... I Know the River Is Dry
Greasy Lake, 2016-08-07, by: Will Thomas
Economic Realism in the Music of Bruce Springsteen, 1977-1984
"When you read about workers today, they are discussed mainly in terms of statistics (the unemployed), trade, (the need to eliminate and offshore their jobs in the name of increased profit), and unions (usually depicted as a purely negative drag on the economy). In reality, the lives of American workers, as well of those of the unemployed and the homeless, make up a critically important cornerstone of our country's story, past and present..."
- Bruce Springsteen.
"We construct stories to reflect on the past, to comprehend the present, and to anticipate the future".
- Steve May & Laura Morrison.
Definitions of what constitutes the working-class in American history are "notoriously porous," according to Kathryn Marie Dudley. Dudley argues that structural considerations are crucial to understanding the place working- class people inhabit in society and how they are distinguishable from the middle-class. Although Dudley proposes that structure is important to consider when analysing the working class, it can be argued that the decline of the working class itself has led to an era of post-structural academic literature. Rather than just a theoretical approach, this body of literature actually explores the place of the working-class as the physical structures of industry can no longer be seen. Rather than deconstructing a grand narrative of American labour, post-structural literature on the working-class explores what becomes of the people "beyond the ruins". Or in Ruth Milkman's terms, as capitalist economies shift away from manufacturing and industry, "what is happening to industrial workers and their way of life?" To come to terms with this, Steve May and Laura Morrison note that it is better to understand the "lived experiences". May and Morrison argue that to better understand the decline of the working class it is appropriate to engage with the story-like narratives of workers who have faced deindustrialization head- on.
The effects of deindustrialization on the American working class was enormous during the late seventies and early eighties. Barry Bluestone writes that as a consequence of private disinvestment and the relocation of American business, the loss of jobs from the seventies onwards was "cataclysmic," reaching an estimate as high as thirty-eight million. The study of how the working class is represented in culture has seen to play an important part in academic disciplines that are concerned with exploring industrial decline from the seventies onwards. Rather than simply relying on figure-based research, the study of culture contextualises the decline of the working class and achieves a more comprehensive explication of what this means. According to Dudley, this means an examination of "the cultural meanings that ordinary people draw upon to understand their place in American society". Cultural representations often humanise the working- class as they offer a bottom-up perspective of workers. Iton, for example, argues that the dramatization of workers in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and in the music of Woody Guthrie has "helped bring wider attention to labour's issues".
A study of Bruce Springsteen's music from 1977-1984 fits within the approach of humanising the decline of the working class for a number of reasons. Firstly, as Jim Cullen notes, Springsteen's music is "...not music of musicology but of politics, history, literature, sociology". A study of Springsteen's music is much more than a study of musical form and sound, it is an exploration of culture and historical context. Secondly, Springsteen's songs are essentially grounded in â€˜economic realism'. Economic realism is an appropriate term to describe Springsteen's concerns across this period of six years as it describes how Springsteen's songs are contextualized by real economic circumstances and therefore a legitimate means of academic investigation. The shift in song-writing after Born to Run is essentially a shift from epistemology to ontology â€“ from tracks that yearned for a decent grasp of life's knowledge to songs that made sense of the present, of living, of being working class. The songs in Born to Run demand the listener's attention and ask questions. However, starting with 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town, this shifted towards an analysis of the answers of those questions. Or, if there are any answers at all. Thus, Born to Run's "runaway American dream" often leads to an examination of the "soured American dream" in later albums.
The central proposition of this thesis is to demonstrate that Bruce Springsteen's portrait of the working class from 1977-1984 is an imperative cultural element in the structure of academic study. â€˜Economic realism' in Bruce Springsteen's music promotes the study of a humanistic approach to the decline of working class communities and leads investigation into the cause and effect of the decline of labour. The study of â€˜economic realism' in Springsteen's music is often only anecdotal in contemporary literature. The economic themes of his music are often overlooked and underdeveloped in favour of a much broader discussion of his body of work. For example, Jim Cullen's Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition places Springsteen in the wider context of American political philosophy but largely overlooks the implications of economic realism in Springsteen's music. Similarly, Jefferson Cowie's Stayin' Alive is a detailed explication of the decline of the working class from the seventies onwards and how the working-class have been represented in popular culture, but Springsteen features only briefly in his discussion. This dissertation will show the disadvantages in overlooking the effects of economic realism in Bruce Springsteen's music. Notably, an examination of this theme in his music leads to the findings of urban disinvestment and deprivation, the psychical and psychologically effects of industrial work, the decline of industrial productivity and the exponential growth of income inequality in America.
Therefore, this dissertation will focus solely on the economic realism of Springsteen's music, how this contextualizes his body of work and how this subsequently widens the discourse on using culture to analyse the decline of the working class in the United States.
1 "Finding the Light in the Darkness on the Edge of Town": The Emotional Past and the Theme of Labour - 1977 - 1978.
When I started, I wanted to document what it felt like to grow up in America during the time that I was growing up in. And I wanted to follow those characters, not just when they were teenagers or in their twenties, but into the middle parts of their lives... The idea was to draw my own map and maybe help other people draw their maps".
- Bruce Springsteen.
"I done my best to live the the right way,
I get up every morning and go to work each day".
- Bruce Springsteen â€“ â€˜The Promised Land'.
A day etched into the memory of Youngstown, Ohio is 19 September, 1977. Many people may still remember it by that simple date, but Youngstown locals know it by "Black Monday". Youngstown, a town in the Mahoning Valley would undergo a dramatic economic transformation that day as Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company decided to halt the furnaces of the Campbell Works factory, leading to the closure of the plant and the immediate loss of 5,000 jobs. Many more jobs would be lost in the following decades â€“ employees of the steel industry declined by 40 percent from 1979 to 1984. The closure of Campbell Works marked the "cutting of the cord," according to one mill worker. However, as symbolic of deindustrialization the closing of the steel mills in Youngstown on that day seems, the economic decline in the small town of Ohio was not an isolated incident. The following spring, in 1978, Bruce Springsteen would release Darkness on the Edge of Town. As soon as the economic collapse of communities such as Youngstown had begun, Bruce Springsteen was already beginning to formulate his own ideas about the aftermath.
