Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 10, 2011
POP CULTURE: Bruce Springsteen and the Right

When New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, was sworn into office, he chose to celebrate at his inauguration by joining a Bruce Springsteen cover band in singing the Boss' signature anthem, 'Born to Run'. Governor Christie hails from Bruce's home state of New Jersey, and his zealous Springsteen fandom is perhaps unusually dedicated for a politician. But it also symbolizes a paradox: while Springsteen has long been open about his left-wing political views and has hit the campaign trail for the last two Democratic presidential candidates, he remains enduringly popular with a broad segment of conservatives and Republicans. In part, that's for the obvious reason: Bruce is a rock legend with a ton of fans, so we should be unsurprised that he would have fans of every political persuasion. It's also partly demographic; Bruce's fans tend to be disproportionately white and, increasingly, older, and those are more conservative groups than the population at large. But my own anecdotal sense is that Bruce's fanbase is - if anything - more conservative-leaning than you would explain by those factors alone, and certainly not markedly more liberal. Speaking as a conservative and a longtime Springsteen diehard, let me offer some theories as to why that is. This is not an essay dedicated to claiming Springsteen for the Right, or arguing that he's unwittingly some sort of crypto-conservative, although I do note at a few points conservative themes in his writing and his life. Rather, my argument is that the things that appeal to fans of Bruce Springsteen and his music are, quite logically, most appealing to conservatives.

Generally, we conservatives have pretty low expectations, politically, for our pop-culture icons. We understand that most of them don't agree with us on politics or policy. So, what we look for are artists who have some tolerance and respect for us, some themes in common with our worldview, and sometimes being one of the good guys on something. Bruce delivers on all counts.

(1) Decency

One of the principal complaints of conservatives about the culture is that it's a sewer of indecency: too much sex, too much bad language, too much immorality of various kinds...in general, too much bombardment of the young and the unwilling with messages and imagery that subvert any effort to bring kids to maturity gradually, with the perspective of time.

Bruce may be a liberal, but on this count, he's been one of the good guys for a very long time. People bring their kids to Springsteen concerts and play his albums in the car without worry; out of his vast catalog, I can count on one hand the number of Springsteen songs I have to censor from my kids, and none of them are his major hits (on Live in Dublin, you can hear an audible crowd reaction to the line in 'Long Time Coming' where Bruce uses the F word). Bruce deals in adult themes without forcing his listeners into adulthood. Contrast this to a self-identified Republican like Britney Spears, who launched her career as an icon of underage sexuality, sings about threesomes and has presented an ongoing reality-show-style trainwreck of a life offstage.

In his personal life, Bruce is no perfect role model, but by and large he's avoided the public spectacle of a life of rock n' roll dissolution; he's raised a family (his first marriage collapsed quickly, but the second one has endured two decades), stayed out of trouble with the law, kept any tales of excess and vice out of the press. Clarence Clemons, in his book Big Man - which I highly recommend - recounts that Bruce had a "no drugs" policy for his band, more out of professionalism than anything else; while Clarence admits to violating this policy rather regularly, he nonetheless respected the fact that Bruce sought to hold himself and his band to some standards, if for no other reason than to keep the band from unraveling. (TIME's famous 1975 profile of Bruce noted his avoidance of drugs, an unusual stance in the 70s, a decade before Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign).

(2) Separation of Music and Politics

Bruce's first three albums were wholly apolitical; he didn't start to get into anything like social commentary until 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town, and his first real stab at political activism was with the "No Nukes" concerts in the fall of 1979. Since then, his politics have been no secret, and Bruce's worldview has certainly made its way into his music. But for the most part, his songs seek to describe the world as he sees it and leave it to the listener to draw his or her own political conclusions. Anti-war songs like 'Souls of the Departed' and 'Devils & Dust' remained at a high level of generality and never veered into the self-parodic rantings of the likes of the Rolling Stones' 'Sweet Neo Con' or the tendentious retellings of fact in Bob Dylan's 'Hurricane' (which is still a great song, but a transparently political tract that makes a lot of demands of the listener).

Even when Bruce puts politics front and center in his music, he doesn't stack the deck against his audience. A perfect example is one of the rarer explicitly political songs in Bruce's catalog, 'American Skin (41 Shots)', a song about the politically charged shooting death in early 1999 of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 23-year-old Guinean immigrant street vendor who was shot 41 times by a team of 4 New York City cops. The cops, for their part, contended that they thought he was pulling a weapon when he reached for his wallet to identify himself after being chased into the vestibule of a Bronx apartment building. In the hands of, say, Eddie Vedder or even Neil Young, an incident like this would have been an occasion for preachy denunciations of the cops as racist and trigger-happy. But Bruce, with a defter touch as a lyricist and understanding how many of his own fans are cops (many of whom protested the song when he debuted it at Madison Square Garden a few months after the shooting), was more balanced and sympathetic; while Diallo's innocent plight frames the song, the chorus starkly portrays the horrible life and death dilemma of the cops' split-second decision:

Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet, this is your life

Or consider 'Born in the USA,' which took on the hardships of many Vietnam veterans a decade after the fall of Saigon. Ronald Reagan, who presumably relied on his speechwriters for the line, famously misinterpreted the song as a straightforward patriotic anthem, which a lot of people did the first time they heard the chorus. Personally, I blame Bruce in part for the common misperception of that song; if he didn't want it to be heard as a hymn to underappreciated patriots, he should have thought twice about releasing a video full of warm, fuzzy Americana where he played in front of the flag; about putting Old Glory on the cover of the record, and as the backdrop to the stage show, and as the backdrop to the tour posters, all at a time when the "USA! USA!" chant was at its highest ebb. But strippping away the iconography, the song itself simply tells the hard story of a guy who got shipped off to fight in Vietnam and couldn't catch a break ever since; while it's clearly an anti-war song (the best Bruce can come up with to describe the war's purpose is "go and kill the yellow man,") it's really neither a pro- nor anti-American song, just a human story of a group (Vietnam vets) that had gotten a raw deal. And more importantly, the song symbolized the point in our history when the activist Left's hostility to the war and the men who fought it was giving way to a broad, bipartisan consensus that the veterans of that war needed to be treated better (the early to mid-80s were the same years that saw the erection of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the election of pro- and anti-war Vietnam vets like John McCain and John Kerry to Congress).

Bruce has likewise mostly avoided excessive political speechmaking, signs and the like at his concerts; while he'll pop off now and then, he's a great believer in the idea that a concert is about "communion" with the audience, and so his shows never lose sight of the fact that Bruce is there to entertain and bond with the crowd, not to lecture from a distant pulpit.

(3) Roots and Respect

Related to the point about why people believed 'Born in the USA' was a patriotic anthem: for all Bruce's liberalism, and for all the times he's sung about breaking away from his native New Jersey as "a death trap, it's a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we're young," he's always had an element of traditional love-my-hometown, blood-and-soil patriotism to him, and respect for his fellow Americans, that sets him apart from the cultural Left and its visceral contempt for both. Bruce has never been the type to bash America with broad-brush complaints about "Jesusland" and the like; you get the sense that he actually likes ordinary Americans, with their flags and their churches, their muscle cars and their guns and their quaint middle-class notions about marriage and family and loyalty. As the protagonist of 'Highway Patrolman' sings, "Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain't no good."

The idea of patriotism and familial loyalty in its classic form - the love of hearth and home, of the dear and familiar, a preference for one's own over others - is one of the foundation stones of any form of conservatism, and one that comes in for frequent scorn from the internationalists and transnationalists of the Left. Bruce's songs appeal to conservatives who hold these things dear because he treats them with the respect due to serious things. This aspect of Bruce's view of the world can be seen in his ease and even enthusiasm at mingling with fans of all stripes, but it's also all over his songwriting. The sense of geographic rootedness starts with the omnipresence of New Jersey in his writing, even when Bruce struggled for a time in the early 90s with the pressures of being a local icon (memorialized in 'Local Hero': "First they made me the king then they made me pope...Then they brought the rope") and moved for a while to California. 'My Hometown,' of course, is one of the classic odes to the emotional pull of home even when home is falling apart, a theme Bruce was mining with deepening sadness by the time of 'Youngstown' and 'My City of Ruins'. Bruce's songs about busting out and hitting the open road are likewise frequently tinged with the nostalgic pull of home, as shown perhaps most clearly by the protagonist of 'Independence Day', in which Bruce's mournful vocals illustrate the conflict in a young man striking out on his own from a father he could never talk to and a town that offered him no future.

Bruce treats the ordinary, average American with respect, too. As Jon Stewart wryly put it, "When you listen to Bruce's music, you aren't a loser. You are a character in an epic poem...about losers." David Brooks, a sometime conservative and long-time Springsteen fan, connects Bruce's respect for the people in his songs to something deeper and more profoundly conservative:

In Springsteen's universe, life's "losers" always retain their dignity. Their choices have immense moral consequences, and are seen on an epic and anthemic scale.

There's never a snide or mocking tone in Bruce's depictions of factory workers, cops, waitresses, cowboys, steelworkers, guys who race cars in the street, distant fathers, single moms, or for that matter the country or the Church or anybody who takes the big things seriously. This is less common than it should be. Consider, for a fairly typical contrast, a sampling of lyrics from the Green Day song 'American Idiot,' the title track of one of the most successful albums of the past decade, now a Broadway musical:

Don't want to be an American idiot. Don't want a nation under the new media And can you hear the sound of hysteria? The subliminal mind f**k America.

...Well maybe I'm the f*****t America.
I'm not a part of a redneck agenda.
Now everybody do the propaganda.
And sing along to the age of paranoia.

...Don't want to be an American idiot.
One nation controlled by the media.
Information age of hysteria.
It's calling out to idiot America.

It's not possible to imagine Bruce mustering that kind of sneering contempt for his countrymen and the land they live in.

