Bruce Springsteen - American Legend
Greasy Lake ,
By Magnus Lauglo
It has been argued that Rock and Roll is one of the most valuable things that America has contributed to the world over the last fifty years. And there is no artist in rock who can claim to represent America better than Bruce Springsteen. The Springsteen fanzine Backstreets calls Born in the USA "a record so deeply rooted in the American experience that it's a national treasure" (Cross 10). Distinguished by his American accent, Springsteen's songs are peopled by everyday heroes with names (quite literally) like Joe and Jane. His music provides an in- depth analysis of Americans in their work and play; and through his career, Springsteen has been an enduring cultural symbol for America. The purpose of this paper is to establish Springsteen's music as irrefutably tied to American culture and experience. I will take various defining aspects of American culture and show how Springsteen has explored, and sees himself in relation to, these characteristics.
For someone who has become such a symbol of positive and traditional American values, Bruce Springsteen's view of this country comes across as impressively multi-faceted and balanced. He is certainly proud to be American, but he is also aware of the negative things that America is responsible for, both to its own people and the world. Despite his scorn of education and academic learning at the time, he was aware as early as 1975 that, "In this country we've got plenty of things to be proud of and plenty of things to be ashamed of" (Duffy 60). Dave Marsh, who has written two of the most extensive biographies on Springsteen, calls him, "the first American hard rock hero since Elvis himself" (Marsh BTR back cover). Yet by recognizing the problems facing the nation, and his willingness to confront them head-on, Springsteen proved to a be far more representative symbol of America than Elvis ever was.
However, in regard to his feelings about America, Springsteen has also been one of the most misunderstood figures in popular music; largely as a result of his single most famous song. To most people, Springsteen is still viewed as that beefy Rambo-lookalike rocker scrubbing a guitar and screaming out "I WAS BAAAWN IN THE USA." It is an unfortunate paradox though, that Springsteen's best known song is also perhaps rock's most misinterpreted one. Even today, millions still don't understand that the song is not a glorious American pop anthem, but really a look at a humbled and bruised nation. "Born in the USA" is in fact, a bitter song about a Vietnam veteran who has survived the war, only to find that his own country is ashamed of him, and wants to forget about the sacrifices he made for it. Springsteen himself notes that, "I guess the same fate awaited Woody Guthrie's 'This Land is Your Land' around the campfire. But that didn't make me feel any better." (Springsteen 164). In truth, the mass misinterpretation of "Born in the USA" can be partly seen as Springsteen's fault. Even after it was evident that casual fans were mistaking the song to be a jingoistic anthem, he continued to open his shows with this song, punching his fist defiantly in the air, repeatedly roaring out the chorus in front of a huge American flag that filled up the whole wall behind the stage. The majority of eager new fans only knew the contagious chorus. To them, the song was a patriotic and gung-ho soundtrack to 1984; a year when the presidential election and the Olympics held in Los Angeles contributed to a wave of nationalism all over the country. Even President Reagan tried to cash in on Springsteen's popularity by alluding to him while campaigning for re-election in New Jersey 1) . Anyone who was listening carefully would have no problems understanding just where Springsteen's political sentiments lay. Springsteen's songs of the mid-Eighties were about the everyday struggles, victories, and defeats of blue collar America. Springsteen, who saw himself opposed to everything Reagan stood for, stepped up his support of various organizations that he felt merited his support, speaking on behalf of food banks and trade unions. The American tradition for volunteer help and community service had clearly not been lost on him.
