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Bruce Springsteen, Made in the U.S.A.: The Phenomenon

In their attempt to turn him into an American hero, the media, politicians and others have missed Springsteen's real message.

October 10, 1985
Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen
Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

A couple of entrepreneurs recently had a bright idea sure to appeal to a newly patriotic America. They would produce T-shirts invoking the two heroes of the summer of 1985, two muscular, working-class white guys with bandannas and lingering memories of Vietnam. Springsteen: The Rambo of Rock, the T-shirts proclaimed. In a way, you had to sympathize with the T-shirt hawkers, forced and false as their message might be. Plenty of other clever people, including Lee Lacocca, George Will and Walter Mondale, have tried to grab the Springsteen Phenomenon, and almost all of them have come away with less than they'd hoped. That's because the Springsteen Phenomenon and what Springsteen and his music are all about are two very different things.

The Phenomenon is the media's explanation of Springsteen's new status as "something more than a rock icon, something more than an entertainer" (The New York Times). It's also the adulation that kind of coverage encourages. In many respects, this Phenomenon is not unlike the Rambo Phenomenon or the Yuppie Phenomenon or the 1984 Olympics/New Patriotism Phenomenon. Springsteen's working-class origins, his sympathy for Vietnam vets and his desire to feel good about America have made media approval tempting, if facile.

But what is really going on "out there" is something very humble, no capital letters, nothing phenomenal and maybe even nothing surprising. Springsteen's music is being shared by a large number of people, and it is making a difference in their lives. We love the bittersweet anthem "Born in the U.S.A.," the reminiscing of "No Surrender," the sheer pride of rocking, the high jinks, the highway, the sorrow. The music is something more than a received pleasure. It touches something you didn't know — or forgot — you had in you.

The media and the businessmen and the politicians cannot fathom all this. The Rambo Phenomenon was easy to handle because fantasies of bitterness and revenge, of exclusion and domination, have shaped public life for the last five years. Springsteen's music and his audience are more elusive because they do not fantasize about revenge or money or social position or glamour or mindless escape or patriotism or any of those things that supposedly everyone wants in 1985.

Baffled by the discrepancy between the familiar explanation and what is really going on, the Phenomenologists take refuge in adulation. Newsweek said Springsteen is "a kind of American archetype. He is rock and roll's Gary Cooper." The supermarket tabloid Star announced: "He has achieved the stratospheric status we reserve for only our mightiest pop heroes — he no longer needs to use a last name. Madonna, Mick, Tina, Sting . . . Bruce."

What makes the drum roll of that ellipsis, and the Rambo of Rock T-shirt, so poignantly laughable is not the glib reverse snobbery which holds that Rambo, Madonna and company are tinsel and Springsteen authentic. Nor is it the meaningless boast that Springsteen "puts on a better show." Springsteen would probably be the first to deny both suggestions.

What is silly is the way these pronouncements earnestly urge Springsteen fans to practice the most cynical self-deception. Springsteen couldn't possibly be what he says he is — "a real good journeyman." He must be something else, a megasuperstar or, bigger yet, an archetype.

The simple truth is, he and his band started out in the bars of the Jersey shore back in the late 1960s and have gotten more popular since. They play rock & roll, not really complicated, in a kind of Sixties style, but they throw in other things, too: some of Springsteen's songs sound alike, but overall they're pretty great. He recently married a pretty girl from the suburbs. And that's it, nothing more. Why does the Springsteen Phenomenon insist we not take Springsteen at his word?

Perhaps out of habit — a lot of Phenomenons turn out to be fake. Perhaps out of fatalism. You can't help thinking this is why the Star article seemed sadly eager to wheel the Boss into Madame Tussaud's: "Brucemania, like Michaelmania of last year, will no doubt subside and the fanfare will fade, but true fans will always cherish . . ." Springsteen may sing, "I don't want to fade away," but he's sure to fail.

Also, just maybe, the Phenomenon is subconsciously hostile to its subject. To make Springsteen something he's not, to make him a liar, is to get rid of him. Springsteen confronted the built-in obsolescence offered by the Phenomenon when Lee Lacocca reportedly offered him $12 million for the right to use "Born in the U.S.A." in a Chrysler commercial. One imagines the offer was appallingly sincere. Lacocca might have really thought that he was just doing his part (he himself a much-admired Phenomenon) for the country and for Bruce. He might have truly believed that those few seconds would help people keep feeling good ("Chrysler's back" and "America's back") and at the same time Do Good by reducing the trade deficit caused by the yellow man.

Of course, if you're a twisted and bitter individual, you might think that Lacocca wanted nothing more than to prove who's really the Boss, that he wanted the power to discard Springsteen into the oblivion of old ad slogans. And if you're not that cynical, you might wonder if it makes any difference. In any case, Springsteen answered Lacocca with three words, rock lyrics from before there was rock music: No thanks, mister.