(4) Consequences and Responsibilities

Springsteen will never be mistaken for a social conservative, given his consistent support for liberal politicians. But an overarching theme that recurs throughout Springsteen's writing - noted by the Brooks quote above - is the central theme of social conservatism: that actions have consequences, both moral and practical. So much of the lyrics and imagery of rock and post-rock pop is about one form or another of hedonism, the ancient Dionysian lure of indulging today without thought of tomorrow. But while the characters in Bruce's songs may be no saints, the world they inhabit is as relentless in tracing the consequences of their sins as anything sketched by Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo or Cormac McCarthy.

One of the starkest examples of that trend comes in 'Outlaw Pete,' the overblown but still oddly entertaining 8-1/2 minute cowboy opera that opens Working on a Dream. Pete, essentially a born criminal in the Billy the Kid mode, eventually decides to marry and retire from his career of murder and bank robbery to the quiet life, but he's tracked down by a remorseless bounty hunter:

He found Pete peacefully fishing by the river Pulled his gun and got the drop He said "Pete you think you've changed but you have not"

He cocked his pistol pulled the trigger and shouted, "Let it start"
Pete drew a knife from his boot, threw it,
And pierced Dan through the heart
Dan smiled as he lay in his own blood dying in the sun
Whispered in Pete's ear "We cannot undo these things we've done"

And he's right; Pete is pursued to the hills after that, and never seen again, his wife and child left behind and bereft by his past. Consequences, in Bruce's universe, aren't always equally distributed; the previously law-abiding protagonist of 'Johnny 99' gets 99 years for murder during a botched robbery from a tough judge, while the protagonist of 'Highway Patrolman' lets his brother escape to Canada for a killing in a bar fight after years of misbehavior. But in the latter song, it's the highway patrolman who must contemplate the compromise of his position as a result of his brother's crime. The law turns out not to be the end to the ripple effects of sin. As Bruce writes in 'Adam Raised a Cain':

In the Bible Cain slew Abel/ and East of Eden he was cast/ You're born into this life paying/ for the sins of somebody else's past. Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain/ Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame/ You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames/ Adam raised a Cain

Bruce applies the same lessons to love and sex. 'The River' is just one of an endless number of famous songs about teenage sex, except that Bruce follows the consequences with pitiless certainty as the protagonist gets his girlfriend pregnant and ends up in a hollow shotgun marriage and a dead-end job:

Then I got Mary pregnant/ and man that was all she wrote. And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat. We went down to the courthouse/ and the judge put it all to rest. No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle/ No flowers no wedding dress

+++

Now all them things that seemed so important/ Well mister they vanished right into the air. Now I just act like I don't remember/ Mary acts like she don't care.

But I remember us riding in my brother's car/
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir/
At night on them banks I'd lie awake/
And pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take/
Now those memories come back to haunt me/
they haunt me like a curse/
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true/
Or is it something worse?

For the flip side of that story there's the song that immediately precedes it on the album, 'I Wanna Marry You', in which the protagonist's reaction to a single mom is the most traditional stirring of the masculine heart: he wants to marry her and share the burden of raising a family with her, recognizing in full the measure of adulthood:

Now honey, I don't wanna clip your wings/ But a time comes when two people should think of these things/ Having a home and a family/ Facing up to their responsibilities

The protagonist of 'Hungry Heart' makes the opposite choice, walking out on his wife and kids, but he ends up regretting his wanderlust:

Everybody needs a place to rest/ Everybody wants to have a home/ Don't make no difference what nobody says/ Ain't nobody like to be alone

We're a very, very long way here from free love; love, in Bruce's universe, always has a price, but it's still worth paying. That's one reason why so few of Bruce's songs, comparatively speaking, are about the blush of first love and lust, and so many are built around fraying relationships and pledges to stay in it for the long term. Bruce writes about love through the eyes of a grown man who understands its cost. As 'The Price You Pay' puts it: "You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take...Now you can't walk away from the price you pay."

(5) Faith

Bruce's sense of moral consequence undoubtedly derives at least in part from his Catholic faith, and that faith is another thing he shares more in common with the Right. It's no secret that conservatives in the U.S. tend as a group to be more religious, and more comfortable with public discussion of religion, than liberals in general and entertainment industry liberals in particular. Bruce's body of work isn't perhaps as overtly religious as, say, U2, and as with the light touch of his political commentary he often invokes the concepts and imagery of faith as a theme rather than delve more explicitly into matters of theology, but the recurrent theme of faith throughout his work offers a distinctive appeal that separates him vividly from many of his peers and endears him to religious, often conservative fans.

Hope and faith are linked everywhere in Bruce's songs, and are treated as perhaps the most important thing a man can have. In 'Badlands,' one of his most enduring concert staples, Bruce declares:

I believe in the love that you gave me/ I believe in the faith that could save me/ I believe in the hope/ and I pray that some day/ It may raise me above these badlands

In 'The Promised Land,' Bruce warns of "a twister to blow everything down/That ain't got the faith to stand its ground." Almost a quarter century later, in the powerful 'Into the Fire,' Bruce offers a prayer for the faith shown by the firefighters who perished on September 11:

May your strength give us strength/ May your faith give us faith/ May your hope give us hope/ May your love give us love.