Springsteen has tradtionally been viewed as the spokesman of the American working class; and up through the Eighties, it was almost exclusively working class heroes who populated his songs. His early songs are about adolescent street heroes, with weird and wonderfull names such as Crazy Janey, Jack Knife, and Magic Rat, living fast and boisterous lives. Springsteen was not yet viewing his music as a political statement. The protagonists were blue collar all right, but they had not yet grown up. Springsteen's first three albums did not address the struggles of blue collar adults that he is most associated with today. Springsteen's young heroes would lose their innocence in 1978 with Darkness on the Edge of Town 2), the first album where Springsteen started examining the situation of working class adults. The song "Factory" would prove to be a defining tune for the future of Springsteen's song writing. His sympathies for the working man are all too clear in lyrics like, "End of the day, factory whistle cries / men walk through these gates with death in their eyes / and you better believe boy, someone's gonna get hurt tonight / it's the working, the working , just the working life" 3). It was against this kind of background that much of Springsteen's subsequent work would be based, although, in most cases, the prevailing mood would not be quite so dark.
However, Springsteen's ambitions and song writing scope would prove to stretch much further than merely addressing working class white America. As the Eighties drew to a close, Springsteen moved his focus to other groups in society. It was becoming apparent that Bruce was no longer working class himself; he was in fact a very wealthy superstar. Eventually he even moved to Los Angeles, away from the homestate of New Jersey that he had mythologized and with which he was identified. Springsteen found himself writing songs from the point of view of a wealthy man living in Hollywood. Interestingly enough, songs like "Aint got You" were often about the longing for things that money cannot buy. Springsteen had started singing more and more about love and relationships, and these songs were more universal in their appeal and were no longer rooted in working class environments. Springsteen's sympathies have always been with society's underdogs though; and his 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad once again saw him addressing the dark flip-side of the American dream. This album, however, was characterized by several songs about illegal Mexican immigrants living in the Southwest. In fact, the only large group of Americans that Springsteen has not directly addressed in a single song is the African Americans. Unsurprisingly, he has enjoyed extremely little popularity among this group. Producer Arthur Baker, who engineered electronic dance mixes of several of Springsteen's mid-eighties singles, is quoted as pointing out, "The one last frontier Bruce has is obviously black people. I heard someone say that he had more black people on stage than in his audience." (qtd. in Marsh GD 209) 4).
One of the most prominent aspects of American tradition that is also an essential part of Springsteen's work is that of isolation and individuality. Ever since the rough and tumble world of the Wild West, which has subsequently become glorified by Hollywood, the ideal of the American as a survivalist in a competitive environment has influenced how Americans view themselves. Americans have through history been torn between their interests in and cultural ties to the rest of the world, and pursuing vigilant isolationism. Americans have also had the need to live independent of influence from one another. American culture favours the strong and competitive. Individualism and isolation, though often related, represent two different sides of America, both of which are represented amply in Springsteen's work. He knows all too well the individualisic urge to move on, frequently represented by the car (or occasionally the train or the river) which is used as a symbol or a metaphor. Yet Springsteen is also aware of the the terrible results that isolation can have upon people. While embracing the American need for individualism, Springsteen's songs are ultimately about the need for community between people .
One of the standard ingredients in a Bruce Springsteen song is the all American car. The automobile has always been a very American cultural symbol; and America is a culture obsessed with its cars. American urban planners have always assumed that people are going to get around in cars, when designing American cities. Furthermore the automobile is a symbol of the technological breakthroughs of industrial age in America, the materialistic success of our capitalistic system. Americans are proud of their cars. Although cars have always been an important theme in Rock and Roll ," Springsteen has utilized auto-imagery to a degree where it has become one of the defining traits of his song writing style. The cars Springsteen chooses for his songs always fit the social framework of the song. Springsteen's celebratated working class anthems are filled with numerous referrences to Chevrolets, Cadillacs and Fords. By the nineties, Springsteen found himself singing about life as a millionaire; in "57 Channels (and Nothing On)" from 1992, he is singing about his "Japanese car". Springsteen has at times approached cars with almost a religious reverence. For instance, "Eldorado fins, whitewalls and skirts / rides just like a little bit of heaven here on earth / well buddy when I die throw my body in the back / and drive me to the junkyard in my Cadillac" from highway rocker "Cadillac Ranch". Cars are however, not always viewed as glorious getaway vehicles in Springsteen's songs. In "Used Cars" the singer gives vent to the humility of having to drive around with his family in a shabby second-hand car. "Wreck on the Highway" uses a tragic car crash as a symbol of the fragility of life. While Springsteen has been criticized for his repeated use of the car icon, one must realize that these songs are rarely so much about the actual cars, as about the people driving them. The cars themselves are used as vehicles, background, or symbols. The car itself has always been a characteristic American icon and symbolizes in addition to the abovementioned themes, the urge to move on in life; and Springsteen has given this kind of explanation when talking about his virtual obsession with auto imagery.
