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Bruce Springsteen & Visions for the Promised Land

“There’s something really dangerous happening to us out there now. We’re slowly getting split up into two different Americas,” Bruce Springsteen cautioned his audience at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena in September 1984, expressing his anxiety for the nation’s trajectory. “In the beginning,” he continued, “the idea was we all live here a little bit like a family where the strong can help the weak ones, the rich can help the poor ones. You know, the American Dream…Everybody was going to have an opportunity and a chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity and a chance for some self-respect.”

Then, in a graceful nod to Pittsburgh, a city as much emblematic of the working class as any American metropolis, Springsteen concluded, “I know you’ve got to be feeling the pinch here where the rivers meet.” As applause of appreciation faded, he and the house-rockin’, earth-shakin’ E Street Band plunged into a heartfelt rendition of “The River.”  

Coming from a man with the appearance of Springsteen, buff, supremely physical, and clad in his iconic Engineer Boots, blue jeans, and bandana—all clichés of American machismo—perhaps these tender sentiments seem out of place. And, besides, one has to ask, who ever said the American Dream was about helping your neighbor? Surely this dream has always been one of individual success and prosperity, not cooperation that cuts across socioeconomic cleavages.  

Bruce Springsteen’s vision for America rests at the heart of this tension. Last year, I wrote an article about Bob Dylan’s political legacy, framing this “Voice of a Generation” as an exclusive symbol of the Left.  Defining the political legacy of Springsteen, a faithful disciple of Dylan, is, admittedly, a much harder task—but perhaps it is innately more rewarding; for, in listening to a Springsteen song, every American, regardless of political persuasion or background, can hear their own story. Over the course of more than five decades, Springsteen has placed himself at the crossroads of American political discourse. In becoming a working-class troubadour while simultaneously not hiding his own progressive politics, Bruce Springsteen projects a vision for America of unity and inclusiveness for all—from the out-of-work Pittsburgh steelworker to the newly minted American immigrant—a vision that is as timely as ever.

Bruce Springsteen will forever be synonymous with the working class. Born to a Roman Catholic family of modest means in Freehold, New Jersey, Springsteen never forgot his roots, and his robust catalogue of songs ubiquitously celebrates work ethic and the beauty of making ends meet. From “My Hometown” to “The Promised Land” to “Working on a Dream,” many of Springsteen’s most popular hits have been odes to these ethos. No other popular artist in the American Canon has more glorified the day-in-day-out work of average folks. But this is not to say that Springsteen sugar coats or neglects the realities of such workers; rather, many of these songs conclude grimly, admitting the triumph of despair and the realities of being left behind as blue-collar work dissipated in the United States. To some readers, this description may perhaps evoke images of the “typical Trump voter.” Though he has called Trump “a con man” and a “flagrant, toxic narcissist” and even co-wrote the anti-Trump rocker “That’s What Makes Us Great,” Springsteen recognizes whose story he is telling. He does not deride supporters of the President. To Springsteen, “voices have been fundamentally ignored and not heard. These are folks who feel Donald Trump has been listening to them and speaks for them on some level.”  

Springsteen has long sought to understand the anger, confusion, and worry accompanying post-industrial decay. Take “Youngstown,” written in 1995, a somber reflection of a rattled town, forgotten once its wealth had been fully sapped. Springsteen, assuming the voice of a dejected Ohioan, sings:

From the Monongahela Valley
To the Mesabi Iron Range
To the coal mines of Appalachia
The story’s always the same
Seven-hundred tons of metal a day
Now sir you tell me the world’s changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name

In “Death to My Hometown,” composed in the darkness of the 2008 Great Recession, Springsteen is even clearer in placing blame. Though he notes that “no shells ripped the evening sky” and that “no armies stormed the shores for which we’d die,” Springsteen sees that his own Main Street—possibly of his beloved Freehold or even that of Youngstown, Ohio—was “raided in the dark” by the feckless irresponsibility of Wall Street executives who escaped punishment despite sending the American economy into turmoil. The song then sings like a call for blood:

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

Songs like “Youngstown” and “Death to My Hometown” exhibit Springsteen’s excellence in political nuance. Bruce Springsteen is clear in his hypothesis: the “Trump voter,” if you will, has many legitimate qualms as a victim of the unquestioned faith in free market principles characterizing the post-Reagan era.

However, one can easily see then why many conservative politicians have assumed that, in Springsteen, they had found a valuable ally—of course, by first ignoring these nuances. President Ronald Reagan, most famously, alluded to the singer at a campaign event in Hammonton, New Jersey in September 1984—days before Springsteen’s emotional Pittsburgh concert.  “America’s future,” Reagan said, “rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”  Reagan even used Springsteen’s chart-topping hit “Born in the U.S.A.” at campaign events—despite the fact that the song is a scathing critique of how the nation treated returning Vietnam veterans. It is far from the flag-waving, patriotic affirmation the President assumed it to be. Days later, Springsteen would tell an audience “Well, the president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day… I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.”  Springsteen then rollicked into “Johnny 99,” a story of a jobless autoworker forced into a life of crime:

Now judge, judge I had debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they were gonna take my house away
Now I ain’t sayin’ that make me an innocent man
But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand

“Johnny 99” was Springsteen’s way of telling the President that it was policies of economic austerity—those of “Reaganomics”—that tore apart the nation’s already fragile social safety net and often compelled the country’s most down-on-their luck to live unsavory lives.