'The Rising' goes further, building the entire structure of the song around the parallel between the firefighter's ascension of the steps of the Twin Towers with his ascension to the next life as the building collapses. And Bruce closes that album with an explicit prayer in 'My City of Ruins':

With these hands,/ I pray for the strength, Lord/ With these hands,/ With these hands,/ I pray for the faith, Lord/ We pray for your love, Lord/ We pray for the lost, Lord/ We pray for this world, Lord/ We pray for the strength, Lord/ We pray for the strength, Lord

Bruce's revivalist streak is never more on display than in the marvelous 'Land of Hope and Dreams,' the theme of which is a train carrying passengers to a "land of hope and dreams" where "faith will be rewarded":

This train/ Carries saints and sinners/ This train/ Carries losers and winners/ This Train/ Carries whores and gamblers/ This Train/ Carries lost souls

In 'Living Proof,' Bruce treats the birth of his first child as a sign of God's goodness:

Well now on a summer night in a dusky room/ Come a little piece of the Lord's undying light/ Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon/ In his mother's arms it was all the beauty I could take/ Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make/ In a world so hard and dirty so fouled and confused/ Searching for a little bit of God's mercy/ I found living proof

Nor does Springsteen shy away from explicit references to Scripture; he draws directly from Bible stories in 'Adam Raised a Cain,' (Cain & Abel), 'The Price You Pay' (Moses and the promised land), 'Lion's Den' (Daniel and the lion's den), 'Leap of Faith' (Moses and the Red Sea, to which he returned in covering the old-time spiritual 'O Mary Don't You Weep,'), and 'Pink Cadillac' (Adam and Eve), among others.

This article by a Jesuit on Bruce's Catholic influences quotes Bruce noting, in a letter responding to Catholic writer Walker Percy, "[t]he loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life" and, speaking of the influence of Flannery O'Connor on the Nebraska album:

It was always at the core of every one of her stories - the way that she'd left that hole there, that hole that's inside of everybody. There was some dark thing - a component of spirituality - that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own. She knew original sin - knew how to give it the flesh of a story.

Bruce's view of a mean, sinful and fallen world, repeated throughout his lyrics, is an unmistakably Christian perspective, and one specifically that appeals to social conservatives. Contrary to the caricature, conservative Christians are firm believers in the inevitability of sin, and indeed that reality shapes the worldview of conservatives who see God's saving grace as the sole remedy for sin. Springsteen may not share the politics, but his vision of man and God is much the same.

(6) Tone and Style

I've discussed here the themes in Bruce's work, his lifestyle and his interactions with his fans, but there's also something to be said for the man's tone, style and public persona.

One piece of that is sincerity. Bruce's music is all about passionate commitments, not ironic distance, and while temperamental preferences of this sort don't always split neatly along ideological lines, Bruce's approach - like that of many country musicians - by nature lends itself more to a fanbase tilted towards the kind of folks who go to church and get misty-eyed at God Bless America (even if Bruce himself never liked that song). From the early days of 'Born to Run', 'Thunder Road' and 'Backstreets' to 'Badlands' and "The Promised Land' to songs like 'No Surrender' and 'My Love Will Not Let You Down,' Bruce was always about taking the big things in life seriously, giving it everything you've got and holding nothing back, clutching fiercely to your commitments, and pursuing joy with the full knowledge that it's a respite in a hard life in a hard world. As Jon Stewart put it, Bruce "empties the tank" in everything he does. His marathon concerts - with no opening act, exhausting length, blazing energy level and even today few concessions to age - are part and parcel of that commitment.

Other aspects of Bruce's style contribute to his appeal to conservative-leaning fans. In a field full of boy bands, bent genders and perpetual adolescents, Bruce has always been an unapologetically manly figure, a sweaty, hard-working, blue-jeans-wearing, cars-and-motorbikes loving adult, a grown man who sings about a grown man's concerns. 25 years ago, Bruce's long-time romance with cars and motorcycles and the open road wasn't a "conservative" thing, but in an age of environmental nags and a red-blue divide between liberal cities obsessed with mass transit and bicycles and conservative suburbs and countryside still wedded to big cars and personal independence, Bruce's fascination with Cadillacs and Harleys seems positively reactionary.

Conclusion

Bruce Springsteen is, as I said at the outset, an unapologetic political liberal, albeit one with a distinctly 1930s tinge to his liberalism. He writes about many common liberal themes - economic inequality, hostility to big business, hatred of war - campaigns for liberal Democratic politicians and vocally opposes much of the conservative political agenda. No amount of lyrical exegesis or biography can or should refashion him into something he's not. But as I have tried to make clear, Bruce nonetheless has much in common with conservatives, and avoids many of the traits and themes that cause many other liberal entertainers to rub the Right the wrong way. And that's why you can find so many of his fans on the opposite side of the political fence from the Boss himself.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 2:30 PM | Politics 2011 • | Pop Culture | Comments (37) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

Nice work. Sort of got bummed out when Bruce was doing fundraising for Al Gore, but got over it. Thanks for the read.