The urge to move on is another characteristic of this country, being initiated by the European settlers who "discovered" America. Travelling is as much about searching for a specific goal (such as the pioneers did, pushing the frontier westwards until they came to the West Coast) as it is about escaping one's present situation (as did many of the Europeans who emmigrated to America to escape persecution or famine). This tradition of traveling is imprinted upon the American spirit. Today, many Americans move around the country every five years or so, never settling down for life. Americans are quite simply not terribly used to be rooted down.
Springsteen's music embraces both the urge of traveling to escape, and the urge of traveling to reach something better. While these two "sides" of the traveling theme can be interlinked, they are distinctly different. Early on in his career, Springsteen was more interested in the getaway aspect. After all, Rock and Roll had been the instrument which had enabled Springsteen to avoid joining the ranks of the disillusioned working men of "Factory". However, as he matured, Springsteen realized that in the end, all his heroes in their cars needed somewhere to go. When introducing his signature anthem "Born to Run" in 1988, Springsteen told the audience:
When I wrote it, I guess I figured it was a song about a guy and a girl who wanted to run and keep on running. But as I got older and as I sang it over the years, it sort of opened up, and I guessed I realized that it was about two people searching for something better. Searching for a place they could stand and try and make a life for themselves. And I guess in the end they were searching for home, something that I guess everybody looks for all their lives. ( Pond 265).
A similar conclusion can be drawn from looking at a song like "Hungry Heart", Springsteen's first real commercial hit single. The song starts off with an alarmingly heavy dose of ambivalent wanderlust: "Got a wife and kids in Baltimore Jack / I went out for a ride and I never went back", but by the end of the song , the singer reaffirms that there's no place like home, "Everybody needs a place to rest / everybody wants to have a home / don't make no difference what nobody says / ain't nobody like to be alone". So what happens when the search for community brings people nowhere?
Springsteen confronted the dangers of isolation head on with his sparse acoustic masterpiece Nebraska. Isolation can be said to be an unfortunate American trait that by necessity accompanies the individualistic independence that is based on the urge to seek one's fortune in a competetive winner-takes-all culture. Springsteen said of Nebraska," The record was just basically about people being isolated (...) And I think when that happens, there's just a whole breakdown. When you lose that sense of community, there's some spiritual breakdown that occurs. You just get shot off somewhere where nothing really matters"(Duffy 48). Rolling Stone called the album "Bruce Springsteen's abrasive, clouded, and ultimately glorious picture of America" (Pond 133). The prevailing mood is one of loneliness and dispair, but there is an underlying element of hope in a few of the songs. The album is permeated by crime and violence, (again American themes). The songs of Nebraska are peopled by criminals, losers and struggling everyday heroes, some whom have already given up hope for anything better in life. Yet it is the element of hope that underlies some of the songs on the album that make it a truly great album. In "Atlantic City" the beaten down narrator sings: "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact / but maybe everything that dies someday comes back ". Springsteen would continue to sing about society's quiet losers and bitter criminals, on The Ghost of Tom Joad, but never with quite the same conviction.
