“I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.” —Socrates, quoted by Plato, Apology
“My work has always been about judging the distance between American reality and the American dream. There is a real patriotism underneath the best of my music but it is a critical, questioning and often angry patriotism.” —Bruce Springsteen
In this thirtieth anniversary year of the release of his legendary album, Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen and his politics have once again come under scrutiny. Indeed, it was the success of that album—and particularly the widely misunderstood interpretation of the title song as a jingoistic anthem—that slowly pushed Mr. Springsteen into the political realm; he occasionally dabbled in Left-wing projects in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, appearing, for instance, in the “No Nukes” concert and the anti-apartheid Sun City recording, and speaking out for Amnesty International. But it was not until his public endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 that Mr. Springsteen lent his prestige directly to a particular politician and party. When he followed up that eleventh-hour endorsement four year later with early and eager campaign-trail-stomping for candidate Barack Obama, many of Mr. Springsteen’s conservative fans expressed disappointment and some even succumbed to disillusionment with their musical hero, swearing off his music.
One wonders whether politically conservative fans of the Boss (as Mr. Springsteen is fondly called by his fans) also refuse to watch Hollywood movies, as nearly all feature actors (and are directed by directors) who espouse Left-wing beliefs. Should we really care what an artist’s political views are? Do Johann Goethe’s views on the Holy Roman Emperor make a difference to us? Do we care whether Vincent van Gogh supported a united Netherlands? Does it matter for whom Aaron Copland voted in the presidential election of 1960? The answer is… perhaps–if the artist’s political views distort his artistic expression, making the latter a cheap form of propaganda. (One thinks of the fourth-rate music composed to glorify authoritarian political regimes.) And some might argue that this is the case with Mr. Springsteen.
But to the contrary, Mr. Springsteen’s artistic vision remains untainted by his political views. The latter flows from the former, and not vice versa, and therefore Mr. Springsteen’s music at no point devolves into cheap political propaganda. As Clyde Wilson and Brion McClanahan have said, “the essential and important thing about a great artist is his vision, not his opinions. A great artist sees in ways far more fundamentally true and meaningful than mere opinion.”
It is true that the content of the Springsteen’s lyrics now deal more with the injustices of American society than they once did. Though he is still primarily a storyteller, Mr. Springsteen has, in general, moved from the particular stories of angst-ridden, and often named, young lovers—Mary of “Thunder Road,” Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane of “Incident on 57th Street,” and Terry of “Backstreets”—to the generic first-person commentary manifested in such songs as “We Take Care of Our Own”:
Where’re the eyes, the eyes with the will to see
Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me
Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free
Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me
Where’s the promise from sea to the shining sea
Wherever this flag is flown
We take care of our own
The same first-person, generalized commentary is the paradigm also of “Shackled and Drawn,” Mr. Springsteen’s latest contribution to the tradition of the work song, a genre he has visited before, in original songs like “Working on the Highway,” and in cover versions of traditional songs like “Pay Me My Money Down.” Work songs, which developed among both slaves and free laborers, often combine dismal lyrics about the drudgery of manual labor with happy, even jaunty-sounding music. (One thinks of, say, Harry Belafonte’s rendition of “Day-O.”) In “Shackled and Drawn,” Springsteen sings:
Freedom son’s a dirty shirt
The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt
A shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn
Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock son, carry on
What’s a poor boy to do but keep singing this song
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn
In using the first-person, Mr. Springsteen is making sure that his listeners understand the universality of the message he is trying to convey. Here, as elsewhere in his oeuvre, he never allows his music to degenerate into a call to action for any specific political prescription. Even when he comes writes songs as direct commentary on contemporary political events—in “American Skin (41 Shots),” “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live,” most of the songs on his “9/11 album,” The Rising—his music and lyrics make sense removed from the context of specific events and do not unreservedly condemn any group or party and nearly always allude to individuals in vague terms. (Nearly: In “The Wall” Mr. Springsteen startlingly indicts Robert McNamara by name.) Mr. Springsteen may engage in politics off the stage and out of the recording studio, but in his art he is operating on a higher plane. To return to “We Take Care of Our Own”: Note that the lyrics contain no call for, say, the expansion of federal social welfare programs, though some listeners may wish to interpret them that way. In fact, the song could be just as easily be interpreted as a call for the kind of community-building promoted by conservative localists or distributists… for the rise of the little platoons favored by Burkeans and Kirkians. “People have to work. The country should strive for full employment,” Mr. Springsteen says. “It’s the single thing that brings self and self-esteem and a sense of place, a sense of belonging.”