Darkness is a much more isolated record in terms of sound, sense of place and the role of the narrator. Although Springsteen stated that Darkness was not so much a new epoch in his career, stating it was rather a continuation of his earlier thematic concerns, Springsteen views society through the lens of the working class for the first time in Darkness. Born to Run, Springsteen expresses, "...had a certain romantic feel. [Darkness] is more realistic". The theme of work, of faith in work, institutional obligation and civic responsibility is sowed in the fabric of Darkness as Springsteen examines the kind of people that he wrote about in Born to Run that did not manage to escape the mundane reality of small-town life. Unlike the latter characters on his albums, the majority of characters found on Darkness are still employed, and the album marks Springsteen's effort to capture the realism of that working life. Specifically, the working life of his parents that he experienced during his childhood.
Springsteen's view and depiction of work from Darkness onwards has been analysed by Jim Cullen. Cullen affirms that Springsteen's characters from 1978 onwards, rarely "...celebrate the dignity of work, declaim it as a strength of self-worth or as a cure for personal or social ills," Cullen argues that their interests lie elsewhere. However, Springsteen's view of work on Darkness is much more ambivalent than this. The characters in Darkness do regard a working life as a strength and element of self-worth even if they are aware of its un-fulfilment at times. The narrator of "The Promised Land', for example, believes his working life makes him an honest man, a man with a strong faith. This obligatory faith in work is grounded in the upbringing of Springsteen personally. Springsteen explains, "my parents struggles, it's the subject of my life," embodying tracks like â€˜Factory' with a much deeper economic realism. Springsteen remarks that he understands the faith in work but also understands unemployment because he grew up in a house "with a sense of dispossession". His father was often in between jobs, but he remembers his mother's committed work ethic â€“ "her life had a considerable consistency, work, work, work every day, and I admired that greatly," he recalls. The characters in Darkness fall in the middle of these two attitudes of labour influenced by both Springsteen's parents, of a commitment to work while exhibiting a feeling of dispossession.
A prime example of the theme of labour, â€˜Factory' acts as a paean to the working individuals of the factories. Its industrial imagery and biographical detail demonstrate the economic reality of factory work. Springsteen explains that â€˜Factory' is essentially a song about a paradox - "the paradox of earning your living and getting life from a place that also takes a lot out of you". There is an understated yet distinct sound of a chain clanging in the opening bars of the music, arguably symbolic of not only the materials that the working individuals are using but also the confinement that the individuals feel bound by working in the factory. The song is notably personal and semi auto-biographical for Springsteen, as it recalls the memories of his father and the nature of his employment routine at the various jobs that he held such as working at Freehold's A&M Karagheusian Rug Mill. The rug mill in Freehold had once employed 17,000 workers at the height of its operations, but had since fallen out of fortune. The experience of his father's factory work would have undoubtedly influenced the song. Springsteen notes about his father that "he lost a lot of his hearing when he worked in a plastics factory". This is an experience also discussed by Springsteen in Thom Zimny's documentary, with Springsteen recalling how he would take his fathers lunch to the factory and his father would not be able to hear him call out as the machines around him in the plastics factory would be so loud. This brings greater meaning to the lines, "factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life," - the factory work fulfils an employment status yet it affects his father physiologically. The track ultimately cuts through "industry nostalgia," in that it rejects the myth of factory work as a great, stable job. Rather, it was simply a well-paid job, as Cowie and Heathcott contend. â€˜Factory', considered in its autobiographical context of Springsteen's experience of his father's labour, is perhaps the most direct reflection of the complex effects of labour on the worker - emotionally and physically - on Darkness.
Springsteen's appearance changed during the Darkness tour. The image of a bearded, t-shirt wearing, Jersey-Shore poet gave way to a musician who frequently wore dress shirts, ties and sports jackets, as seen in Chris Rushby's photographic book on Springsteen. The physical landscape of America was also beginning to change as the social cohesion in working-class communities began to fragment. Staughton Lynd notes that that strains on family life such as alcoholism, divorce, child and spouse abuse, and suicide were exacerbated by unemployment. In 1979, after the mills closed in Youngstown, child abuse cases increased by 35 percent. Comparably, suicide rates climbed by 70 percent in two years after the mills closed as personal bankruptcies reached two thousand in just one year. Youngstown became a town of mass unemployment, fore closured houses, bankrupt citizens, frequent arson attacks, and between 1970 and 1990, the population of the city declined from 140,000 to 95,000. In 1978, as vandalism erupted in cities and stagflation dominated the economy nationwide, the country became frustratingly cynical and sour, according to George Packer. Major cities were undergoing transformations like never before. Camden, NJ, once a manufacturing hub for the Campbell Soup company, also suffered considerable industrial decline and massive unemployment as jobs in the Camden base declined from 38,900 in 1948 to just 10,200 in 1982 and between 1967 and 1977 the average number of workers on strike climbed by 30 percent. Many workers during the seventies participated in mass organised action against their employers.
Striking postal workers from New York to Connecticut and the United Auto Workers walk out against General Motors are some of the examples given by Joshua Zeitz. It was a seemingly suffocating time socio-economically, and there is a sense of geographical suffocation on Darkness in the image of the desert.
The narrator of â€˜The Promised Land' is a working character living in the Utah desert who "...picks up [his] money and heads back into town". The individual works all day in their father's garage yet feels no relief from work or from his life outside of work. Like many of the protagonists of Darkness, the protagonist of the track is stuck in a life of boredom, repetitiveness - he spends his nights "killing time" while listening to the radio, "...driving all night chasing some mirage". The fact that the narrator of â€˜The Promised Land' lives in the desert is evocative of this theme of anxiety and being bonded to a repetitive and unfulfilled working life. Often in popular American culture, the desert is a dichotomous symbol; it represents the wide open embrace of a rugged individualistic type of freedom and solitary emptiness at the same time. It is clear to see that the language that Springsteen employs in the track while describing the restlessness of the narrator, invokes the desert not as a space of freedom but ironically, something which heightens his alienation from his working life and closes him up. The image of the desert as an alienating landscape also compares to the use of the "bad lands" in the opening track - both are landscapes that induce anxiety in the protagonists and they are landscapes that emphasize a sense of economic entrapment.
Springsteen was not a stranger to long drives across America, some of which were coast to coast, which allowed him to absorb the power and grandeur of the American landscape. Springsteen's parents had moved out west to California when he was a teenager leaving Springsteen voluntarily in New Jersey. Springsteen drove out west to see them, notably with Vini Lopez around Christmastime in 1969 and with Carl "Tinker" West the following year. Over half a decade later, Springsteen would take a road trip while working on the material for Darkness and this arguably inspired the imagery in the lyrics of such songs as â€˜The Promised Land'. A photograph by Eric Meola in August, 1977 shows Springsteen sitting on the hood of his car in the Utah desert watching the dark clouds move in the sky above, a direct inspiration for the narrative and sense of place in â€˜The Promised Land'. During this photo shoot, Ames Carlin informs that Meola intended to capture the same economic melancholy as Robert Frank did in The Americans, a collection of portraits of the underclass of the 1950's and 1960's, ultimately emphasising the aesthetic of economic realism in the album.