Posted by: Jay Kaminski at January 10, 2011 4:17 PM

Sorry but Brooks is not conservative
He is as liberal as they come

Posted by: Lisa at January 10, 2011 9:58 PM

My thought when a singer I like turns out a simplistic liberal flavored song, or offers up an opinion that demonstrates a narrow viewpoint of a complex issue is simple too: I like naive love songs too, but I don't expect them to perfectly reflect reality. Why insist on a higher standard when the singer turns to politics?

It doesn't mean I enjoy the effort, however.

Posted by: DD at January 11, 2011 9:41 AM

Don't care about his politics, but Springsteen's music is hokey pablum.

Posted by: Berto at January 11, 2011 10:14 AM

I am a baseball and Springsteen fan, so I was enthused to find this article while surfing the 'net. I am also a political liberal, working as a community organizer.

I loved this article, since it crystallized a lot of my thinking--as a person that has turned the corner on my first half-century, I have often been embarrassed by the unthinking and uncaring attitudes of my fellow travelers on the left.

Besides the undeniable musicianship, it really is the faith in everyday folks and our commonalities that has made me a Springsteen diehard. I'm sorry that part of his fan base will never get quite the same thrill as I when Bruce sings with Pete Seeger or campaign for Barack Obama. However, I'm glad that many people who disagree politically can still appreciate the man and his music.

Thank you for a well-reasoned and interesting take on Bruce. Now I've got to look at your baseball stuff--Go Red Sox!

Posted by: Phil at January 11, 2011 10:39 AM

Coming from a blue collar town (timber and fishing) to me it was easy to identify with Springsteens music. But I can also say the same of Bob Seger and John Mellencamp both of whom have the same themes but less critics in their stables. To me they all are equally great songwriters. All of those attributes listed for Springsteen could just as easily be applied to Seger and Mellencamp IMO

I can't relate to some hair band singing about sex with a stripper in the back of a Porsche. I can't relate to rap, and even most country music. I can relate to what it is like living in a town that is dying, and wanting to run for greener pastures. I can also relate to the homesickness that eventually pulls you right back to that same town.

Posted by: drunkenbubba at January 11, 2011 4:49 PM

When you hand-pick your audience, you're telling the ones you didn't pick that they're not good enough for you. Who knows whether Hank Williams was Republican or Democrat?

Posted by: Christopher Davis at January 11, 2011 4:55 PM

'Effin "A+", Cranky!

Posted by: TC@LeatherPenguin at January 11, 2011 6:09 PM

According to a recent article which I don't have a URL for:

Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) is shown with his collection of ticket stubs from the 121 Bruce Springsteen concerts he attended over the past 25 years. The Governor's campaign committee offered to pay the rock star's standard appearance fee, but he refused to participate in the Christie Inaugural because they disagree on gay marriage.
Christie introduced himself to the singer on an airplane, but says Springsteen ignored him. Christie left one of his own fundraising events early so he could race to Philadelphia for a Springsteen concert.

Immediately after his 2009 debate with then Gov. Jon Corzine (D-NJ), Christie went to NYC for yet another Springsteen concert.

Mary Pat Christie was thrilled in 2007 when her husband took her on vacation to London and Paris. She later discovered his motivation was to attend Springsteen concerts in both cities. A guitar signed by Springsteen is mounted on his office wall.

While the rock star is not fond of the Governor, that is not true of other members of the E Street band. Christie has a friendly relationship with both guitarist Nils Lofgren, and drummer Max Weinberg.

Posted by: Sophie at January 11, 2011 6:38 PM

I saw Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band for $4.25 way back in 1974. Not a bad concert, but I've seen NRBQ do better shows dozens of times. Same for the late Doug Sahm. And those guys are/were liberals but didn't continually piss me off by getting politically shrill in their old age (well, except for Terry Adams maybe...).

Posted by: 12-String Infidel at January 11, 2011 7:15 PM

Guilty as charged...

From The Compleat Heretic's Gratifications: Music: Bruce Springsteen
http://www.compleatheretic.com/loves.html#theboss

The Boss! Living proof that "songwriter" and "poet" aren't mutually exclusive. After more than 30 years, I still crank "Born to Run" and pause for "Thunder Road." When I was stationed in Germany ('86-'88), we GIs made the "rads" (comrades; i.e., Germans) sick of "Born in the U.S.A." which I still crank whenever the bitterness of my military service percolates up from its dark pit. And if there was any doubt of Bruce's place in modern American popular music, only the Boss could have produced a tour de force the likes of The Rising which captures the mood of post-"Nine-Eleven" America for generations to come. Unfortunately, his political views on the Global War on Terror are incredibly naive, but then what else can be expected from someone who finds "enormous sustenance from Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd." "Devils & Dust," which I've disparaged as "Dust Devils" since I first heard it, is an insult to America's veterans, past and present, which includes me of course. Well, I reckon I can ignore his blatantly political stuff...