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Bruce Springsteen projects a vision for America of unity and inclusiveness for all—from the out-of-work Pittsburgh steelworker to the newly minted American immigrant—a vision that is as timely as ever.

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But it is unfair and inaccurate to exclusively label Bruce Springsteen as a patient explainer of the misinterpreted Trump supporter, as he actively uses his platform and his privilege to advocate for greater socioeconomic equality. Following the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, Springsteen was a vocal critic of the George W. Bush Administration’s lack of effort in managing the crisis. He observed the inherent inequality of the disaster and how unfairly its burden was distributed along racial and class lines, adapting an old Depression-era tune “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” to sing:

There’s bodies floatin’ on Canal and the levees gone to hell
Martha, get me my sixteen gauge and some dry shells
Them who’s got got out of town
And them who ain’t got left to drown
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?

However, Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” is by far the singer’s most controversial foray into politics.   The song tells the story of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant vendor from New York City, who, in an altercation with the NYPD, was mistaken for another man. Ultimately, the officers opened fire on Diallo, and 19 of the 41 shots taken hit their target. The song, recently covered by Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar, recounts the realities of police brutality in the United States for people of color, concluding that “you can get killed just for living in your American skin.”  In retaliation, the New York City Police Department Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association asked its members and the city at large to boycott and condemn the musician. Nonetheless, in July 2013, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, Springsteen restored value to the song, playing it at a concert in Ireland as a “letter back home for justice,” thereby recognizing Martin’s death as but one episode in a long history of police brutality towards people of color.

While he long resisted electoral politics, in recent years, Springsteen has embraced campaigns as an opportunity to dictate his vision for the nation. In 2004, Springsteen headlined “Votes for Change,” a top-brass lineup of musicians giving their talents to the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in important swing states. Four years later, Springsteen threw his weight behind a young senator, Barack Obama, and, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the new president’s inaugural celebration ushered in the Obama Era with a soulful performance of “The Rising” and, accompanied by folk icon Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” This past November, Springsteen joined the Obamas and Hillary Clinton on the night before the election, perhaps an unsuccessful effort by the Democratic candidate to borrow the reverence held for the musician by working-class Americans. While fans surely have grumbled about the musician’s political participation, at large, Springsteen remains as popular as ever amongst his devoted base.  Dan Rivers, a conservative radio talk show host in Youngstown, has noted“Bruce supports a lot of liberal causes, but conservatives give him a pass. He’s an icon. He’s done so much good. They think he’s a true working-class guy.”

Springsteen, undoubtedly aware of his relative unassailability, has consequently strived to be a liaison between his audience—which has been predominantly middle-aged, white, and male—and issues affecting historically marginalized populations. Springsteen has sought to use his working-class authority to find what is common in all of our political struggles, struggles that, in the context of the 2016 election, have been framed as inherently antithetical.  No Springsteen song more singularly encapsulates the musician’s complete political vision than his 2012 “We Are Alive.”  The song, a parading and boisterous testament of souls that continue past mortal finitude, includes one particularly notable stanza:

A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877
When the railroad workers made their stand
Well, I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham
Well, I died last year crossing the southern desert
My children left behind in San Pablo
Well they left our bodies here to rot
Oh please let them know, we are alive

Here, Springsteen pleads for political solidarity amongst diverse and seemingly divergent political desires.  He equates the struggles of a blue-collar laborer for workplace dignity, the African American pursuing civil rights, and the immigrant father seeking a better life for his children.  In Springsteen’s America, all of these groups have a place.

While Springsteen is certainly not the first musician to use his platform to bring attention to an issue in need, he does stand alone in his ability to bridge political divides through his craft.  In Springsteen’s America, defending the down-and-out blue-collar worker who wonders whether the world still has a place for him does not exclude one from advocating for the rights of immigrants drawn to this country by a hope for a better life.

Springsteen has said that he “still believe[s] fundamentally [that music is] an affair of the heart. People want you to go deeper than politics; they want you to reach inside to their most personal selves and their deepest struggles.” Springsteen’s music cuts deeper than politics, exposing the common thread that runs through us all—a desire for respect, dignity, and a modicum of comfort. In times like these, such a vision of our shared purpose has immense value. It’s his ability to grasp the deepest struggles of so many different Americans that allows Bruce Springsteen to find and celebrate what is common within us all.

About the Author

Nathaniel Pettit '20 is a US Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.

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