Yet, it is also true that the interest of Springsteen's characters in Darkness lie in recreation outside of work. Indeed, car modification and drag racing serve as an away-from-work recreational activity for the narrator of â€˜Racing in the Street'. Marc Dolan states that "Racing in the Street" presents a haunting "what if" situation - what if you can't get out of town, what if you have to stay stuck in the same job for the rest of your years? The crucial couplet of lines in the track follows as:
"Some guys they just give up living, And start dying little by little, piece by piece, Some guys come home from work and wash up, And go racing in the street".
This set of lines demonstrates Springsteen's efforts to construct a dichotomy between two different sets of workers: the worker who finishes their day and is trapped in an endless cycle or a "dead-end job," and the worker who holds onto something more, something which sets him free from the shackles that binds the former. It is clear to see that the narrator takes pride in his automobile, he describes in detail its features, that the car is a "1969 Chevy with a 396, Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor," and built "...straight from scratch". The automobile and the racing that he performs in are an escape for the narrator and a way to establish himself against the working man whose life is dominated by work. Interestingly, as Jefferson Cowie documents in his book Stayin' Alive, Nixom plant worker Dewey Burton also participated in car modifications as a hobby that helped him to escape from the routine of daily work. Dewey stated that "he wanted to be somebody" as his car modifications were part of a way to supress the mundane reality of industrial production. Cowie notes that the modification of automobiles was "one of the last, great post-war refuges for the victims of Fordism and Taylorism," as workers attempted to combat the oppressiveness of cyclical work. The relief from work is not an uncommon occurrence as Milkman notes that factory work was essentially problematic and that most workers in auto factories wished to escape its rhythms. This reinforces the space between work and home and how recreational activity is demonstrated as a relief from work.
Although the correlation of the stories of Burton and the protagonist of â€˜Racing in the Street' is most likely coincidence, it demonstrates that Springsteen's depictions of work and especially the retreat from work is often emblematic of his accurate portrayal of blue-collar workers.
2 "Down to the River": The Past of the Hurt Songs Make Sense of the Present â€“ 1979 â€“ 1980.
"...Lately there ain't been no work, on account of the economy".
- Bruce Springsteen, â€˜The River', 1980.
"That's my life".
- Virginia Springsteen to Bruce Springsteen about â€˜The River'.
Like life itself, The River is a record that encompasses many different moods and feelings. The album continued Bruce Springsteen's efforts to document the real lives of American individuals who were in difficult economic situations. The River is essentially a communal record, in the sense that its rock tracks serve as the function of relief for the characters of its socially realistic ballads. Springsteen notes that the rock tracks are the types of songs that the characters in the record themselves would listen to - out-of-work-on- Friday-night types of songs. According to Mikal Gilmore, The River would begin Springsteen's look at the "social conditions that bred lives split between dilemmas of flight and ruin," as Springsteen began to look at history as a way to understand the forces that surround people and shape them into decisions and circumstances beyond their control. Springsteen stated that the voice on The River was a political voice in the sense that it was "...dealing with the Carter recession and its effects on just, working people". Furthermore, Garman notes that during the Darkness tour, Springsteen began to cultivate an interest in history after reading Henry Steele Commager and Allan Nevin's A Pocket History Of the United States of America and had acquired a gradual political consciousness by 1979 when the band and he performed at a benefit concert for Musicians for Safe Energy, an alliance against the harmful aspects of nuclear energy. Cowie notes that Commager, whom Springsteen was reading, had been posing the debate of a nation that stood at the "divide of disillusionment" years earlier in 1974. Nevertheless, there was a clear determination by Springsteen to include songs in The River that were grounded in economic and political reality as he examined the human consequences of the 1970's recession and created a community of music in which they could live. As Springsteen stated, "it's time that someone took on the reality of the eighties".
Around the time of the benefit concert for safe energy Springsteen wrote â€˜Roulette' and â€˜Held Up Without a Gun', two of the most politically explicit and direct tracks he had written up to that point and they demonstrated Springsteen's intention to capture the current political climate. Both tracks were recorded for The River but they did not make the album, later making appearances elsewhere as outtake tracks. â€˜Held Up Without a Gun' is a track in which the narrator, running low on fuel, pulls into a Exxon station where they find themselves "held up without a gun". The song is a short track and its pace is quickening even though the narrator talks about driving slow and containing his own joy. Commentators on the track such as Dolan have noted that the political issue of the gas crisis towards the end of the 1970's inspired â€˜Held Up Without a Gun' as the rising gas prices, fuel shortages and long lines at gas station pumps directly contrasted to the automobile imagery of Springsteen's work with its connotations of freedom and endless roads, imagery that had been a stable part of Springsteen's song- writing mythos since Born to Run. In â€˜Held up Without a Gun' Springsteen was capturing the atmosphere of the gas crisis through an individual character as the oil crisis inhibited their ability to move. Being held up by a gun demonstrating through metaphor that the price of gas during the crisis essentially equated to theft.
The circumstances of the oil crisis in the late 1970's was also indicative of a widening disparity in wealth between the service suppliers and the consumers. Howard Zinn writes that while the oil crisis drastically affected the everyday lives of Americans, "the salary of the chairman of Exxon oil was being raised to $830,00 a year and that of the chairman of Mobil Oil to over a million dollars a year". As Exxon experienced a sharp increase in profits, many small and independent gas stations went out of business. Although â€˜Held Up Without a Gun' is a little over a minute long, it captures the frantic energy of the individual who was scrambling to conserve fuel and afford the higher prices they were forced to pay as the management of large corporations were continuing to profit. Similarly, â€˜Roulette' is a track that is inspired by real-life events. Inspired by the Three Mile Island accident that occurred in Pennsylvania in 1979, it is a track in which the narrator, a fireman who describes himself as the "big expendable," frantically escapes the home and the town that he lives in. The frantic pace and rapidly delivered lyrics reflect the cloud of anxiety and fear that enveloped Dauphin County as the narrator struggles to escape the nuclear disaster. Eventually, Springsteen conceded to Mark Hagen in an interview that â€˜Roulette" was too "specific" and that the narrative trajectory he would prefer to tell on The River was more of a general one. However, both â€˜Roulette' and â€˜Held Up Without a Gun' mark a departure in Springsteen's song-writing towards the documentation of real-life socio-economic circumstances of the present.