Posted by: Matt Wallace at January 11, 2011 7:35 PM

piss on springsteen

the sooner this overrated poster child for self indulgent baby boomers exits the scene the better

Posted by: Ben Whackin at January 11, 2011 8:03 PM

Fantastic Essay Cranky !!

Got heavy into Springsteen in my college years when all my friends were either HairBand Heads or Dead(Brained)Heads...the music was a "Revelation" if you will. But that constant presence was interrupted by his continued support of causes that demand the end of the very moral and spiritual convictions he writes so urgently about...I had to put Bruce away. But now, after reading this wonderful post, I think I can put the vinyl back on the turntable..Thank You Very Much !

Posted by: JD at January 11, 2011 8:56 PM

Thank you for crystalizing why it is that so many conservatives love Springsteen. I have tried many times to explain it to my conservative friends, who share my revulsion at bands like Green Day and others who display contempt for America while getting rich off her people. You made my task a whole lot easier.

Posted by: Owen 16 at January 11, 2011 9:01 PM

Crank -- does it bother you that so many of Springsteen's stated left-wing positions appear to be mere poses designed to help Democrats and/or hurt Republicans?

Over the last 3-4 tours he spent significant time almost every night excoriating Bush for his policies on immigration, Iraq and Afghanistan, rendition, overseas wiretaps, and denying habeas corpus to captured insurgents. Now that the guy Bruce campaigned for is running things and has pretty much adopted the same exact positions as GWB Springsteen is completely mute wrt those issues. Why do you think that is? If he was taking moral positions then he should be just as critical of Obama now as he was with Bush in the past. But if he was instead taking political positions and then pretending to his audience that they were moral positions doesn't that indicate a level of insincerity that is inconsistent with much of your thesis?

Posted by: ShoelesJoe at January 12, 2011 1:46 AM

Also --

Very interesting re: Springsteen's religious imagery, especially how it's used primarily to inform his other themes rather than as an end to itself. I find it odd however that you skipped over Bruce's most overtly spiritual song -- 2005's "Jesus Was an Only Son". The track is so much a hymn that if he wasn't singing it himself you'd never know it was a Bruce Springsteen composition. When playing it live he's always done it by himself at the piano, and the last line never fails to give me goose bumps. It's probably the one great song he's released in the last ten years.

Jesus was an only son
As he walked up Calvary Hill
His mother Mary walking beside him
In the path where his blood spilled
Jesus was an only son
In the hills of Nazareth
As he lay reading the Psalms of David
At his mother's feet

A mother prays, "Sleep tight, my child, sleep well
For I'll be at your side
That no shadow, no darkness, no tolling bell,
Shall pierce your dreams this night"

In the garden at Gethsemane
He prayed for the life he'd never live,
He beseeched his Heavenly Father to remove
The cup of death from his lips

Now there's a loss that can never be replaced,
A destination that can never be reached
A light you'll never find in another's face,
A sea whose distance cannot be breached

Well Jesus kissed his mother's hands
Whispered, "Mother, still your tears,
For remember the soul of the universe
Willed a world and it appeared

Posted by: ShoelesJoe at January 12, 2011 2:13 AM

Much of Sprinsteen's make no sense at all. They sound cool when he sings them and they seem to exude a gritty, working-class vibe but who the hell knows sometimes? What are, really, the words to Mary Queen of Arkansas about? Love the song, love it but that and many others are little more than cool strings of words spun together that don't take on tons of meaning in the real world. I get Bruce's iconic status on both sides of the aisle and clearly he has a political stance outside his music. I still dig the Boss and he's on many the playlist of mine. I divorced my wife when I found out that when she worked at the Stone Pony she didn't go in (for free) on a night she was off when Bruce wandered in (post Born in the USA superstar Bruce) to play a set. She was too tired. No. Not true. I divorced her for entirely different reasons.

Anyway, does the political nature of what you consume matter to you? In every spectrum? Just music? Movies? Food? Beverages? Seriously. Will you not go see a movie that you think would be good because a left (or right) politically affiliated actor/actress is in it. I mean I can understand not seeing Mystery Men because it was horrible as opposed to because Jeanine Garofolo was in it but I'm talking about things that would normally entice you that you put off because of an affiliation you don't care for. I'm not sure that I consciously do it. I'll see Bruce Willis movies but I won't watch Dennis Miller (but that's because DM is so lame). I probably eat at restaurants owned by cefs with different viewpoints (I'm sure I do in fact) and I could be buying wine from producers that wildly differ with me as well. I don't buy Perdue chicken because, well, ick but there I drive a Mercedes and I bet they aren't a bunch of flaming liberals (although I have no idea). I guess my point is that I don't too much care although I take Crank's point about being on the conservative side and seeing far more left wing entertainers to heart so perhaps I just don't think about it as much. What about sports? Most athletes come off as apolitical but what if you really knew? Would you root against David Wright if you knew he was a diehard liberal that gave money to things you disagreed with? Where is the line if you have one? Is it flexible? Or is it not very relevant or does it depend? This was a heartfelt article on Bruce. Did you root against Doc on Straw when you found about their shit or was that different? What if Reyes went to a pro-choice rally? what about your go to wine? I'm interested and not poking fun.