America is a country obsessed with, but very hung up about, sex. Americans are bombarded by all kinds of images from the media and the entertainment industry that depict, allude to, or advocate sex. In this country, sex sells. At the same time, this is a society that is remarkably reluctant to deal with issues about sex in an upfront manner. Reluctance to educate our youth about sex results in high rates of teen pregnancies and STDs. Homosexuality is still more of a taboo subject here than in much of the rest of the western world. The few times the country does "deal with sex" up front, it tends to blow things out of proportion; the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal was taken very seriously in America, while much of the rest of the world was astounded that America was making such a big deal out of it all. Considering America's obsession with the subject, Springsteen would not be a representative American icon, if he avoided the subject of sex and desire altogether.
It might come as a surprise to someone with only a fleeting familiarity with Springsteen's music, to realize the full extent to which sexual desire plays a role in the man's music. After all, Springsteen has refrained from flaunting his sex life for the media like some other rock stars, and has generally been known as one of Rock and Roll's "good boys"; no trashed hotel rooms, groupies, drugs, or alcohol abuse. However, anyone paying even the slightest attention to his rock albums or attending his concerts can testify to the fact that carnal desire is an important part of what he sings about. Singing about sex is certainly nothing new in the field of popular music. However, it is interesting to take a look at the way Springsteen, who has been quite a sex symbol in his time, has dealt with the subject. Springsteen avoided provoking the older generation like The Rolling Stones had, because he came across as very wholesome. Women were often viewed as sex objects in his songs, but like all the people in his songs, they were also viewed with respect as human beings:
Strangers from the city call my baby's number and they bring her toys when I come walking she smiles pretty she knows I wanna be Candy's boy There's a sadness hidden in that pretty face a sadness all her own from which no man can keep Candy safe
Even the woman of "Candy's Room", who appears to be a mistress with several lovers (if not indeed a prostitute), is the subject of the singer's naive love - not just lust . She is also vulnerable as only a human can be.
If America is a country that is very hung up about sex, then any rock artist who is to be embraced, not only by youth as a pop star but also by the entire country as a positive semi- political national icon , must avoid embarrassing the American public. Young people may be happy enough with role models like Michael Jackson, but older generations will only approve of pop culture icons if these live up to the nation's more traditional values. From a social and political standpoint, Springsteen was a safe artist to be drawn to. Despite singing a great deal about sex, or at least desire, Springsteen managed to avoid the label of sex-obsessed randy rock star for several reasons. For one, Springsteen never brought up the topic of sex as a means to provoke his audience. Nor did he get too graphic for his American audiences, preferring to sing about sex and desire in metaphors and symbols. ("Pink Cadillac" is not a song about pink cars of any kind.) In his onstage stories, Springsteen always talked about sex and desire in a humorous way, earning roars of approval from the audience. Also, by the time Springsteen had reached his superstar status in the mid Eighties, times and standards had changed. People had accepted that a lot of pop music was going to be about sex. And Springsteen presented a socio-politically safe sexual image compared to the other artists who shared the limelight with him:
In the months that followed, the handsome, youthfully thirty-something Springsteen came to represent a vibrant, working class white male heterosexuality in pop music. At a time when Michael Jackson's sexual identity was unclear, Prince's eroticism boldly crossed gender boundaries, and Madonna turned femininity into a series of disposable images, Springsteen represented the vital center: short hair, blue jeans, work shirt, and an occasional bandanna or baseball cap to absorb the sweat of his brow. (Cullen 125-126)
America embraced Springsteen's portrayal of sex because it was appropriately indirect, decidedly heterosexual, and innately wholesome in its expression. As times change, new problems arise, and new attitudes are formed. In 1994, Springsteen's song "Streets of Philadelphia", which was written specifically for Jonathan Demme's movie Philadelphia, got worldwide acclaim and was honored with an Oscar at the Academy Awards. Coming from as indisputably heterosexual a figure as Bruce Springsteen, the song was about a homosexual man dying of AIDS. In an era when AIDS has become a huge global problem, the song was received very well.