The songs that Springsteen did include on the The River when it was released reflected the intention to create a more "general" story. It was a story that would again draw on past experiences to establish the music in the economic realism of the present. According to Garman, Springsteen drew on "hurt songs," songs in a similar vein to artists such as Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, in order to depict the type of economic realism on The River. "Hurt songs," Garman notes, are certain songs in which artists use a working- class language to construct narratives that "express the collective pain, suffering and injustice working people have historically suffered". This influence of "hurt songs" is articulated by Springsteen on The Ties that Bind, as he notes that the formulation of the songs on The River was largely a synthesis of writing "for his age" and an influence of music older than rock music, such as country and western. Further developing on his political consciousness though "hurt songs," Springsteen had also read Joe Klein's biography of Woody Guthrie towards the end of the seventies and was impressed by Guthrie's affirmation of the use of music for political action and its ability to facilitate an emerging political consciousness within oneself.
The evidence of a hurt song and a developing political consciousness in Springsteen is no clearer than on the title track. â€˜The River' is a semi-fictional and semi-biographical account of a man and a woman who get married young after the conception of a child, find themselves in the middle of a recessive job market and suffer the effects of unemployment as it draws them further apart. The songs biographical element is due to the inspiration that Springsteen's sister and his brother-in-law would have on the track.
Springsteen's sister Virginia has noted the title track is an almost verbatim account of her pregnancy at 18 and her marriage to Mickey Shave, Springsteen's future brother-in-law. She notes about â€˜The River' that "...every bit of it was true," as she realised the strong connection between the story of Mary and herself. â€˜The River' was first played at a benefit concert for the alliance of Musicians United for Safe Energy at Madison Square Garden, the concert around the time of Springsteen's development of ideas about history and class. The narrator of the track explains that he is brought up to do what his "daddy does" and he comes from "down in the valley," invoking the geographical vision of the Mahoning Valley of Ohio. The characters in the song are a product of a class system themselves, in which they are expected to follow in the footsteps of their parents employment plans, a life in which you are gifted a union card and a wedding coat for your 19th birthday. The density of trade union membership had fell rapidly during the 1970's and Cowie notes that the union card the character receives in the track does not symbolise economic solidarity or material liberation but it is "a symbol of those not chosen, those left behind". As opposed to the 1930's with the establishment of the NRLA act in 1935 that guaranteed the right to form unions during the era of the Great Depression, by 1979, unions were seen as a "last resort rather than as a natural or preferred means of improving job conditions".
The central metaphor in the track is the river itself. During their former years, the couple would drive to where "fields were green," go down to the river and swim in it together. The river serves as pastoral emblem of hope, freedom and solace for the couple who were thrown into a life of responsibility from a young age. We then learn that the narrator was employed in the construction industry for the "Johnstown Company," but has since lost their job due to the economy. There is little to no record of a Johnstown Company within the history of the construction industry, but Springsteen has stated that "I based the song on the crash of the construction industry in late 1970's New Jersey and the hard times that fell on my sister and her family". There is much evidence, however, to suggest that the construction industry suffered a sharp decline nationally during the time that â€˜The River' was written.
The construction industry was a huge component of the economy when The River was released, a sector that not only involved manufacturing but also transportation and services. The industry was largely male-dominated and the job itself exhibited a certain masculine stereotype, as Kris Paap observes. Paap states that construction workers in the 1970's were in their "heyday," earning good wages and doing work that was respected. Yet, the structure of working in the industry was essentially insecure due to unstable opportunities, dangerous work conditions and high levels of self supervision. Although a large and crucial exponent of the economy of the U.S, the productivity of the construction industry reached a peak in 1968 only to decline from 1976 onwards, according to Steven G. Allen. Also, between 1979 and 1983, due to the considerably slow growth of the U.S economy, the housing industry suffered a decline with residential construction in 1982 at only 60 percent of the level it was previously in 1979. Expenses for the construction industry had also led to the decline of productivity. Federal tax on motor fuel, which was the source of funds for the Highway Trust Fund was the same level that it was in 1959, despite the high levels of inflation towards the end of the seventies and the Federal Highway Administration estimated that highway maintenance expense had risen 328 percent between 1967 and 1979. The maintenance of the highways in the U.S was an important aspect of the construction industry as much as building them in the first place and as William R. Haycraft notes, "by the early 1980's, highways and bridges were beginning to fall apart". Congress finally decided to act in 1982 to provide emergency relief to the situation of the roads and the declining productivity of the construction industry. Yet, as â€˜The River' had documented the struggle of the unemployed construction worker two years earlier, the relief program would have been too late for Mickey Shave who left the industry to become a janitor at a local high school.
Although â€˜The River' appears as Springsteen's most strikingly accurate portrayal of economic realism so far, there are also references to other socio- economic patterns in other tracks. Often on The River, and in many of Springsteen's tracks in his discography, short and seemingly indispensable lines actually reflect the economic realism of the time in which they were written. â€˜Cadillac Ranch', for example is a seemingly straight-forward rock track. Yet, the song shares its name with an art instillation by an art group in Amarillo, Texas, a photograph of which adorns the lyric booklet to The River. The public project, envisioned by the group Ant Farm and Stanley Marsh, consists of ten vintage Cadillac's encased in concrete and buried nose deep in the earth. The Cadillac's of the project became a long-lasting fixture of the landscape of America as the project was a monument of old, distinctly American-produced relics in combination with the gritty landscape of Texas alongside Interstate 40; the collide of nature and mankind. During the time of the writing for The River, the market for large cars in America had vanished. Thus, â€˜Cadillac Ranch' acts as a "full-throttled paean to the sort of long, sleek gas guzzlers that would soon disappear off America's highways". With â€˜Cadillac Ranch', Springsteen had further enforced the economic significance of the Cadillac's decline of status and the general decline of the auto industry in America of the time, something which would be written about in more detail in Nebraska.