Posted by: jim at January 12, 2011 2:46 AM

Excuse the weird typos and syntax in the above message. The Blackberry is hard to use on this site in particular and a few glasses of wine makes the thumb typing less reliable and the spell checking mostly non-existent.

Posted by: jim at January 12, 2011 2:50 AM

As a non-American I found this article very interesting, because it presented to me a clear picture of the reasons why I admire this man so much.

Posted by: Marile at January 12, 2011 7:24 AM

This is a very fine essay and ought to be published dead-tree somewhere.

I am not a major Boss fan, have never entirely caught the vibe, have sometimes bristled against the hype and devotion he inspires, and have certain aesthetic reservations (like the great conservative pop critic Martha Bayles I feel his music is too big-beat hard-rock dinosaur-like, and not rhythmically nimble and swingin' enough--i.e., he should have tried to have been more rock and roll than rock), but an essay like this makes me want to go out and buy all his stuff, and explains a certain fondness I've always had for many of his songs. Even egg-heady Socal suburban guys like me can relate to his Jersey working class stories.

And I'm ashamed to say I never knew about his Catholicism, or his influence by O'Connor and his attracting Percy's attention. Wow. Good things connect.

Posted by: Carl Eric Scott at January 12, 2011 7:52 AM

Dude is nothing more than a limo liberal, sits in his big house on the big hill, "working" for the little man. He and Buffett are made of the same cloth, court jesters, nothing more.

Go Braves!

Posted by: Tony at January 12, 2011 8:58 AM

Crank, the problem you right wingnuts have is shared with left wingnuts. You think everything has to be distilled into your brand of politics, and how dare anyone disagree with you? Music is important. Vitally important. It isn't necessarily political, but it's PRIMAL. Beethoven for instance had his politics (just check his feelings on Napoleon, and how it changed); or Verdi and his role in Italian history. The Beatles for that matter. Or that the Taliban banned music. Seriously, how many people have said Beethoven's 9th is the single greatest reason to be a Homo Sapien?

You like Bruce. No you love him. So? Can't you just love his stuff and call it a day? You aren't alone. Me? I really don't care for him, and yes, I'm in the minority. I love Sinatra, but don't love the Mob. Patti Lupone and Broadway showtunes, but I'm not gay. I love the MUSIC. I'm liberal (sort of), but have no clue why anyone listens to Bob Dylan --it's like listening to a cat scratching, and his writing is feh.

Is Paul McCartney any less important to England because he trashed the Anglican Church in Eleanor Rigby? No, he's the the most well known, and probably the greatest musician alive (feel free to disagree, but then you better say it's Paul Anka---and don't chortle until you see the man in concert--he's simply astounding in person). Doesn't matter. Hey, I'm no Mormon, but Marie Osmond is a really good singer.

Great artists, the truly great ones, rise above us because, in the sense that music especially, but most art, because what they do connects straight to our brains, and is so damn hard, and most of us wish we could do it, but simply can't, and never will, outside of the shower.

And Jim, I have the same problem typing on my Droid. I find adding a couple of paragraph breaks helps, both in reading and writing too. It's hard to read that little screen when writing sometimes.

Posted by: Daryl at January 12, 2011 9:25 AM

I was a huge Springsteen fan and can appreciate his music. He is an Omama Mama. Fine, but he will NEVER get another cent from me. There are consequences to every decision.

Posted by: Jon at January 12, 2011 10:32 AM

Jon, you are the perfect person to ask the question I posed. Where does that viewpoint end or does it? Presumably you would not see a movie starring big-time left wing stars (say something like Shawshank Redemption). What about if you found out the QB of your favorite NFL team was a huge lefty? Do you shop at Costco (big Democratic Party donor)? Do you eat Ben and Jerry's ice cream? I'm not trying to poke fun or be a jerk I am genuinely curious where people draw the line on their politics vis a vis other things in life. I can't really think of anything where I am so adamantly against someone that I would boycott a product I would otherwise want.. I guess I am glad I am not an Eagles fan and have to wrestle with Mike Vick thing.

Posted by: jim at January 12, 2011 10:53 AM

new 720p

Posted by: new 720p at January 12, 2011 11:11 AM

I'm a very very rightwing kind of guy. I am of the "shutup and sing" mentality. Have sworn off spending money to see a Sean Penn, Oliver Stone etc movie.
Having said that, no one in the world can give a live concert like Springsteen. Nobody is even second. I am a hippocrite and have learned to live with it.

Posted by: Mojo at January 12, 2011 1:17 PM

I love his music, but I don't enjoy listening to him speak for too long. The VH1 story teller's episode was mind-numbing.