One characteristic of this country that Americans are far more open about is the relative prominence of religion in everyday life 5). Like the rest of the Western world, America has gradually become increasingly secularized over the last fifty years or so. However, religion plays a huge role in America's history; and the vast majority of Americans today would still claim to adhere to some sort of religion to the degree that they believe in a "God" of some kind or other. One of the largest groups of immigrants to America today is the Latin Americans, many of whom are observant Christians. If through secularization, the country is "losing interest" in religion, many American traits that were sprung from religious ideas are still going strong. The country is still very rigid in its ideas about for instance censorship. Fundamentalist Christians make up a significant part of the political right wing, and are certainly a political force to be reckoned with.
Springsteen's work has predictably reflected the influence of religion on his experiences; and Christianity is a theme that illustrates Springsteen's changing attitudes in life. Springsteen was, much to his own dismay, given a Catholic upbringing and education. This is evident on his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, where he frequently utilizes religious images, for example with songs titles like "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City" and "The Angel". Springsteen used religious vocabulary to convey his often garbelled message of street culture. Simultaneously, his fervent disregard for Catholiscism can be seen clearly in other early songs. A good example of this can be found in the swirling images of "Lost in the Flood": "Nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleadin' Immaculate Conception / and everybody wrecked on mainstreet from drinking unholy blood". Springsteen's Catholic upbringing had clearly left a deep mark on him; and it took a while before he would be able to relate to religion in any kind of positive way. A change was beginning to be apparent during the late Seventies though, as detailed by Dave Marsh in his first biography of Springsteen. Incorporated into live versions of "Growin' Up", Springsteen told a humorous fantasy story about visiting God. In the end, God tells Springsteen that there was, in fact, an Elleventh Commandment that Moses neglected to teach: "Let it Rock!" (Marsh BTR 194) 6). This was a kind of cheeky compromise between the older generation and the younger one. Instead of discarding religion, Springsteen very cleverly turned it into vehicle to promote Rock and Roll. By the end of the Eighties, Springsteen was cured of his earlier feelings against Catholicism; 1987's Tunnel of Love included a lighthearted romantic song called "All that Heaven Will Allow". While there is no important religious element in this song, religious imagery is being used to convey something very positive. Springsteen's more recent work includes a great deal of (positive) biblical imagery. For instance in "Living Proof" from 1992, Springsteen refers to his own newborn son as "a little piece of the Lord's undying light".
Having established Springsteen as a defining American rock artist, one obvious aspect of his status as a superstar can not go unmentioned. If Springsteen is such an American artist, what makes him so popular all over the world? It seems as if, through his use of his American themes and images, Springsteen appeals to a universal set of basic values that millions of people all over the world share. Dave Marsh sums it all up in his analysis of Springsteen's first main European tour in 1981. Marsh explains the European audiences' ecstatic response to Springsteen as due to his "stature as a representative and disseminator of a version of the American dream, or at least a shared dream that was associated with America" (Marsh GD 118)
In recent years however, this trend has grown to the degree that it poses an interesting paradox to Springsteen's claim to Americanism. It seems at in the present time that Springsteen; the ultimate American rocker, is in fact more popular in certain other countries than he actually is in America. Springsteen's fan following in Europe is very strong , and if he still has more die-hard fans in America, he seems to be picking up more new fans on the other side of the Atlantic. One possible explanation for why, is that Europeans may be fascinated with Springsteen's view of America a lot more than Americans are. American themes and images might be more exciting to those who find these things new and different. This could be especially true now that the America of today is increasingly different from the one that Springsteen mapped out during his glory days. Perhaps when Americans search Springsteen's most commercially digestible music (which inevitably is his older music) for something familiar to relate to, they are less often finding what they are looking for. On the other hand, a non-American might be attracted by Springsteen's classic American images and not mind, or even be aware, that some of them are becoming a little outdated. Or is does the answer lie in a deteriorating of belief in the American dream among the American music- buying audience? If one looks at much of the music that has dominated the popular music scene over the last decade in America, one sees that much of the politically responsive music is rather negative in its message, be it rap, grunge, or any of the various sub-genres and development of heavy metal. Certainly, these music forms are popular in Europe as well, but not quite to the same degree as in the States. Might this indicate that young Americans have lost their faith in the dreams and values that Springsteen stands for? Alternatively, a third and more political explanation might be more likely. Could it be that Springsteen's mildly populist message finds more sympathy in Europe, where there is traditionally wider popular support for socialism, than in the more conservative America? Whatever the reasons for his success abroad, as well as at home, Springsteen has managed to take a generous slice of universal life philosophy sprung from broken and fulfilled American dreams, and deliver it to millions of fans all over the world.