Springsteen also makes reference to the welfare system in â€˜Point Blank' and â€˜Sherry Darling'. The narrator in â€˜Point Blank' describes a woman who has been lied to, shot in the back, and who the narrator chases after to capture the happier times that they shared together, only to find himself a stranger to her. The woman does not rely on her Romeo, on a love interest, but instead on her "welfare check" and all the things that she knows she can not have. Comparably, in â€˜Sherry Darling', the narrator notes how he has to drive his companion down to the "unemployment agency". Welfare was indeed a contentious issue in mainstream politics at the time The River was released. The United States was one of the last of the major economic powers in the world to establish social security programs for not only the unemployed but the elderly, the disabled and the sick. According to Richard Iton, many established welfare programs were defunded throughout the 1970's and 1980's and welfare recipients were "demonized," as they were perceived to be a drag on the economy. In comparison, Dale Maharidge documents that as welfare become part of a national discourse on economic recovery, figures such as Charles Murray began to criticize welfare as being a cause of poverty and called for the end of welfare programs even though the programs only reached around 5 percent of Americans, leaving millions of the working-class without help. Thus, welfare in the United States never really became an "inalienable entitlement for the working class".
Politically, Ronald Reagan framed the discourse around "welfare queens," as Maharidge notes, and there was very little serious debate regarding the positive effects of welfare for those who needed a helping hand in desperate times. The fact that were was a discussion but seemingly no imperative to organise the welfare system so it helped those who needed it the most is partially due to the working class being part of a "silent depression," characterized by low purchasing power and growing inequality. This type of economic depression contrasts greatly to the Great Depression of the 1920's and 1930's, when the stock market crash brought issues of welfare into a national political discourse with shocking effect. No such day during the seventies, not even Black Monday, could bring an urgent need to the restructuring and de-stigmatizing of the welfare system to help the working class. Including references to the welfare system in the tracks of The River is emblematic of Springsteen's economic realism in the album. Its fleeting references make short comments about economic discussions that were very much part of the national discourse. Yet, the importance of it was seemingly ignored by leading policy makers.
3 "...Debts that No Honest Man Can Pay": Winners and Losersâ€“ 1981 â€“ 1982.
"[Nebraska] provides stark human testimony to the destruction of all forms of communal, psychological, and political support for working people in Ronald Reagan's America... In the realm of popular art, to find blue-collar men speaking in a blue-collar language about blue-collar concerns, you had to go over to the turntable and put on a record by Springsteen".
- Eric Alterman
"Down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line".
- Bruce Springsteen.
In 1980, after huge job losses were being announced, John Baldwin, a forty- eight-year-old production worker at the Ford assembly plant in Mahwah, New Jersey expressed the anxiety that he and the other workers at the plant were experiencing. In short, Baldwin, a father of four children, stated that the plants closing was "the kiss of death â€“ boom". Baldwin captured the simple reality of workers at the plant, it was their livelihood, their source of economic stability and the means to support their families. Likewise, another worker who was in the process of being laid off joined in the chorus of discontent with Baldwin. The worker stated, "what can you say?... I'm 36. I'm a Vietnam veteran... I got a wife and kid, and I don't know where I'm gonna make enough money to support them". On the other hand, Ron Morianni, who was an electrician at the time but who had family members that worked in the auto industry was cynical about the American auto industry in general, "we mass produced garbage," he remarked. The closing of the plant left the soon to be former workers, "worried about paying for mortgages, food and utility bills as well as finding new work in depressed job markets near their homes". Two years later, Springsteen would capture their economic reality and frustrated anxiety.
Nebraska was released in 1982 as the national unemployment rate reached 11 percent and when "very little artistic attention was being paid to working people". The album is largely populated by criminals, some of whom are suffering the economic plight of an elusive job market. Yet, Springsteen as a writer never offers judgment on his protagonists, he rather "identifies with [the] common criminal". Nebraska was not only Springsteen's darkest and most painfully accurate album yet, but it captured the extreme consequences of the effects of unemployment and mapped the cultivation of a gulf that was beginning to form between the wealthy and the struggling workers and the poor. Springsteen notes that, at its thematic core, Nebraska was an album about isolation. About isolation within individuals from "..their jobs, from their friends, their fathers, their mothers, just not feeling connected to anything that's going on".
The closing of the plant in Mahwah would be immortalized in the following lines:
Well, they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah, late that month.
Ralph went out looking for a job, but he couldn't find none".
The "they" that Springsteen sang about in â€˜Johnny 99' is Ford, who owned the assembly plant in Mahwah and Ralph is a character, albeit fictional, that shares the same anger, frustration and disillusionment that John Baldwin did. After losing his job at the Mahwah plant and his failed attempts to find other employment, Ralph, in a drunken stupor from "mixing Tanqueray and wine," acquires a gun and shoots a night clerk. The dangerous combination of unemployment and free access to firearms with alcohol in â€˜Johnny 99', leads to "things... that cannot be undone". The song deals largely with the justifications that Ralph provides when in court, which are economical. The justifications contrast to the protagonist of the Charles Starkwether-inspired title track, in which the criminal notes his crimes are the product of the "meanness in the world" or the narrator of â€˜State Trooper', who wanders the New Jersey turnpike in a stolen car with no driving license or registration yet who seems to have a "clear conscience for all the things that [he's] done". Instead, Ralph, not economically prosperous enough for his own lawyer and instead is provided with a public defender, states to the judge that he has "debts that no honest man can pay". This statement, which is a line repeated throughout the album, demonstrates the effects of unemployment on Ralph; the mounting debt of bills and a burdening mortgage have greatly influenced, if not directly led him to commit the crime he has. Yet, like the other criminals that appear in Nebraska, Ralph affirms that this simple economic fact does not make him "innocent," only remarking that "it was more than all this that put this gun in my hand". Ralph does not ask for forgiveness, but rather only asks for recognition of the economic circumstances that led to the crime.
Interestingly, in his account of economically displaced individuals in the early eighties, Dale Maharidge met Jim Alexander, a former U.S Marine that served in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in Houston, Texas in 1983. Frustrated with the lack of a well-paid job and the means in which to support his family, Alexander produced a gun before Maharidge and stated, "first, I'll go hunting for food. If that doesn't work, I hit a 7-Eleven. I'll hold up a store. I wont take money. But I'll take food. My kids wont starve". Although coincidental, the story of Jim Alexander is a hauntingly similar tale to that of Springsteen's character of Ralph in â€˜Johnny 99', a year earlier. Both are displaced workers at the the end of their tether and they find themselves forced into a criminal situation. Thus, â€˜Johnny 99', offers a direct reflection of the economic reality of the closed Mahwah plant in New Jersey, and attempts to humanely portray the tragic decline in livelihood that occurs in unemployed workers such as with John Baldwin and Jim Alexander.