What is Mr. Springsteen’s critique of American society? At its heart is a criticism of the economic inequalities created, perpetuated, or at least tolerated by the American economic system. In Wrecking Ball‘s “Death to My Hometown” the narrator indicts the “robber barons” for fleecing his neighbors of their livelihoods: “The greedy thieves who came around/And ate the flesh of everything they found.” In the same album’s “Jack of All Trades,” Mr. Springsteen sings:
The banker man grows fat, working man grows thin
It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again
It’ll happen again, yeah they’ll bet your life
I’m a jack of all trades, darling we’ll be all right
It is not, however, the free enterprise system that Mr. Springsteen is attacking; it is not the notions of personal profit or private property to which he is opposed. Rather, it is the inherent injustices and dehumanizing aspects of capitalism that upset him. In this, he has good company in the Catholic popes of modern times, with J.R.R. Tolkien, and with the godfather of American conservatism, Russell Kirk:
Conservatism is not simply a defense of “capitalism,” the abstraction of Marx. The true conservative does defend private property stoutly; and one of the reasons why he cherishes it is that private enterprise is the only really practicable system, in the modern world, for satisfying our economic wants; but more even than this, he defends private enterprise as a means to an end. That end is a society just and free, in which every man has a right to what is his own, and to what he inherits from his father, and to the rewards of his own ability and industry; a society that cherishes variety and individuality, and rises superior to the dreary plain of socialism. A conservative society enables men to be truly human persons, not mere specks in a collective tapioca-pudding society; it respects their dignity as persons.*
This distinction, between free enterprise and capitalism, is one that Mr. Springsteen implicitly acknowledges. In many of his song he celebrates the desire to improve one’s material condition: to purchase a new car in “Used Cars” (“Now mister the day my number comes in I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car again”); to buy a “pretty little house in a pretty little town” in “Stolen Car”; in “Car Wash” to “get a million-dollar break.” Note, however, that such rewards come not from hard work, but usually from a stroke of luck amidst an unfair economic system. “Used Cars” in particular contains a note of bitterness (the narrator dreams of throttling the used car back and telling the neighbors to “kiss our asses goodbye”). Mr. Springsteen admires the free enterprise system to an extent, yet he worries that the American Dream was perhaps a chimera after all:
The entrepreneurial vision has taken our country a long way, but it’s done so on the backs of a lot of working people who’ve gotten stiffed in the end. So at some point – and we may be reaching that point – that vision may have run its course…. And I think it’s the responsibility not just of the government, but all of us, to make sure no one is left out.
