Bruce Springsteen: Voice of the Decade

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

Bruce Springsteen
Annie Leibovitz
Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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."

'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.

In 1984, America had not had enough of Ronald Reagan, or it would not have reelected him. It had also not had enough of Bruce Springsteen: After an international tour, he returned to the States a bigger, more popular artist than ever. It may seem like a contradiction that a nation can embrace two icons that differed so dramatically, but the truth is, Reagan and Springsteen shared an unusual bond: Each seemed to stand for America, and yet each was largely misunderstood by his constituency. Reagan seemed to stand for the values of family and improved opportunity at the same time that he enacted policies that undermined those values. Springsteen seemed to stand for brazen patriotism when he believed in holding the government responsible for how it had corrupted the nation's best ideals and promises.

To his credit, Springsteen did his best to make his true values known. In the autumn of 1985, he embarked on the final leg of his Born in the USA. tour, this time playing stadium-size venues that held up to 100,000 spectators. Playing such vast settings was simply a way of keeping faith with the ambition he had settled on a year or two earlier: to see what it could mean to reach the biggest audience he could reach. It was also an attempt to speak seriously to as many of his fans as possible, to see if something like a genuine consensus could be forged from the ideals of a rock & roll community. And of course, the gesture also entailed a certain risk: If Springsteen's audience could not — or would not — accept him for what he truly stood for, then in the end he could be reduced by that audience.

In some surprising respects, Springsteen's ambition succeeded. At the beginning of the stadium swing, many fans and critics worried that he would lose much of his force — and his gifts for intimacy and daring — by moving his music to such large stages. But if anything, Springsteen used the enlarged settings as an opportunity to re-think many of his musical arrangements, transforming the harder songs into something more fervid, more moving, more aggressive than before and yet still putting across the more rueful songs from The River and Nebraska with an uncompromised sensitivity. If anything, he made the new shows count for more than the election-year shows, if only because he recognized that addressing a larger audience necessarily entailed some greater responsibilities. In Washington, D.C., on the opening night of the stadium shows, Springsteen told a story about a musician friend from his youth who was drafted and who, because he did not enjoy the privilege of a deferment, was sent to Vietnam and wound up missing in action. "If the time comes when there's another war, in some place like Central America," Springsteen told his audience of 56,000, "then you're going to be the ones called on to fight it, and you're going to have to decide for yourselves what that means . . . But if you want to know where we're headed for [as a country], then someday take that long walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the names of all those dead men are written on the walls, and you'll see what the stakes are when you're born in the U.S.A. in 1985." For the last dates of the tour, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, he added Edwin Starr's 1970 hit "War" to the show, coming down hard on the lines "Induction, destruction/Who wants to die."

Later, at the end of the last show in L.A., Springsteen stood before his band, his friends and his audience and said: "This has been the greatest year of my life. I want to thank you for making me feel like the luckiest man in the world." Indeed, Springsteen had begun the tour as a masscult figure; he was leaving it as a full-fledged pop hero — a voice of egalitarian conscience unlike any that rock had yielded before, with a remarkable capacity for growth and endurance.

In short, Springsteen seemed to emerge from the tour occupying the center of rock & roll, in the way that Presley or the Beatles had once commanded the center. And yet the truth was, in the pop world of the 1980s, there was no center left to occupy. Rock was a field of mutually exclusive options, divided along racial, stylistic and ideological lines. In fact, by the decade's end, even the American and British fields of rock — which had dominated the pop world thoroughly for a quarter-century — were gradually losing their purism and dominance as more-adventurous musicians began bringing African, Jamaican, Brazilian, Asian and other musical forms into interaction with pop's various vernaculars. In modern pop, America no longer overwhelmed the international sensibility.

In any event, Springsteen seemed to step back from rock & roll's center at the same moment that he won it. In 1986, he assembled a multidisc package of some of his best performances from the previous ten years of live shows — a box set intended to be a summation of his artistic growth and his range as a showman. It was the most ambitious effort of his career but also the least consequential. It didn't play with the sort of revelatory effect of his best shows or his earlier albums, and it didn't captivate a mass audience in the same way, either. Then, the following year, Springsteen released the album Tunnel of Love. Like Nebraska, Tunnel of Love was a more intimate, less epic statement than its predecessor — a heartbreaking but affirming suite of songs about the hard realities of romantic love. Maybe the record was intended to remind both Springsteen and his audience that what ultimately mattered was how one applied one's ideals to one's own world — or maybe the songs were simply about the concerns that obsessed Springsteen most at that time.

At the end of the decade, Springsteen was on tour again. Reluctant to continue playing oversize venues, he returned to the arena halls where he had done some of his most satisfying work in the years before and restored a more human scale to his production. It was another election year, and while he still spoke out about issues from time to time, Springsteen seemed wary of being cast as merely a rock politician or statesman. Perhaps he realized that America's political choices just couldn't be affected very tellingly from a rock & roll stage, or maybe he was simply discouraged by what he saw around him. To be sure, there was plenty to be disheartened about: It was a season when Oliver North enjoyed status as a cultural hero and when George Bush turned patriotism and flag-waving into viciously effective campaign issues.

At the same time, Springsteen remained committed to the idea of turning the rock & roll audience into an enlightened and active community. After the Tunnel of Love tour, he headlined Amnesty International's Human Rights Now! world tour in the fall of 1988. Along with Live Aid, the Amnesty tour was one of the most ambitious political campaigns in rock's history. And the fact that it could occur at all and could reach an audience that was both massive and ready was in some ways a testament to the sort of idealism that Springsteen had fought for throughout the 1980s.

Which is to say, despite the currents of history, Springsteen kept faith with a difficult quest. In the midst of a confusing and complex decade, he wrote more honestly, more intelligently and more compassionately about America than any other writer of the decade. And after he did so, he set about the business of tending to his own life. An act like that is neither a retreat nor a failure. Instead, it is a way of refusing to be broken by the dissolution of the world around you. It is a way of saying that, sooner or later, you have to bring your dreams of a better world into your own home and your own heart, and you have to see if you can live up to them. All in all, that isn't such a bad way to finish off one decade. Or to begin another.

This story is from the November 15th, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 591: November 15, 1990
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