Springsteen’s America vs. Reagan’s America (or, Still More on Exceptionalism)

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J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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23 Responses

  1. Avatar Will says:

    Great post. I do think that Springsteen’s later work takes a turn towards nostalgia. His best original song from the past decade – “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” – is tinged with regret, Tunnel of Love definitely idealizes a more immature, romantic view of personal relationships, and of course there’s “The Wrestler”:

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  2. Avatar J.L. Wall says:

    I do agree that there’s more nostalgia in his more recent work — of course, I haven’t really listened to either MAGIC or WORKING ON A DREAM that carefully (I don’t think I even own the former!) so I was in no position to talk about them. (You’ll also note I don’t mention TUNNEL here — it wasn’t deliberate, but it also wasn’t an accident. Strange album, that — it’s grown on me as I’ve gotten older. Not that I’m old, but still.) And, in conjunction with that, there’s a growing optimism on the part of his songs — think “Land of Hope and Dreams” or large parts of DEVILS AND DUST (minus the title track, of course). But I think this, in part, has to do with talking about Springsteen at 60 rather than at 25 or 30: he still talks about wanderers, losers, and wanderer-losers, but the rebels have mostly fallen away; and the way he talks about them has changed, too. There’s still a lot of nighttime in his songs, but it’s less overwhelming than it once was. I’ve got this strange notion that “It’s a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending /A rich man in a poor man’s shirt” is at least a slightly personal reflection: he’s spoken about trying to make “honest albums,” so it makes sense that as he changed, his approach would shift somewhat, too.

    But since I was talking about Reagan, the Springsteen I was predominately interested in was the one from the mid/late-70s through the mid-80s. (I know, it doesn’t match up quite right, but Springsteen had the luxury of being able to respond to the late 70s as they happened rather than being limited to the next presidential campaign.)Report

    • Avatar Will says:

      Yeah, I think that’s totally appropriate. My comment was intended as a quick observation, not a criticism, although I do think Springsteen’s later iterations are interesting. Have you listened to We Shall Overcome? It’s arguably the most optimistic album Springsteen’s ever recorded, but I think the songs are all second-hand.Report

      • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

        I didn’t think you were being particularly critical, so I hope I didn’t come across as defensive — I just thought I should explain why I focused on what I did.

        As for We Shall Overcome — I agree about the optimism. But it’s also kind of a singularity, almost more of a tribute album to Pete Seeger and Springsteen’s debt to the American folk tradition. (And it also strikes me as a, “Hey, let’s all get together and do something FUN” kind of album — sort of along the lines of The Travelling Wilburys. It was recorded in Springsteen’s living room, after all — though I’m pretty sure I remember hearing/reading that the horn section had to stand in the hallway from lack of space.) He did folk stuff before — Nebraska and Tom Joad — but those were really more “contemporary folk,” while this was traditional folk with Springsteen (and, I assume, Little Steven) putting their own twist on the arrangements.Report

  3. Avatar tom van dyke says:

    “It’s a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending /A rich man in a poor man’s shirt” is at least a slightly personal reflection: he’s spoken about trying to make “honest albums,” so it makes sense that as he changed, his approach would shift somewhat, too.

    I suppose he’s trying, but as a mere epigone of Steinbeck and Guthrie when not singing about cars, his sentiments are derivative, his appeal limited largely to those of his own demography.

    On the Dylan or Guthrie scale of cultural impact, Springsteen rates a shade higher than Tom Petty or John Mellencamp, I suppose. But although Dylan and Guthrie can be reasonably mentioned in the same sentence as Ronald Reagan in this context, Bruce Springsteen’s view of America doesn’t even rate with Sarah Palin’s.

    [And she too will pass.]Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

      Them’s fightin’ words, Tom. Three points: First, Reagan linked himself to Springsteen when he tried to co-opt “Born in the U.S.A.” as a campaign song; the contrast was of his making. Second, maybe Springsteen is no Dylan or Guthrie, but he does have a talent for capturing a moment in America: Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born in the U.S.A., and The Rising come to mind. Third: Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town are two of the great American rock albums. They’re not Highway 61 or Blood on the Tracks — but they’re not trying to be.Report

      • Avatar tom van dyke says:

        Heh heh. Yeah, I knew them’s fightin’ words, JL.

        I enjoy his records [the anthem stuff, anyway], but I’ve been seeing a lot of Springsteen-as-cultural-icon stuff of late on intellectually-minded blogs. This goes a bit too far, in my view, for reasons given, and says more about the authors of such stuff than the artist himself.

        The first test of any cultural icon/influence is whether he or she transcends their demographic and/or genre, which Springsteen simply does not.

        As for Reagan [or his advisers], clearly he/they didn’t know what “Born in the USA” was about beyond its anthemic one-line chorus, or they never would have gone near it. That they didn’t know sort of reinforces the point.

        “In the words of one New York Times reviewer, ‘Born in the USA’ had become “a holler of impotent desperation.”

        That may be true for a Springsteen fan, but hardly holds for the greater culture. According to the same source, Lee Iaccoca reputedly offered $12 million to put it in a Chrysler commercial. What a white boy of a certain age at the NYT heard as a primal scream of existential American angst sounded like a rockin’ Star-Spangled Banner to the rest of America.