The association of automobiles and the decline of the auto industry with economic deprivation is also evident in â€˜Used Cars'. The song is in some way, another one of Springsteen's â€˜car' songs, his tracks that make extensive use of cars as symbolic of freedom and opportunity, as a means of escape. Yet, in â€˜Used Cars', automobiles are symptomatic of poverty and humiliation, they trap the family in the song rather than allow them to escape. The voice of the track pins their hopes on winning the lottery and it being the day that he and his family do not have to ride in "used cars" anymore. The song is somewhat autobiographical as well, as Springsteen taps into his often painful memories of his childhood poverty. Carlin writes that â€˜Used Cars' is a track in which Springsteen uses "memories of accompanying his father on trips to an auto dealership" which then "play as an exercise in humiliation". Although used as a metaphor for economic deprivation in â€˜Used Cars', the idea of second hand cars is something very much real to the period of the early 1980's. The demand for American made cars and the national industry that they were dependant on was very much on a downward slope in the early eighties. Automobile sales declined from 15,423,158 in 1978 to 10,540,018 in 1982, with foreign made cars rather than American made cars much more popular with consumers during this period. Springsteen has noted that the experience in â€˜Used Cars', like â€˜Mansion on the Hill' and â€˜My Father's House', was an attempt to write from a child's perspective as "...these were all stories that came directly out of my experience". Therefore, the track is deeply personal for Springsteen and based upon his past experiences as a child with his working-class family, and it is also emblematic of the decline of the auto industry of the present in which it was written. â€˜Used Cars', works effectively as a metaphor for the decline of American made cars as it invokes the same image of the Cadillac Ranch, previously industry-dominated vehicles that over the course of half a decade became relics to the American past.
Nebraska is also a departure for Springsteen's writing in terms of a sense of place. A sense of place is crucial to Springsteen's songs. Coleen Sheehy notes that Springsteen's home county of Monmouth in his music is "as rich a social and cultural place as William Faulkner's [fictional] Yoknapatawpha county in Mississippi". However, â€˜Atlantic City' marks a drastic change from the depiction of the boardwalk of Asbury Park with its sandy beaches and fireworks in his earlier tracks such as â€˜4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), into a depiction of metropolitan decay and unfulfilled urban redevelopment. Atlantic City had once been a famed seaside resort that attracted a great number of vacationers and it was known for its beaches and its boardwalk, but the city had been on an economic downturn since the years of the Great Depression that was "representative of resort cycles in general". The attraction of the city was due no spike in popularity and by the early 1970's, when unemployment in the city was double that of Atlantic County, vacationers were more inclined to chose more "exotic" locations to holiday in, passing Atlantic City's boardwalk by. Due to its declining fortunes and lack of popularity with tourists, the city decided to remedy its problems by greatly expanding the entertainment industry with the legalization of gambling in 1976. The first casinos and entertainment complexes were officially opened two years later in May 1978, when Atlantic City stood close to the top of the federal agency's list of the worst places for murder, burglaries and muggings in the nation. Nebraska was released four years later, as the cities promise of redevelopment, economic regeneration and return to the heyday of the early 20th century was unfulfilled. Although the city was the most visited city in the entire U.S in 1981 and 1982, the entertainment industry claimed a monopoly on the share of economic prosperity. The redevelopment proposed by the city was overwhelmingly distributed to the creation of the entertainment industry and the local economy of restaurants, clothing stores and hotels fell by the wayside. As Rubenstein notes, "casino gambling was supposed to revitalize Atlantic City and generate jobs and revenue for New Jersey. While the casinos have become successful, and jobs and revenue have been created, the revitalisation of Atlantic City beyond the boardwalk remains to be achieved".
The couple at the centre of the narrative in Springsteen's â€˜Atlantic City', find themselves caught in hard times and hope for renewal just like the city did. The narrator states that he attempted to save the money that he made at his job yet he has "debts that no honest man can pay," echoing Ralph's statement in â€˜Johnny 99'. The couple use all the money they have to buy tickets on a cross-country bus in the hopes of reaching the shore of Atlantic City, "where the sand's turnin' to gold," in the hope that the city brings them a greater fortune then what they currently have. Although the narrator sings that the couple's "luck may have died and our love may be cold," he is still ardently committed to his lover, telling her that "with you forever I'll stay". Yet, when the couple make it to Atlantic City, the narrator still struggles to find employment and states "down here it's just winners and losers". The central hook of the track demonstrates the remaining hope that the narrator holds as the couple's economic depression sets in:
"Everything dies baby, that's a fact.
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back".
Its oxymoronic quality is tragic in the sense that the narrator still believes the things that die will come back, while simultaneously recognising the fallacy of this belief. In his portrait of Atlantic City's decline, Simon writes that when Springsteen fans were waiting in line for performance of his at the newly refurbished Boardwalk Hall in 2003, they were directly across from the construction site of a proposed new Donald Trump owned casino, the Borgata. He notes that even over two decades after Nebraska's release, many of the people in the line were "probably convinced that the city, will, someday, come back," tying together the individuals waiting in line with the couple in Springsteen's narrative, both united through an unrealized idea of Atlantic City's rebirth.
As mentioned earlier, Springsteen sought to write from a personal, child's perspective in Nebraska. â€˜Mansion on a Hill' was one of the tracks with this method in mind, and although it is a seemingly personal reflection of an adolescent drive through his old neighbourhood in Freehold, it acts as a metaphor for the gulf between rich and poor in the U.S at the time.
Springsteen recalls that during the period after The River he contemplated his earlier life as he grew older into his thirties and he notes that something "turned me back around toward my early childhood". After The River tour, Springsteen began to take time alone to drive around, to observe the social conditions around him and to contemplate the emotional realities of his own personal experiences. Springsteen also began to take nightly drives to Freehold and observed the empty space on Randolph Street where the house that he lived in with his grandparents during his youth would have been. Thus, this leads Bob Crane to conclude that â€˜Mansion on the Hill' can be typified as a narrated "late night drive through the social-economic strata of Freehold". Wages for service sector workers grew higher in comparison to the wages of low-level, working-class individuals during this time and there is also evidence of increasing segregation in neighbourhoods along class lines. As Robert D. Putnam notes, from 1970 "more and more families [lived] either in uniformly affluent neighbourhoods or in uniformly poor neighbourhoods" as families were grouped together based upon social class. Thus, this leads â€˜Mansion on the Hill' to create a geographical dichotomy based upon class.
