Springsteen’s America vs. Reagan’s America (or, Still More on Exceptionalism)
Maybe the most interesting thing you can say about American art and culture over the past 30 years is that at the same moment in our history, Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen were both pining for some lost America. Both mourned for lost youth and lost greatness, but from opposite ends of the same table, from opposing points along the same timeline of our desires.
I still like that he nestled two paragraphs on the Gipper and the Boss in the middle of an article on Derek Jeter, but I left them without comment because I couldn’t figure out at the time what seemed off. But it’s this: neither Reagan nor Springsteen are figures particularly caught in nostalgia. Reagan was decidedly forward-looking: he brought a new morning to America, and even his rhetoric looked back to the original founding, constantly borrowing Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill.” As Andrew Bacevich summarized, nothing could have been farther from a Reagan who “mourned for lost youth and lost greatness”:
In a jab at Carter, he alluded to those “who would have us believe that the United States, like other great civilizations of the past, has reached the zenith of its power” and who “tell us that we must learn to live with less.” Reagan rejected these propositions. He envisioned a future in which the United States would gain even more power while Americans would enjoy ever greater prosperity, the one reinforcing the other. (The Limits of Power, pp. 36-7)
The exceptionalism to which Reagan subscribed would not allow him to mourn for America. America was destined for greatness, and Reagan’s role was to right the course after Carter attempted to force the nation to abdicate its inherent character.
But Springsteen’s songs aren’t, for the most part, nostalgic—especially those from the Carter and Reagan years. “Glory Days” is about nostalgia, and while it doesn’t condemn it, there’s no praise. The narrator’s high school classmates bore him by talking about their glory days; “I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it / but I probably will.” The difference, aside from his reluctance, is that he’ll be some old fart boring children with his stories, not sad, drunk 30 year-olds who can’t get over the fact that life isn’t just like high school. No, the central figures of Springsteen’s songs aren’t nostalgic. If they have a problem, it’s that they’re a little too wise a little too early. If Reagan channeled Winthrop, these men seem to channel Koheleth of Ecclesiastes: “If dreams came true, oh, wouldn’t that be nice.”
Poor man wanna be rich,
rich man wanna be king
And a king ain’t satisfied
till he rules everything
And yet, I can’t help but think there is a strain of American exceptionalism that runs through Springsteen’s lyrics. Maybe it’s because the album he released during my formative years was The Rising. Maybe it’s because, for a long time, my mental image of Springsteen was not of him, but of the seat of his jeans and bottom of his undershirt standing in front of an American flag on the cover of Born in the U.S.A and the large foamboard poster my father hung in our basement. And you can’t write “Land of Hope and Dreams” unless you believe in something special about America. You can’t write “American Skin”—or even (especially) “Born in the U.S.A.” unless you believe that America is supposed to be something more than it is.
Springsteen’s figures are, in their situations and their attitudes, American. Even the rebels are rebelling out of America into America. “Independence Day” is a son describing his decision to leave his father’s house. It is an “independence day,” but, as Springsteen and the speaker say it, it is also, “Independence Day.” He leaves his father’s house drawing a parallel to the founding rebellion against a fatherland. Rebellion for its own sake, or out of restlessness only, isn’t the rebellion that features in Springsteen’s songs. Rebellion has consequences; hopes and dreams have consequences—they don’t come true (“The River”) or the fulfillment is something less than you hoped for (“Brilliant Disguise”). In the lyrics of the Carter-Reagan years, the best outcome is simply the ability to keep hoping—to keep faith. For the rebels, this is the key to their rebellion: they rebel in order to seize their birthright: what America ought to be, what it promised them but what it won’t give them. For the others—the ones just caught up in this midnight world of lost birthrights—they have to keep faith in order to keep themselves alive.
This kind of faith first appears on Born to Run—“Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night”—and is the key to the final stanza of the title track. It appears more prominently on 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. In the midst of the cynical, beat-down world of “Badlands,” the speaker suddenly proclaims:
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
“The Promised Land” ends on a semi-apocalyptic vision:
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted
Faith leads to salvation; it saves him from the world where one lives in fear of broken hopes and dreams that one day might keep him from hoping or dreaming. This faith continues to appear throughout Springsteen’s works, in songs such as “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” “Devils and Dust,” and throughout The Rising.
Its object is also a Springsteen trope: “the promised land.” In the song of the same name, it is deliberately Biblical. The song takes place in “the Utah desert” and ends with the speaker “packing his bags” and following a cloud in search of a promised land. Darkness as an album is, like this song, deliberately Biblical. It opens with a proclamation of a “faith that can save me,” moves into “Adam Raised a Cain,” explicitly seeks a “promised land” in “Racing in the Street” and “The Promised Land,” finds a man who “walks with angels that have no place” and ends with a man saying he can be “easily found” at “a spot ‘neath Abram’s Bridge.”
Suddenly, then, it is no surprise that when Springsteen’s scenery changed from New Jersey it settled on the desert Southwest. (This also allows him to examine what happened in the place people once went to find America, or fulfill their/its destiny.) “The Promised Land” features explicitly in “Johnny Bye-Bye” (1998), “The Price You Pay” (1980), “Goin’ Cali” (1998), “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (1995), “From Small Things (Big Things Someday Come)” (2003), “Thunder Road” (1975), “Galveston Bay” (1995), and implicitly in many others—“This Hard Land,” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” etc.
I highly doubt any of this is a religious motif: it is, rather, about holding a faith when, by all means, one should have lost it, and wandering a desert in search of the promised land. Springsteen’s losers are really wanderers, but they are not aimless, and this is his point: they’re searching after “something in the night”: their birthright, their Promised Land of milk and honey, the America that was promised to them once upon a time, that they still in their heart of hearts believe is—or can be made to be—real.
Springsteen, like Reagan, is forward-looking and exceptionalist. But there is a distinction that makes all the difference. It is morning in Reagan’s America, but in Springsteen’s, it is perpetually the middle of the night. Daylight only lets you see the grit on your fingers. Springsteen’s America is an America that may believe it is exceptional, but holds no illusions about its nature or its present reality. America’s greatness rests, for Springsteen, in the continuing faith of its wanderer-losers. And what a faith it is:
The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight
but there’s no place left to hide
Together Wendy we’ll live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don’t know when
we’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go
and we’ll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us
baby we were born to run
He promises this, but you can almost hear in the voice the knowledge that it won’t come true. Theirs is a faith despite knowledge: they search for a place that may not exist, but they must keep faith. To lose faith is to stop moving; for these characters, to do that is to die. “That place / Where we really want to go” is the goal that gives them direction. They believe in it, but they are not there; its world is not yet their world. The American Dream has become a “runaway,” “a death trap, a suicide rap”—yet they still believe in the promised land, and in America.