If some have missed Springsteen's truth by elevating him, others have missed it by trivializing him. Reporter Sara Rimer closed her August 16th article in The New York Times by quoting a fan: "It's rock 'n' roll. It's just rock 'n' roll." This is closer to the truth in that Rimer understands Springsteen's uniqueness begins in his music. But her insinuation is as false as the Rambo T-shirt.

We can be fairly sure that the fan Rimer was quoting meant something like, "Don't deny Springsteen's truth by making him something he isn't." In other words, if you're not going to shut up, Walter and Ronald, don't bother coming to the party. As for you, Rambo, please check your grenade launcher at the door. But we can be fairly sure that our unthinkingly dutiful New York Times reporter was quoting the fan for the purpose of saying, "Everybody knows rock is basically trivial but, hey, that doesn't mean it can't be fun for a night." Rimer's implication here is utterly wrong. And if she doesn't know it, she should just ask Bruce Springsteen.

"Until I realized that [rock music was my connection to the rest of the human race], I felt like I was dying, for some reason, and I didn't really know why," Springsteen told Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder last fall. Some of Springsteen's most touching and thrilling songs are about wryly ("Glory Days") or chillingly ("State Trooper") recognizing that you are dying. Sure, some of Springsteen's other songs are "just" rock & roll: fast cars ("Cadillac Ranch") and girls ("Rosalita"). All of them helped save Bruce's life and change ours.

What unites these songs is not the genius of some godlike superstar nor some progressive political sensibility, but a very out-of-fashion, much-derided article of faith from the Sixties: the promise and power of rock music. Rock & roll is fun, but it is also something more: a means of holding on to life, of blasting away self-deception, joining with others and discovering why one should keep on living. Its spirit is democratic, its pain redeemable, its joys communal. If it were "merely" rock & roll, then Springsteen's talk of dying would be phony or foolish. It's a special pleasure to note that George Will and President Reagan have corroborated for us that Springsteen's music is neither pretentious nor phony.

Plenty of Springsteen's more politically inclined fans (myself included) pouted when Will claimed Springsteen on behalf of Reaganism last fall. In retrospect, though, I think we should thank Will. Of course, Americans were "gettin' manipulated and exploited" (Bruce's words) by the Reaganites' sudden attention. And Will and the fashionable conservatives did not dare resurrect their 1984 hucksterism in the summer of 1985. But their attempted co–optation and its failure provided inadvertent acknowledgment from an unlikely source of what is "political" — and powerful — about Springsteen's music.

Imagine, for a moment, that it is 1965 and you pull aside former actor Ronald Reagan after he has just denounced Martin Luther King. "I have bad news, sir," you tell him. "Twenty years from now there will be a guy who is very popular with people of all ages and who plays one of those electric guitars at deafeningly loud levels. He'll give piles of money to union bosses. He'll have a colored guy in his band. He'll tell everybody in sight that this three-chord racket saved his life. And people will take him seriously!"

Reagan asks if the guy will sing any better than that awful guy on the radio, Bob Dillon (sic). "Well, a little. But there's more. This guy, call him Bruce — no, he's not a queer, thank God, sir — will be a national hero. He'll be on the cover of magazines, the toast of political columnists. Conservatives will be scared to attack him. Democratic, even Republican presidential candidates, will try to associate themselves with him."

"This is exactly what I've said all along," Reagan says with a grim laugh. "America's on a perilous path, and if we are to rescue our country from such a liberal, decadent future, well, like I say: There are simple answers. There just aren't easy answers."

The conservatives' testimonials to Springsteen are a useful reminder that even the most powerful and fashionable people have to admit that what is absurd, scorned, silly, impractical, can come smashingly true. Even they have to recognize that the outsiders, the people who are scorned by conventional wisdom — losers, sad highway patrolmen, former high-school baseball players, even humiliated criminals — are worthy and can command the attention of people who run the country. It's no accident that the Reaganites tried to snatch Springsteen and haul him into the country club. They may have been ever so slightly worried.

That Springsteen's music is a triumph of the spirit of the Sixties is the one thing that the Springsteen Phenomenon could not bear to admit. Not the Sixties spirit as it exists behind glass in the museum — peace, drugs, liberation, love beads, long hair. That's all part of the Sixties Phenomenon and doesn't mean much to those of us who were in second grade in 1965. Not the Sixties spirit as renovated in the Yuppie Phenomenon. But the Sixties spirit as it arrived belatedly in a small, unpolitical New Jersey town, the same way it arrived belatedly in countless other places. It has something to do with liberation and something to do with self-respect. It is the spirit that says you can't start a fire sitting around crying of a broken heart.

This story is from the October 10th, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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