If Bruce Springsteen is indeed the ultimate American artist, what does that mean? As a pop culture figure, Springsteen among the celebrities who is most firmly and instantly associated with America. Springsteen represents his country to the rest of the world. And if Bruce Springsteen is the archetype of what "an American" means to the rest of the world, it must be said that he is a positive role model and valuable "cultural ambassador" for his country. He gives voice to the downtrodden, while not forgetting how to live and love life. He is brutally aware of his country's shortcomings and problems, but continues to represent the good things about America. He gives Americans reason to take pride in their country, but also informed and wary of its negative sides. He gives all his fans around the world reason to be proud for their individual struggles, rejoice for their victories, and hope for the best that the future can offer.
The Presidents alledged words were:"America's future lies in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about." (cited in Lynch 119)
Interestingly enough, one of the alternative titles considered for this album was American Madness.
The bulk of Springsteen's lyrics of officially released songs is collected in a book called Songs, which also includes Springsteen's own thoughts about his individual albums. All lyrics cited in this paper can be found in this book, and also in the booklets that accompany individual albums.
Baker is, of course referring to black saxophonist Clarence Clemmons AKA "Big Man". In the concert context, Clemmons' role was as much onstage sidekick as musical instrumentalist and his very black presence in front of a almost all-white audience was "as enticing as it is threatening" (Marsh BTR 3) With this in mind, one can argue that The River is Springsteen's most defining album (although probably not his best). The album is characterized by its wide reach of songs and emotions. The River has a wide selection of both rockers, pop songs, and ballads. More essentially, the various songs deal with both the need to break away and move on, the importance of community and the dangers of isolation. Most of Springsteen's other albums have been more one sided, presenting a narrower view of life.
For example, as a European having lived in Norway and England, I was astounded at meeting people in America who disregarded Darwinian Evolution in favor of a more religious creation explanation.
"Growin' Up" was frequently played live and was often highlighted by a monlogue in the middle of the song. These stories were usually of a light-hearted, goofy nature; and in their various incarnations, included adventures with gypsy women, UFOs, teenage werewolves and dancing bears. The culminating message of each story is always the jubliant glory of Rock and Roll.
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Duffy, John. Bruce Springsteen- in his own words. London: Omnibus Press 1993
Lynch, Kate. Springsteen: No Surrennder. London: Bobcat Books 1986
Marsh, Dave. Born to Run - The Bruce Springsteen Story Volume One. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press 1996
-----. Glory Days - The Bruce Springsteen story Volume Two. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press 1996
Springsteen, Bruce. Songs. New York: Avon Books 1998
Pond, Steve. "Nebraska Album Review" rev. of Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen album review 131-133. Bruce Springsteen - the Rolling Stone Files. Ed. the editors of Rolling Stone. New York: Hyperion 1996 -----. "Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel Vision" 259 - 268. Bruce Springsteen - the Rolling Stone Files. Ed. the editors of Rolling Stone. New York: Hyperion 1996
Cross, Charles. Backstreets. "American Dreams: Lost and Found" rev. of Born in the USA, Bruce Springsteen. Backstreets album review, Summer 1984, volume 3, #2 Number 10. Seattle: Backstreets Records, 1984