The mansion on the edge of town is a place "risin' above the factories and the fields," and the road that leads up to the mansion is surrounded by gates of "hardened steel". The mansion is clearly isolated from the town below it. The gates of "hardened steel" that Springsteen refers to in the track are, according to Garman, symbolic of the steel mill workers that would have made them and emphasizes the place of the workers in their own community as they pass them on the drive home from work. In the summer, the narrator and his sister would hide in the corn fields and listen to the music and lights of the mansion on the hill, a lack of access evident to both of them, the party not available to everyone. Thus, the actual mansion in â€˜Mansion on the Hill', is a metaphorical representation of the economic reality of geographical sectors that the working-class were excluded from. Like the "no trespassing sign" found by the narrator of Woody Guthrie's â€˜This Land is Your Land' in one of its more political and often omitted verses, or the sign with the same words upon it on the gates of Charles Foster Kane's mansion in Citizen Kane, the closed gates of the mansion are self-explanatory. 4950 It is very much a parable of this-is-us and that-is-you.
4 "This Hard Land": The Reality of Vietnam, Ronald Reagan and the Tale of Two Americas â€“ 1983-1984.
"There's something really dangerous happening to us out there. We're slowly getting split up into two different Americas. Things are getting taken away from people that need them and given to people that don't need â€˜em".
- Bruce Springsteen.
"...Together with God's help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. And after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans".
- Ronald Reagan.
Born in the USA is largely a synthesis of the thematic connections in Springsteen's albums explored thus far. The theme of work and unemployment is present in â€˜Downbound Train', Springsteen explores the cynical view of the romanticized past in â€˜Glory Days', and there is semi- autobiographical social commentary on community decline, urban decay and racial tensions in â€˜My Hometown'. But the albums release and popularity within the context of the political trajectory of Ronald Reagan forced the album to function as much more.
There were two types of America that were apparent to Springsteen during the time of its recording; a nation in which the working-class were still struggling to survive and the mythic America invoked by Ronald Reagan when campaigning towards his victories over his political opponents.
According to Cowie, Reagan's New Right "offered a restoration of the glory days by bolstering morale on the basis of patriotism, god, race, patriarchy and nostalgia for community". Reagan's political idealism leads the narrator of the title track of Born in the USA into a deep longing to "...strip away that mythic America which was Reagan's image of America". Set against the backdrop of a post-Vietnam national homecoming, Born in the USA arguably attempts to offer an antithetical version of America to Reagans. The title track, with its bitter verses and cynical, seemingly ambiguous chorus would become arguably one of the most misinterpreted songs in the history of rock and roll and mainstream popular music as a whole, as Cowie questions the track as, "part of a patriotic revival or a tale of working class betrayal? A symptom of Reagan's America or the antidote to it?"5 The popularity of Born in the USA made Bruce Springsteen a household name worldwide and became one of the best-selling albums in American history. This attention made Springsteen the household name of popular culture as another man became the household name of American and global politics. Ronald Reagan, coming to the end of his first term as President of the United States, campaigned for re-election during the release of the album. Born in the USA would become the soundtrack the people left in the margins of Reagan's utopian vision of America.
â€˜â€˜Born in the USA' is of course not the only facet of American popular culture to engage with the fallout of Vietnam. Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, released not long after Darkness, explores the effects of returning home from the jungles on a microscopic level, through the lens of a small working-class town in Pennsylvania, populated by characters who work at its steel mill. Cullen notes that this certain depiction of Vietnam in late 1970's cinema is emblematic of the "noble grunt" narrative, portraying Vietnam not so much as a fight between combatants but as an "inner civil war". 8 The difference in Springsteen's track is that it does not deal with coming to terms with the political failure of Vietnam and the human casualties lost in the jungles, but it deals with the human consequences at home on a domestic level.
The protagonist of â€˜Born in the USA' is instantly established as an impoverished individual, they are "born in a dead mans town," who's entry into combat in Vietnam is precipitated by a "hometown jam," an act of wrongdoing at home. The major problems that the protagonist has to confront happen when they return home to their job at the refinery only to find that there is no need for his labour anymore. The character's contact at the Veterans Administration also offers him no economic opportunity and only tells him "son, don't you understand?"10 These problems and the displacement of the worker upon his arrival leads to the creation of a central image in the final verse, of the penitentiary and the refinery. The protagonist has "nowhere to run, nowhere to go," and like the characters that populate Nebraska the spectre of prison and crime, hangs over them as it is, ironically, the only institution that the protagonist feels included within. Outtakes from Born in the USA such as â€˜Shut Out the Light' powerfully considers Post- Traumatic-Stress Disorder alongside the same theme of finding unemployment when returning from combat. â€˜Shut Out the Light' developed from the opening verses of a track Springsteen had written named â€˜Vietnam Blues', the fragments of that track became â€˜Born in the USA' and â€˜Shut Out the Light', the latter track serving as the flipside to the full band version of the Vietnam experience. The narrator returns from Vietnam and immediately takes a taxi to the local bar, to hide in a dark corner. He returns to a woman only to find himself awake at 4am and unable to move his hands. He then pleads to his mother to "shut out the light," as it makes him sick. Both tracks, formed from one singular idea portray the distorted sense of place and meaning of returning Vietnam veterans, which was mostly economical.
Springsteen's version of Vietnam and the fallout is particularly engaging because it is a similar situation to many real-life veterans during the 1980's. The title track for example is inspired by the experience of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July, whom Springsteen met in 1978 in Arizona. Kovic subsequently brought Springsteen to a veteran centre where he met Vietnam veterans such as Bobby Muller who established Vietnam Veterans of America and Springsteen notes, "I was moved a lot by the veterans I'd met". Springsteen accompanied Kovic to a screening of The Deer Hunter and observed how Kovic watched the film and looked for something that reflected his own experience of the war, and this is how the idea for â€˜Born in the USA' was formed. Thus, Vietnam clearly had a profound effect on Springsteen during the writing for Born in the USA, particularly on a domestic front and the Vietnam tracks capture his intention to record the economic circumstances of veterans post-Vietnam.
