Bruce Springsteen: Voice of the Decade

What does it mean, Springsteen asked, to be an American?

November 15, 1990
Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

On the night of November 5th, 1980, Bruce Springsteen stood onstage in Tempe, Arizona, and began a fierce fight for the meaning of America. The previous day, the nation had turned a fateful corner: With a stunning majority, Ronald Reagan — who campaigned to end the progressive dream in America — was elected president of the United States. It was hardly an unexpected victory. In the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate, the hostage crisis in Iran and an economic recession, America developed serious doubts about its purpose and its future, and to many voters, Reagan seemed an inspiring solution. But when all was said and done, the election felt stunning and brutal, a harbinger of the years of mean–spiritedness to come.

The singer was up late the night before, watching the election returns, and stayed in his hotel room the whole day, brooding over whether he should make a comment on the turn of events. Finally, onstage that night at Arizona State University, Springsteen stood silently for a moment, fingering his guitar nervously, and then told his audience: "I don't know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it's pretty frightening." Then he vaulted into an enraged version of his most defiant song, "Badlands."

On that occasion, "Badlands" stood for everything it had always stood for — a refusal to accept life's meanest fates or most painful limitations — but it also became something more: a warning about the spitefulness that was about to visit our land as the social and political horizon turned dark and frightening. "I wanna spit in the face of these badlands," Springsteen sang with an unprecedented fury on that night, and it was perhaps in that instant that he reconceived his role in rock & roll.

In a way, his action foreshadowed the political activism that would transform rock & roll during the 1980s. As the decade wore on, Springsteen would become one of the most outspoken figures in pop music, though that future probably wasn't what he had in mind that night. Instead, Springsteen was simply focusing on a question that, in one form or another, his music had been asking all along: What does it mean to be born an American?

Well, what does it mean to be born in America? Does it mean being born to birthrights of freedom, opportunity, equity and bounty? If so, then what does it mean that many of the country's citizens never truly receive those blessings? And what does it mean that in a land of such matchless vision and hope, the acrid realities of fear, repression, hatred, deprivation, racism and sexism also hold sway? Does it mean, indeed, that we are living in badlands?

Questions of this sort — about America's nature and purpose, about the distance between its ideals and its truths — are, of course, as old as the nation itself, and finding revealing or liberating answers to those questions is a venture that has obsessed (and eluded) many of the country's worthiest artists, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Norman Mailer, from John Ford to Francis Coppola. Rock & roll — an art form born of a provocative mix of American myths, impulses and guilts — has also aimed, from time to time, to pursue those questions, to mixed effect. In the 1960s, in a period of intense generational division and political rancor, Bob Dylan and the Band, working separately and together, explored the idea of America as a wounded family in albums like The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding and The Band; in the end, though, artists shied from the subject, as if something about the American family's complex, troubled blood ties proved too formidable. Years later, Neil Young (like the Band's Robbie Robertson, a Canadian obsessed by American myths) confronted the specter of forsworn history in works like American Stars 'n' Bars, Hawks and Doves and Freedom. Yet, like too many other artists or politicians who have come face to face with how America has recanted its own best promises, Young finally didn't seem to know what to say about such losses. In some ways, Elvis Presley, a seminal figure for Springsteen, came closest to embodying the meaning of America in his music. That's because he tried to seize the nation's dream of fortune and make himself a symbol of it. It's also because once Presley had that dream, the dream found a way of undoing him — leading him to heartbreak, decline, death. American callings, American fates.

Bruce Springsteen followed his own version of the fleeting American dream. He grew up in the suburban town of Freehold, New Jersey, feeling estranged from his family and community, and his refusal to accept the limits of that life fueled the songwriting in his early, largely autobiographical LPs. Indeed, records like Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle and Born to Run were works about flight from dead-end small-town life and thankless familial obligations, and they accomplished for Springsteen the very dream that he was writing about: That is, those records lifted him from a life of mundane reality and delivered him to a place of bracing purpose. From the outset, Springsteen was heralded by critics as one of the brightest hopes in rock & roll — a songwriter and live performer who was as alluring and provoking as Presley and as imaginative and expressive as Dylan. And Springsteen lived up to the hoopla: With his 1975 album, Born to Run, Springsteen fashioned pop's most form-stretching and eventful major work since the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But for all the praise and fame the album won him, it couldn't rid Springsteen of his fears of solitude, and it couldn't erase his memory of the lives of his family and friends. Consequently, his next LP, Darkness on the Edge of Town, was a stark and often bitter reflection on how a person could win his dreams and yet still find himself dwelling in a dark and lonely place — a story of ambition and loss as ill-starred and deeply American as Citizen Kane.