Mr. Springsteen derides the reduction of man to “mere collective specs” under modern American industrial-capitalism. He is indeed Tolkienian in his depiction of the degrading aspects of industrialization. In “Factory,” the narrator sings of watching his father wearily trudge through the gates of his workplace, which ironically destroys him as it allows him to survive: “Factory takes his hearing/Factory gives him life/Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.” In “Youngstown,” the narrator likewise and even more forcefully indicts the dualistic life-giving/life-robbing enslavement of workers by industrial capitalism:
Well my daddy worked the furnaces
Kept ’em hotter than hell
I come home from ‘Nam worked my way to scarfer
A job that’d suit the devil as well
Taconite coke and limestone
Fed my children and make my pay
The narrator sarcastically refers to “Them smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God/Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay”; industry has become the god of modern capitalism, defiling the true God’s creation. As under slavery or serfdom, the son, like the father, is trapped in the same condition, and is not only dehumanized by the hellish work but also de-sanctified by it, so that he is no longer fit for Heaven:
When I die I don’t want no part of heaven
I would not do heaven’s work well
I pray the devil comes and takes me
To stand in the fiery furnaces of hell
Mr. Springsteen’s critique of American capitalism is fired by his spiritual roots. Not coincidentally, as he has become more of a gadfly on the body politic, much of his music has taken on overtly religious dimensions, his Roman Catholic upbringing made more and more manifest in his lyrics and the influence of American Gospel music weighing increasingly heavily in much of his musical writing. (I have written elsewhere in the pages of The Imaginative Conservative about how Catholic theology haunts Springsteen’s artistic vision.) A few years ago, Springsteen even contemplated releasing an entire album of traditional Gospel songs, and a recent book on the religious element of his music is titled The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen. Born in central New Jersey, in the then-little town of Freehold, Springsteen experienced a not-atypical working-class, Catholic-American childhood. Young Mr. Springsteen attended St. Rose of Lima elementary school, where the nuns were strict and instilled in him very real pictures of Heaven and Hell. His father struggled to keep jobs while his mother provided most of the financial and emotional support for Bruce and his sisters. The Springsteen family was so poor that young Bruce could not go to the dentist, a friend once extracting one of his teeth with a pair of pliers. Mr. Springsteen’s hometown—which sat mid-way between suburban, wealthier north Jersey and the farmlands and dense woods of the southern part of the state—was jarred during the 1960s by economic downturns, racial strife, and the departure of its young men for the war in Vietnam.
In this religious and social atmosphere, Mr. Springsteen developed a special concern for social justice, in the tradition of Catholic activists like Dorothy Day. Though some of his earlier, rougher songs of the early 1970s draw haphazardly, and somewhat clumsily, on Catholic themes and imagery, his music, beginning just a few years later, became increasingly haunted by themes of sin and redemption. Mr. Springsteen seemingly at first resisted the hold that his Catholicism exercised over him and his artistic vision, but in the last decade his music has overtly embraced Catholic theology and Christian themes. “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” Mr. Springsteen has said, and he has also stated that because of the way it shaped his writing, he would not trade his Catholic upbringing for any other.
Very few Springsteen songs of the last decade lack this religious dimension. On 2005’s Devils and Dust album, for instance, the title song hints at the great Christian truth that fear is the Devil’s work:
Fear’s a powerful thing, baby
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It’ll take your God filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust
On the same album, Mr. Springsteen includes the song, “Jesus Was an Only Son,” which is as close to a prayer as anything Springsteen has written and which poetically re-tells part of the Gospel. In the song, Springsteen subtly suggests how the relationship of the Blessed Mother to her son serves as a paradigm for the very idea of motherhood. Biblical imagery becomes the very language of some of Springsteen-the-gadfly’s songs, such as “Rocky Ground” on 2012’s Wrecking Ball:
Forty days and nights of rain washed this land
Jesus said the money changers, in this temple will not stand
Find your flock, get them to higher ground
The floodwater’s rising, we’re Canaan bound
This is Mr. Springsteen’s indictment of his beloved country. And yes, Mr. Springsteen clearly loves his country, as is clearly abundant in countless of his songs. “My view of America is of a real bighearted country, real compassionate,” he has mused. “There is a real patriotism underneath the best of my music but it is a critical, questioning and often angry patriotism.” One need only listen to Wrecking Ball‘s “Death to My Hometown,” which indicts Wall Street financiers for ruining America’s small towns, to understand what Mr. Springsteen means:
So, listen up my sonny boy, be ready when they come
For they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun
Now get yourself a song to sing
And sing it ’til you’re done
Sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything they found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Who walk the streets as free men now
He calls his new song “The Wall,” which honors two young men of his hometown killed in Vietnam, a “prayer for his country.” Though “Born in the U.S.A” has been misunderstood as a jingoistic song, as noted above, it should not be misconstrued as an anti-American song either. “His songs are about America,” author Walker Percy observed, “without hyping the country up and without knocking the country down. . . . he sings of us while singing to us.”
