Born to Run (But Not to Listen): The Misinterpretation of Bruce Springsteen in American Politics
‘A nation’s artists and musicians have a particular place in its social and political life. Over the years I’ve tried to think long and hard about what it means to be American: about the distinctive identity and position we have in the world, and how that position is best carried. I’ve tried to write songs that speak to our pride and criticize our failures. These questions are at the heart of this election: who we are, what we stand for, why we fight.’
These words were written by Bruce Springsteen in 2004, but they could easily have been written about the upcoming 2020 election.
If there’s one person who can unite a divided America, it’s The Boss. Bruce Springsteen has been an American icon since the New Jersey native first emerged on the rock scene in the 1970s, and his music has been a staple of political campaigns for almost as long. Springsteen’s songs have famously (and sometimes infamously) been used by both Democratic and Republican candidates at campaign rallies for decades. They have complex political messages which have retained relevance through every election cycle. Springsteen’s songs have played an essential role in American political culture, and thus provide a lens through which to view the 2020 election.
Springsteen’s songs have always had political themes, in that they explore identity, the American experience and the economic struggles of the working class. But it wasn’t until the mid 1980s that his songs became part of mainstream American political debates. Following its release in 1984, ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ became a campaign staple for politicians who seem to have misinterpreted its meaning. One incident became infamous, and put Springsteen more decidedly at the heart of the political sphere.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign decided to try to appeal to the widest group of Americans possible, by embracing popular culture and rock and roll. Springsteen denied the Reagan campaign the rights to the song, but in a campaign speech in New Jersey, Reagan still referenced Springsteen, saying; ‘America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire—New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen.’ In Rolling Stone, Springsteen questioned whether Reagan had actually listened to his music; ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ is a criticism of the Vietnam War and America’s poor treatment of its veterans when they returned home. Its central character is sent to war in a ‘foreign land,’ and returns to an America where he is unable to find a job or get help from the Veteran’s Administration, ending up with ‘nowhere to run […] nowhere to go.’ ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ is a prime example of the complexity of Springsteen’s songs and the ways politicians have interpreted them differently, often focusing on the soaring choruses at the expense of the critical political messages embedded in the verses. Republican politicians have often seen the song as a rousing declaration of pride in being American, rather than a critique of the disillusionment and hardship that can accompany being ‘Born In The U.S.A.’. The song was also used in later Republican presidential campaigns by Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan in 1996 and 2000 before Springsteen objected.
Bruce Springsteen has long since announced his allegiance to the Democratic Party, advocating for liberal causes and campaigning for every Democratic presidential nominee since 2004. But even Democratic candidates have had their understanding of Springsteen questioned. In a recent letter to the editor entitled ‘Misreading a Bruce Springsteen Song’, reader Andrew Hefferman responds to a New York Times article analyzing campaign playlists, commenting on top 2020 candidates Elizabeth Warren’s and Joe Biden’s use of the song We Take Care of Our Own. ‘The song’s message is not that Americans take care of one another, but that we should—and don’t[…] on the surface, Springsteen’s songs can sound like uncomplicated rallying cries, but what elevates them is their veiled ironies—the way they often reflect a deep ambivalence about the American values they appear to celebrate.’
The issues Springsteen sings about are as relevant to the 2020 presidential campaign as they were to the 1984 campaign, perhaps even more so. Many of Springsteen’s most famous songs explore the experience of blue-collar workers of the 1970s and 1980s, who find themselves stuck between falling wages and increasing inflation, with fewer jobs due to globalisation and a sense of dislocation as the economic system they have come to depend on seems stacked against them. These are the kinds of people who were once the foundation of the Democrats’ New Deal Coalition, but who then became Reagan Democrats and eventually a core constituency for the Republican Party. The 2016 election made clear that the issues faced by Springsteen’s characters haven’t disappeared, and you don’t have to look far in the 2020 campaign to find discussion of growing economic inequality, debt, the narrowing of the middle class, and the general sense of despair felt by Americans who no longer feel they can get ahead. 2020 Democratic candidates including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Cory Booker have emphasised these issues, attempting to win back working-class voters from the Republicans. But as Jonathan D. Cohen points out, Democrats have largely focused on liberal suburban professionals as their key constituency in recent years, and it will take a more than playing a Springsteen song at a rally to win back these voters: ’[…] music — even music as powerful and as popular as Springsteen’s — cannot serve as a substitute for policy […] To overcome these voters’ conservative cultural inclinations, Democrats need proposals to address the effects of deindustrialization, to stop corporate attacks on labor unions and to increase workers’ wages.’
The magic of Springsteen is that his lyrics resonate with all Americans, and even with people all over the world, drawing upon common fears, hopes and dreams and the identities which accompany them. Springsteen is a political figure in that his art has been long tied to the party politics of the last four decades, but he may also provide a bridge back to unity. With his music he provides a common language for all Americans, a familiar point of reference and a way to express the contradictions that encompass the American experience.
Springsteen has said that his music is about the gap between dreams and reality, the fundamental question of ‘Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/or is it something worse?’ (‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, 1978). At the end of the day, all of us are motivated by the desire to bridge that gap; it’s key to any political platform or any vote: what will this person do to bring my dreams that much closer to my reality? His music expresses joy in being American and in the concept of the American dream, but also deals with the painful reality of what happens when this dream doesn’t come true. Simultaneously revelling in and criticising American culture, Springsteen’s music represents a complex political dialogue that can’t be boiled down into one campaign slogan or one sound bite. Still, the presence of his music in the political sphere is not to be regretted; perhaps it can reinstall some complexity to political debates. Springsteen shows us that it’s possible to be critical of your country, and to be proud of it and hopeful about its future. In Springsteen’s America, criticism isn’t unpatriotic, and patriotism doesn’t mean blind loyalty. Springsteen’s songs embody, at their core, what politics is all about; creating collective identities from everyday experiences. Now that is something all candidates should be paying attention to.