        [And yes, I appreciate that Springsteen probably intended that irony. But that doesn’t change the actual cultural impact, or lack of same.]Report

        • Avatar Trumwill says:

          Not Springsteen, but the classic misappropriation to me will always be “Fortunate Son” being used as a patriotic ad for blue jeans.Report

          • Avatar Koz says:

            Actually that one makes sense when you think about it. Wrangler is not marketed upscale. The prospective jeans buyer can identify with the protagonist in the song because he doesn’t identify himself as the son of wealth or privilege either.Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

            Or the Janis Joplin sing being used unironically to sell Mercedes Benzes.Report

        • Avatar Koz says:

          “The first test of any cultural icon/influence is whether he or she transcends their demographic and/or genre, which Springsteen simply does not. “

          Au contraire, Springsteen doesn’t transcend his genre, he exemplifies it, he projects it into the cultural sphere. He functions perfectly well as a cultural icon, it’s as an artist and musician that he has limitations.Report

        • Avatar JosephFM says:

          See, I think this is wrong. Most of the actual cultural influence of Springsteen’s music today is indeed in the same boat of “Dad Rock”, to be sure, but there are traces of it all over.

          I mean, hell, here’s a 90s/00s punk band from Gainesville:
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPS3P8t2Y3c

          How is that not “outside Bruce’s demographic”?Report

    • Avatar Heidegger says:

      Pretty good music, but if you’ve ever had the misfortune of hearing him interviewed and discuss the issues of the day, he’s pretty much a borderline imbecile. Even worse, why should we or anyone else for that matter, give a rat’s ass about anything he has to say? Do we ask a plumber about global warming? Or a mason, about AIDS relief in Africa? Why would Springsteen have any more valuable insights into these subjects as a plumber or a mason? He makes W sound like Churchill for God’s sakes!Report

      • Avatar Koz says:

        I used to agree with this train of thought, but now I’m much less sympathetic to it, especially in Springsteen’s case.

        Ultimately, I think Springsteen fails at a deeper level than you’re suggesting. Ie, Springsteen tried (with a fair bit of success) to sell American teenagers the snake oil that bourgeois America is a trap and if they can experience the life they want if they could just escape it.Report

        • Avatar Heidegger says:

          Koz–I LIKE that— “Ie, Springsteen tried (with a fair bit of success) to sell American teenagers the snake oil that bourgeois America is a trap and if they can experience the life they want if they could just escape it.”

          Good observation. Anyway you cut it, he’s the classic, epitome of the Limousine Liberal. Just shut up and sing-as Laura Ingraham said. I, personally find it painful to hear him wax “eloquent” on any subject under the sun. At best, he has a 5th graders knowledge of current events. Not bad when you consider this” man of the people” pulls in $250 million a year. I hear he even loves Castro! Not sure, but has he ever visited the political prisoners there?Report

          • Avatar Koz says:

            “Just shut up and sing-as Laura Ingraham said.”

            No, no, no. That’s just the point, he can’t. Other people in his position won’t (eg, Sean Penn), but Springsteen can’t.Report

          • Avatar tom van dyke says:

            Au contraire, Springsteen doesn’t transcend his genre, he exemplifies it, he projects it into the cultural sphere.

            I don’t think he projects anything much into the cultural sphere beyond his demographic, like-minded yuppies [who happen to people the American press]. At least that’s my opinion and observation. Sort of like when David Lee Roth noted all the music critics fawned over Elvis Costello, because they all looked like him.

            I read a little further in that link I posted, BTW. Springsteen apparently didn’t even intend the irony, he just thought he was misunderstood.Report

        • Avatar JosephFM says:

          Wow, what?
          Bourgeois life IS a trap, it’s chasing after bullshit and getting buried in debt trying and failing to buy happiness while the world collapses around you. I never liked Springsteen until I came to that conclusion on my own.Report

  4. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I don’t know if it has to be “exceptionalism”, so much as a topic he thinks worthy of returning to and exploring constantly. You can love something with all your heart and have that be a reflection of yourself instead of the beloved, if that makes sense. I just don’t know if I’d call Joyce an Irish exceptionalist. Anyway, great post, especially this line: “It is morning in Reagan’s America, but in Springsteen’s, it is perpetually the middle of the night.”Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

      I guess I’d say that it’s the ideal America that gets depicted as a kind of promised land that makes me think of Springsteen’s idea of/love/longing for America as a strain of “exceptionalism.” There’s an acceptance that the promise of America isn’t actual (yet), but a continued belief in that promise. Maybe it all depends on how broadly we can draw the lines of what counts as “exceptionalism.”

      Re: nighttime — I actually had never realized that THERE IS NEVER DAYLIGHT IN A SPRINGSTEEN SONG until I was writing this post. (Of course, I exaggerate. It’s part of that nostalgic mellowing as he gets older — but I swear, there are only glimpses of a non-nocturnal life up until around 1990.)Report

  5. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    NO offense to anyone, but I never like Bruce. I was always a Dylan fan and John Prine, of course, so I figured I’d be a paleo-conservative when …”all of my friends turned out to be insurance salesmen.”Report