Posted by: jt in austin at January 12, 2011 1:33 PM

41 Shots debuted in Atlanta in 2000, not NYC.

Posted by: Bryon at January 12, 2011 1:46 PM

I like this analysis of Springsteen's popularity with conservatives. It is in depth, well thought out and refreshingly without the usual right wing name calling.
I do believe (based on conversations with conservative friends) the explanation is much simpler. It is either that the conservative fan hypocritical (as one commenter admits) or they simple don't get the underlaying message of some of his songs. The best example is "Born on the 4th of July" conservative friends loved this song but after they saw the movie most of them didn't like it anymore because of the ant-war message.

Posted by: fred at January 12, 2011 2:02 PM

@fred,
no, conservatives aren't too stupid to understand Springsteen's lyrics nor are we hypocrites. America and her people are flawed but we (and Bruce Springsteen apparently) love it all anyway. That's the appeal of his music. There's an abiding love of America that flavors Springsteen's music and his liberalism. It's also that love of country and her people that seems to be so sadly missing from modern liberalism.

Posted by: Jane at January 12, 2011 5:14 PM

just picked up Springsteen's 'The Promise' box set companion book, amazing original photos and stories frm the Darkness tour. Limited Edition http://www.thelightinDarkness.com

Posted by: Robbe at January 12, 2011 6:24 PM

Yes, Springsteen is a conservative guy. This is why he's a Democrat. There is nothing contradictory about this, as the Republican party moves ever closer to nihilism.

Posted by: mozier at January 13, 2011 12:20 PM

Lisa - I know, but for these purposes it's enough that Brooks self-identifies at times as a conservative.

drunkenbubba - I also like Seger and Mellencamp, as well as Tom Petty. They're all in the same vein, I just think Bruce is the class of that field.

jim - I'm somewhat inured to left-wingery by musicians, I listen to Pearl Jam, Neil Young, etc., and it has to get pretty bad for me to burn the bridge. But I confess that I enjoy the work of some of those artists at a distance, whereas I'm genuinely a fan of Bruce.

fred - "Born on the 4th of July" is a Tom Cruise movie (from a book, although admittedly the book was one of Bruce's inspirations in writing "Born in the USA"), not a Springsteen song.

mozier - You can use words all you like but you can't force anybody else to accept your meanings of them.

Posted by: Crank at January 13, 2011 2:26 PM

Crank,

Great great read. Just curious though - when did you first become a fan - was his politics anything of an issue? I started when I was 15 with the release of Darkness, so it was long before Bruce really became identified with a political party. I remember when No Nukes came out, and even though he took part, there was a concerted effort to play down him having a 'protester bent'. I seem to recall that Bruce had kind of angered some of the other MUSE musicians because he refused to take part in all of the promotional efforts - this kept the focus more on his music than any views.

So in those first ten years or so, he seemed - if anything - to strive to be non-political. When he wouldn't let Reagan use Born in the USA in his campaign, it was related as being b/c he didn't want any politician using his music, as it could twist what the music said (as you note, saying Vietnam veterans were badly treated was not necessarily only a left wing sentiment, many on the right had thought that going back to the war). And by then he was well-established to be a control freak (in the best sense of the term - he'd been burned by the hype machine early in his career and took a painfully long time to release new albums). Further, he had famously slapped down both Reagan's and Mondale's attempts to publicly align themselves with him. And on his first live album, when he said that 'blind faith in the government, or in anything, can get you killed', it was still a pretty tempered, un-radical, statement.

For me, he was the regular guy who helped save us from disco and glitter bands, and who always showed a strong respect for his musical roots (the bootlegs I collected were mainly to hear his covers). He was also very much into self-reliance, there's an early quote of his saying he had to work hard because 'nobody is going to do this for you'. And his respect for the fans wasn't just in the length of his shows, but also in the long sound checks before each show because he felt he owed to the couple in the cheap seats for whom the concert would be a big event. He was the first rocker I saw who worked at it.

So I had the benefit of getting into the music first, and for a long time, before he decided to openly identify himself politically. It was surprising to me when he came down where he did, but any disappointment was more about him being just 'typical' for a musician and for not being something more unique in that respect. By then, though, I was on-board with the music, the stories, the characters, and I was going to stick with him and enjoy the ride. And it's not like he simply blasted off and is going farther and farther away - he still comes back around from time to time to share the fellowship.

But I'd like to know from the newer conservative fans - did you really first identify Springsteen as some kind of left-winger to be tolerated - is he considered to be 'so' left wing? What was the hook that first pulled you in?

Posted by: tanstaaf lunch at January 13, 2011 10:30 PM

I was nine or ten when my older brother bought The River. I really got into Bruce more seriously with Born in the USA, and only gradually then got a handle on his politics.

Posted by: Crank at January 13, 2011 11:11 PM

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Posted by: BlereeTwineve at January 15, 2011 10:10 PM

It's no use crying over spilt milk

Posted by: lasix at January 27, 2011 7:05 PM
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