Bruce Springsteen: Voice of the Decade

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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.

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