making time for a legendary saxophone solo.
Springsteen’s career peak, beginning with Born to Run and ending a decade later with Born in the USA, is arguably one of the greatest album runs of all time. There’s Born to Run’s bitter, hardened cousin Darkness on the Edge of Town, the double-edged glamour and cruelty of The River, Nebraska’s bleak and stripped-down solitude, and finally, the compulsively danceable yet politically incisive Born in the USA. Throughout it all, he holds onto familiar images—fast cars, closed factories, highways at night, strained familial relationships, extremely hot girls—as well as more abstract concepts: dreams, promises, love. It’s how he makes the universal seem deeply personal, and vice versa.
The focal characters of Springsteen’s operas are largely dudes, which may partially explain his current image among my generation as a boring old white guy who makes music for dads to listen to while mowing the lawn and whatnot. However, Springsteen prefers to examine maleness rather than exalt in it (and does a decent job of making his female sidekicks interesting). He’s fascinated by how men express emotion, how much vulnerability they might allow themselves. His protagonists are often blue-collar workers, suffocating under capitalism, yearning to feel known. As they search for connection and meaning in their lives, their masculinity comes into question: depending on the song, it may be a liberating or constricting facet of their identities.
In his autobiography, Springsteen has addressed his conflicted feelings about his public perception as a “traditionally” masculine idol. He describes his younger self as “an unintentional rebel, an outcast weirdo, misfit sissy,” admitting to being painfully shy, neurotic, and a “mama’s boy.” In interviews he’s discussed how he purposely designed his stage persona as an “alpha male” after his abusive father, while remaining careful to offer a more positive model of manhood to his younger male audience. He’s also spoken openly about going to therapy and taking antidepressants, something that still bears a heavy stigma, especially among men.
Within his sweeping, romantic narratives, Springsteen deftly weaved his own beliefs and political commentary. Most apparent is his empathy with workers: though he never worked in a factory, he grew up surrounded by labourers and understood how it felt to be on the lowest rung, to be under the boss’s thumb. In this way, his songs describing the small joys of working class life become quietly radical, a celebration of happiness, community, and class solidarity as a means to Stick It to The Man. Even his most commercially appealing and successful hits were political. “Born in the U.S.A.” is an explicitly anti-war song that delves into the mistreatment of veterans, yet its catchy chorus led many to perceive it as a classically patriotic song—including President Ronald Reagan. Please don’t bump that one at your lame Fourth of July party, Americans!
Springsteen expressed his politics beyond just his lyrics. In protest of the racism and homophobia spurring on the anti-disco movement of the late 70s and early 80s, he wrote two songs for Donna Summer, whom he deeply admired. His backing E Street Band was deliberately multi-ethnic (and mixed-gender with the addition of Patti Scialfa, his later wife). Bruce had a particularly intimate friendship with Clarence Clemons, who played saxophone. The two often held hands, embraced, or openly spoke of their love for each other. They would frequently kiss onstage, laughing and dancing together instead of feigning disgust afterwards; this was incredibly bold for the era, wherein public displays of queer affection—much less queer affection between a white man and a Black man—were almost unheard of. In 1988, over a decade after Bruce and Clarence began kissing in concert, the music video for “Tougher than the Rest” became one of the first mainstream videos to explicitly depict gay couples.
Springsteen’s music, a veritable melting pot of influences played by a diverse orchestra, led by a man who was unafraid to speak up for others, largely seems to promise some kind of grand social reconciliation, a happy ending for We the People. It speaks from a place of eternal optimism, which us 2021 cynics may dismiss as corny, but it’s also fiercely defiant. It sounds like hands clasped in solidarity, dizzying kisses on a street corner, driving into the setting sun, towards the future. It’s how he makes you a believer—not in any organized religion, but in the kind of transcendence that only rock ‘n’ roll can bring.
Maybe you’ve never surpassed the speed limit at three in the morning with a girl named Mary, but you know the wild thrill of it in your veins, just like you know the longing to escape your hometown, the burden of working to stay alive, the desperation to be heard and understood. This is Springsteen’s America, a funhouse mirror to the real thing, built and run entirely on the dreams of the masses. Here, among the smoky factories, scorched farmland, and austere skyscrapers, we are all surviving on the promise of being loved, of finding God in the face of another human being.
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