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.
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.
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"
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.
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."
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.
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.