With The River, released in 1980, Springsteen was still writing about characters straining against the restrictions of their world, but he was also starting to look at the social conditions that bred lives split between the dilemmas of flight and ruin. In Springsteen's emerging mythos, people still had big hopes, but they often settled for delusional loves and fated family lives. In the album's haunting title song, the youthful narrator gets his girlfriend pregnant and then enters a joyless marriage and a toilsome job in order to meet his obligations. Eventually, all the emotional and economic realities close in, and the singer's marriage turns into a living, grievous metaphor for lost idealism. "Now, all them things that seemed so important," sings Springsteen. "Well, mister, they vanished right into the air/Now I just act like I don't remember/Mary acts like she don't care." In The River's murky and desultory world, people long for fulfillment and connections, but as often as not they end up driving empty mean streets in after–midnight funks, fleeing from a painful nothingness into a more deadening nothingness.

The River was Springsteen's pivotal statement. Up to that point, he had told his tales in florid language, in musical settings that were occasionally operatic and showy. Now he was streamlining both the lyrics and the music into simpler, more colloquial structures, as if the realities he was trying to dissect were too bleak to support his earlier expansiveness. The River was also the record with which Springsteen began wielding rock & roll less as a tool of personal mythology than as a means of looking at history, as a way of understanding how the lives of the people in his songs were shaped by the conditions surrounding them and by historical forces beyond their control.

This drive to comprehend history came to the fore during the singer's remarkable 1980-1981 tour in support of The River. Springsteen had never viewed himself as a political-minded performer, but a series of events and influences — the near–disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor and his subsequent participation in the No Nukes benefit, at New York City's Madison Square Garden in September 1979 — began to alter that perception. Springsteen read Joe Klein's biography of folk singer Woody Guthrie and was impressed with the way popular songs could work as a powerful and binding force for political action. In addition, he read Ron Kovic's harrowing personal account of the Vietnam War, Born on the Fourth of July. Inspired by the candor of Kovic's anguish — and by the bravery and dignity of numerous other Vietnam veterans he had met — Springsteen staged a benefit at the LA. Sports Arena in August 1981 to raise funds and attention for the Vietnam Veterans of America. On one night of the Los Angeles engagement, Springsteen told his audience that he had recently read Henry Steele Commager and Allan Nevins's Short History of the United States and that he was profoundly affected by the book. A month earlier, speaking of the same book, he had told a New Jersey audience: "The idea [of America] was that there'd be a place for everybody, no matter where you came from . . . you could help make a life that had some decency and dignity to it. But like all ideals, that idea got real corrupted . . . I didn't know what the government I lived under was doing. It's important to know . . . about the things around you." Now, onstage in Los Angeles, getting ready to sing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," Springsteen spoke in a soft, almost bashful voice as he told his audience: "There's a lot in [the history of the United States . . . that you're proud of, and then there's a lot of things in it that you're ashamed of. And that burden, that burden of shame, falls down. Falls down on everybody."

In 1982, after the tour ended, Springsteen was poised for the sort of massive breakthrough that people had been predicting for nearly a decade. The River had gone to the top of Billboard's albums chart, and "Hungry Heart" was a Top Ten single; it seemed that Springsteen was finally overcoming much of the popular backlash that had set in several years earlier, after numerous critics hailed him as rock & roll's imminent crown prince. But after the tour, the singer was unsure about what direction he wanted to take in his songwriting. He spent some time driving around the country, brooding, reading, thinking about the realities of his own emotional life and the social conditions around him, and then he settled down and wrote a body of songs about his ruminations. On January 3rd, 1982, Springsteen sat in his home and recorded a four-track demo cassette of the new songs, accompanied for the most part only by his ghostly sounding acoustic guitar. He later presented the songs to Jon Landau and the E Street Band, but neither Landau nor the musicians could find the right way to flesh out the doleful, spare-sounding new material. Finally, at Landau's behest, Springsteen released the original demo versions of the songs as a solo effort, entitled Nebraska. It was unlike any other work in pop-music history: a politically piercing statement that was utterly free of a single instance of didactic sloganeering or ideological proclamation. Rather than preach to or berate his listeners, Springsteen created a vivid cast of characters — people who had been shattered by bad fortune, by limitations, by mounting debts and losses — and then he let those characters tell the stories of how their pain spilled over into despair and, sometimes, violence.

There was a timeless, folkish feel to Nebraska's music, but the themes and events it related were as dangerous and timely as the daily headlines. It was a record about what can occur when normal people are forced to endure what cannot be endured. Springsteen's point was that until we understood how these people arrived at their places of ruin, until we accepted our connection to those who had been hurt or excluded beyond repair, America could not be free of such fates or such crimes. "The idea of America as a family is naive, maybe sentimental or simplistic," he said in a 1987 interview, "but it's a good idea. And if people are sick and hurting and lost, I guess it falls on everybody to address those problems in some fashion. Because injustice, and the price of that injustice, falls on everyone's heads. The economic injustice falls on everybody's head and steals everyone's freedom. Your wife can't walk down the street at night. People keep guns in their homes. They live with a greater sense of apprehension, anxiety and fear than they would in a more just and open society. It's not an accident, and it's not simply that there are 'bad' people out there. It's an inbred part of the way that we are all living: It's a product of what we have accepted, what we have acceded to. And whether we mean it or not, our silence has spoken for us in some fashion."

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