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Bruce Springsteen: Voice of the Decade

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'Nebraska' attempted to make a substantial statement about the modern American sensibility in an austere style that demanded close involvement. That is, the songs required that you settle into their doleful textures and racking tales and then apply the hard facts of their meaning to the social reality around you. In contrast to Springsteen's earlier bravado, there was nothing eager or indomitable about Nebraska. Instead, it was a record about people walking the rim of desolation who sometimes transform their despair into the irrevocable action of murder. It was not exulting or uplifting, and for that reason, it was a record that many listeners respected more than they "enjoyed." Certainly, it was not a record by which an artist might expand his audience in the fun-minded world of pop.

But with his next record, Born in the U.S.A., in 1984, Springsteen set out to find what it might mean to bring his message to the largest possible audience. Like Nebraska, Born in the U.S.A. was about people who come to realize that life turns out harder, more hurtful, more closefisted than they might have expected. But in contrast to Nebraska's killers and losers, Born in the USA's characters hold back the night as best they can, whether it's by singing, laughing, dancing, yearning, reminiscing or entering into desperate love affairs. There was something celebratory about how these people face their hardships. It's as if Springsteen were saying that life is made to endure and that we all make peace with private suffering and shared sorrow as best we can.

At the same time, a listener didn't have to dwell on these truths to appreciate the record. Indeed, Springsteen and Landau designed the album with contemporary pop styles in mind — which is to say, it was designed with as much meticulous attention to its captivating and lively surfaces as to its deeper and darker meanings. Consequently, a track like "Dancing in the Dark" — perhaps the most pointed and personal song Springsteen has ever written about isolation — came off as a rousing dance tune that worked against isolation by pulling an audience together in a physical celebration. Similarly, "Cover Me," "Downbound Train" and "I'm on Fire" — songs about erotic fear and paralyzing loneliness — came off as sexy, intimate and irresistible.

But it was the terrifying and commanding title song — about a Vietnam veteran who has lost his brother, his hope and his faith in his country — that did the most to secure Springsteen's new image as pop hero and that also turned his fame into something complex and troubling. Scan the song for its lyrics alone, and you find a tale of outright devastation: a tale of an American whose birthrights have been paid off with indelible memories of violence and ruin. But listen to the song merely for its fusillade of drums and firestorm of guitar, and in a political climate in which simple–minded patriotic fervor had attained a startling credibility, it's possible to hear the singer's roaring proclamation — "I was born in the U.S.A." — as a fierce, patriotic assertion. Indeed, watching Springsteen unfurl the song in concert — slamming it across with palpable rage as his audience waved flags of all sizes — it was possible to read the song in both directions. "Clearly the key to the enormous explosion of Bruce's popularity is the misunderstanding [of the song "Born in the U.S.A."]," wrote critic Greil Marcus during the peak of Springsteen's popularity. "He is a tribute to the fact that people hear what they want."

One listener who was quite happy to hear only what he wanted to was the syndicated conservative columnist George Will, who, in the middle of the 1984 campaign that pitted Walter Mondale against Ronald Reagan, attended a Springsteen show and liked what he saw. In a September 14th, 1984, column, Will commended Springsteen for his "elemental American values" and, predictably, heard the cry of "Born in the U.S.A." as an exultation rather than as pained fury. "I have not got a clue about Springsteen's politics, if any," Will wrote, "but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seem punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: 'Born in the U.S.A.!' "

Apparently, Reagan's advisors gave a cursory listening to Springsteen's music and agreed with Will. A few days later, in a campaign stop in New Jersey, President Ronald Reagan declared: "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."

It was an amazing assertion. Clearly, to anybody paying attention, the hard–bitten vision of America that Springsteen sang of in "Born in the U.S.A." was a far cry from the much-touted "new patriotism" of Reagan and many of his fellow conservatives. And yet there was also something damnably brilliant in the way the president sought to attach his purpose to Springsteen's views. It was the art of political syllogism, taken to its most arrogant extreme. Reagan saw himself as a definitional emblem of America; Bruce Springsteen was a singer who, apparently, extolled America in his work; therefore, Springsteen must be exalting Reagan — which would imply that if one valued the music of Springsteen, then one should value (and support) Reagan as well. Reagan was manipulating Springsteen's fame as an affirmation of his own ends.

A few nights later, Springsteen stood before a predominantly blue-collar audience in Pittsburgh and, following a rousing performance of "Atlantic City," decided to respond to the president's statement. "The president was mentioning my name the other day," he said with a bemused laugh, "and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album might have been. I don't think it was the Nebraska album. I don't think it was this one." Springsteen then played a passionate version of "Johnny 99," a song about a man who commits impulsive murder as a way of striking back at the meanness of the society around him — a song he wrote, along with other Nebraska tunes, in response to the malignant political atmosphere that had been fostered by Reagan's social policies.

Springsteen's comments were apt: Was this the America Ronald Reagan heard clearly when he claimed to listen to Springsteen's music? An America where dreams of well-being had increasingly become the province of the privileged and where jingoistic partisans had determined the nation's health by a standard of self–advantage? When Reagan heard a song like "My Hometown,'' did he understand his own role in promoting the disenfranchisement the song described?

But Reagan's attempt to co-opt Springsteen's message also had some positive side effects. For one thing, it made plain that Springsteen now commanded a large and vital audience of young Americans who cared deeply about their families, their futures and their country and that Springsteen spoke to — and perhaps for — that audience's values in ways that could not be ignored. The imbroglio also forced Springsteen to become more politically explicit and resourceful at his performances. After Pittsburgh, he began meeting with labor and civil-rights activists in most of the cities he played, and he made statements at his shows, asking his audience to lend their support to the work of such activists. He also spoke out more and more plainly about where he saw America headed and how he thought rock & roll could play a part in effecting that destiny. One evening in Oakland, when introducing "This Land Is Your Land," he said: "If you talk to the steelworkers out there who have lost their jobs, I don't know if they'd believe this song is what we're about anymore. And maybe we're not. As we sit here, [this song's promise] is eroding every day. And with countries, as with people, it's easy to let the best of yourself slip away. Too many people today feel as if America has slipped away and left them standing behind." Then he sang the best song written about America, in as passionate a voice as it had ever been sung.

But none of this was enough. In November 1984, Ronald Reagan was reelected president by an even more stunning mandate than the first time. It seemed plausible that many (if not most) of the millions of fans of voting age who made Born in the U.S.A. such a huge success cast their votes for the man to whom Springsteen so obviously stood in opposition. Perhaps it nettled him, but Springsteen was finally facing the answer to the question he had been asking during the length of the decade: To be born in America, to be passionate about the nation's best ideals, meant being part of a nation that would only believe about itself what it wanted to believe. It also meant that one still had to find a way to keep faith with the dream of that nation, despite the awful realities that take shape when that dream is denied.

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