Indeed, sometimes Mr. Springsteen exudes nostalgia for America in his art every bit as much as did Norman Rockwell: “County Fair,” “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” and even the legendary “Jungleland,” for example, paint vivid, iconic scenes of American life. In recent years, Springsteen has thrice recorded on different albums “American Land,” which describes how immigrants” died building the railroads worked to bones and skin” and “died in the fields and factories names scattered in the wind”; yet the song’s refrain—as well as its rollicking, joyous music—well sums up the immigrant’s (and Mr. Springsteen’s) optimism about the country:
There’s diamonds in the sidewalk there’s gutters lined in song
Dear I hear that beer flows through the faucets all night long
There’s treasure for the taking, for any hard working man
Who will make his home in the American Land
What is Mr. Springsteen’s vision for a renewed America? Surprisingly, it is quite a conservative one, focused on organic community-building. Mr. Springsteen has repeatedly talked about how people define themselves by their communities. And he sees community as growing out of the most basic, communal human relationship: marriage. Since the release of 1981’s The River, Mr. Springsteen has consistently written songs that express a young man’s desire to be married (“I Wanna Marry You”), that celebrate the joys of married life (“Happy”), or that express frustration with the inevitable travails of married life (“Brilliant Disguise.”) Even in the songs of his younger days, when like a typical young man he was eager to break away from the suffocating bonds of his hometown, Mr. Springsteen was never running away alone. There was Mary of “Thunder Road” climbing with him into his getaway car to join him in “pulling out of here to win” and Wendy of “Born to Run” hopping aboard his motorcycle in an attempt to “get out while we’re young.”
In “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Springsteen sings of the country as a community of “saints and sinners/losers and winners,” all “lost souls,” struggling under the weight of sin and the difficulties of economic life. Though one carries one’s sins with him throughout life, there is a way to combat the darkness—and that is through a loving companionship that draws on the wisdom of one’s ancestors. In “This is Your Sword,” filled with poetic words that Russell Kirk might have penned had he been a songwriter, Mr. Springsteen the narrator urges the listener to take “the sword of our fathers with lessons hard taught/The shield strong and sturdy from battles well fought” and “carry them with you wherever you go/And give all the love that you have in your soul.”
The appeal to tradition and the notion of the heavy hand of the past are powerful themes in Mr. Springsteen’s thinking. In “We Are Alive” (a “ghost story” he calls it in a Kirkian vein), he paints a vision of those who have struggled for justice in the past rising up to inspire the present generation—a vision based on the Catholic nation of a community of saints. On his most recent concert tours, Mr. Springsteen usually prefaced the song in this way: “The past is always informing the present. The dead are right here beside us. And the dead whisper into the ears of the living.” Again, in “Long Walk Home,” the narrator sings of the binding, defining nature of place, belief, and tradition:
My father said “Son, we’re lucky in this town,
It’s a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone”
“Your flag flyin’ over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t”
The soul of Mr. Springsteen’s artistry, then, is a vision of man and of society that conservatives share in its general outlines. There are many paths leading from this vision to the world of politics; Mr. Springsteen has simply chosen to take the leftward path. “It’s a reasonable expectation to have full employment, health care and education for all, decent housing, day care for children from an early age, a reasonably transparent government,” Mr. Springsteen says. “Big money in politics is dangerous and antidemocratic. Well, to me these are all conservative ideas.”
Mr. Springsteen pointedly refers to himself as a “writer”—not a songwriter, mind you, but a writer. Recently he was caught on camera reading, pencil in hand, a book called Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, a collection of short biographies of a dozen major philosophers. Though heart-warming to those of his fans who love the liberal arts, the photo was not shocking to devotees of Mr. Springsteen (a group that includes the author of this essay). Mr. Springsteen, who grew up in a house where the life of the mind was unimportant, and who only graduated high school, is an autodidact, who has read more and more as he has grown older and whose interests have ranged from the fiction of John Steinbeck, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor to works on American history and music. This reading, along with the experience that comes with age, has naturally brought him increased wisdom and added gravitas to his lyric-writing.
The American nation-state should expect the American gadfly, who is now reading about Athens’ gadfly, to deepen his critique of the country he loves so much. Be on guard, my fellow Americans!
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
*Russell Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives, p. 29.