When campaigning for re-election in 1984, Reagan attempted to translate Springsteen's track into a superficial cry for national patriotism. When Springsteen refused to let Reagan adopt the song, the president invoked Springsteen nevertheless at a campaign stop in New Jersey. Reagan stated, "America's future rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young 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". Reagan had invoked the idea of dreams coming true in 1984, but the idealised version of nationalism he invoked was much different to the reality. With a favoured de-centralisation and federal deregulation21 famed by statements such as "in the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem"22, Reagan's domestic policies undermined "economic restructure and urban renewal". His political ideology lacked the imperative for federal subsidies in order to confront problems of social and economic deprivation24 and eliminated such programs as the fairness doctrine of the Federal Communications Commission which required air time for political dissenting views, undermining cultural and social freedom of speech25. Furthermore, his dismissal of the striking workers of PATCO devastated the effectiveness of organised strikes and union power. Also, income inequality grew substantially during the era of Reagan and Born in the USA. The nation was quickly becoming a kind of two Americas that was invoked by Springsteen during his speech to an audience in Pittsburgh.
Robert Putnam writes that between 1910 and 1970, income equality became relatively stable as the structure of New Deal programs and the influence of two World Wars kept poverty rates down, and incomes steadily increasing. However, the upward trends of income equality began to reverse during the early 1970's and by the 1980's, the top rate of income began to pull away sharply from the rest and grow exponentially relative to the lower rates. With regards to labour, according to the Economic Policy Institute, on an average CEO's were being paid 35 times the amount an average worker was making. Springsteen notes, not a great number of public figures were discussing economic inequality during this era. "No one was listening," he states.
The working-class were hit particularly hard during the Reagan administration due to the the increasing demand in the job market for individuals with "well-developed intellectual and interpersonal skills" that were needed in many jobs in the service and information sectors as factory and production industry work fell. Factory workers were thus displaced from the job market of the early to mid 1980's as they failed to meet the demands of an economy based upon skilled experience. The failure of the Reagan administration to combat this increasing inequality is arguably why the characters that populate Born in the USA work mainly state or county jobs, rejecting federal governmental work. The narrator of â€˜Darlington County' has a "union connection" with his friend's uncle, looking for work on the county line. In comparison, the narrator of â€˜Working on the Highway' also works for the county and meets his companion in the "union hall". The characters that populate the album are not the workers of the service sectors that were rapidly growing during Reagan's presidency. There is certainly evidence to suggest that the gap between the working class and individuals with higher levels of income was beginning to drastically increase during the release of Born in the USA. However, Springsteen refrained from involving himself in mainstream political discourse. He let his music speak for him, as he often did in the years before 1984.
As Springsteen saw the divide of two Americas, he responded not by directly engaging in politics but by through his own job - music. A rejection of Ronald Reagan's version of America arguably led Springsteen to craft his own utopian vision of the country he lived in, an idealised view of economic reality that Springsteen wrote as antithetical to the post-industrialised and globalised world that was increasingly dominated by neo-liberalism.
Springsteen notes that during the era of Born in the USA, "republicans at that time co-opted anything that was American. And my music has been American music," and thus, he attempted to create in his music another image of America. Written in 1984, during the sessions for Born in the USA, â€˜This Hard Land', is a story of friendship and family, the renewal of hope and the continuance of community in an agrarian, idealised socio-economic environment. At first, the narrator questions what has happened to the "seeds I've sown" and why they have never grown, why his economic fortune has not been realized. But, there is hope again as the narrator recognises â€˜Home on the Range' on a tape deck, music once again is the promise of hope. The narrator implores his friend, Frank, to meet him at "Liberty Hall," as they "sleep out in the fields," the rivers and they will formulate a plan when they wake. The narrator states to "stay hungry, stay alive if you can and meet me in a dream of this hard land". Springsteen's track, with the context of his idea of "two Americas," serves as a statement of hope to the people of the country he makes music in - to stay alive in tough economic times, and if the people can not do this, to share the dream that the characters of his songs populate.
Conclusion: "We Need You".
"They need you for their lives. That's your thing".
- Steven Van Zandt to Bruce Springsteen.
As his career progressed, Springsteen's music has shown to exist within a community that look towards him for an artistic expression of their often complicated and problematic lives. An anecdote now entwined in the wider lore of Bruce Springsteen's cultural impact is included in many post-9/11 sources on the artist. The story unfolds that in the aftermath of 9/11, Springsteen pulled out of a parking lot in New Jersey when a nearby resident stopped him, rolled down his car window and stated to Springsteen, "we need you now". The story demonstrates the linkage of Springsteen to a community of people in which his songs realistically demonstrate their socio-economic standing. Not just a community of people in his home county of Monmouth County, New Jersey, that suffered a heavy loss after the attacks of 9/11, but the wider community of the United States. As this dissertation has presented, the humanistic relevance and emotional resonance of Bruce's Springsteen's music connects to a wide audience in a way that simple academic study cannot.
Springsteen's music, grounded in economic realism, is painfully relevant today as it was during the decline of industry and Reaganomics. Springsteen, looking retrospectively at the albums he created during the early 1980's such as The River, recalled that "...from Darkness on the Edge of Town to The Ghost of Tom Joad... It all came out of the Carter recession of the late seventies". For example, the town of Lorain, Ohio was experiencing job losses at its steel plants in 2015 just as other towns across the state did 30 years earlier. â€˜Death to my Hometown', from Wrecking Ball invokes the same civic decline as â€˜Atlantic City' did in the early eighties, and â€˜Easy Money' deals with income inequality and the inherent negligence of social structures such as banking as Born in the USA did in 1984.
Specifically, the idea of a struggling class of people is much relevant today as it was to Springsteen during his upbringing and developing career. David K. Shipler's book on the â€œworking poor" in America documents the many men and women, of all ethnicities and backgrounds, who paradoxically work yet are poor. Shipler notes how the working poor of America do not have the â€œluxury of rage" - in that they are bound by work without a way for self-expression that will turn into self-empowerment and self-betterment. Bruce Springsteen's commercial and critical success and the adoration from fans that he holds dear has allowed him just that: the luxury of rage. As the following chapters have discussed, over the course of his career, Springsteen has given a voice to the working people of America, real and imaginative characters that often blur the line between reality and imagination. Ultimately, it is a cultural voice that warrants study as much as academic works on the decline of the working class does, as it promotes the investigation of real economic circumstances.
In conclusion, George Packer writes that when factories have collapsed, home-owners have fled and communities have unravelled, it is the voices of the people that remain within these structures, real and imagined. Bruce Springsteen's voice of economic realism is contained within them, forming an important cultural element of academic study that attempts to understand the decline of the working class. It is a voice that echoes from town to town, factory wall to factory wall, and into the hearts and minds of those affected by the loss and the ache of economic catastrophe.
Thesis dissertation written for a BA Honours course at The University of Nottingham in American history and politics. A complete pdf version with annotations and sources can be downloaded from here.