Monday, July 9, 2012

Bruce Springsteen and politics

So DT and I belong to a mailing list that focuses on work of Bruce Springsteen. A while back, I made what I thought was an uncontroversial statement, which was that Bruce Springsteen's political views were evident in his lyrics from the very beginning of his recording career, but most obviously since 1978's Darkness on the Edge of TownMuch to my surprise, several people took issue with this assertion, and accused me of projecting my own views onto Springsteen's songs. I wrote the following in response: 

Perhaps part of the problem is in the terminology. When I say his politics are shot through his body of work, I don't mean a simple binary red state/blue state, Democrat/Republican, conservative/liberal comparison. It's not a question of culture war issues, it doesn't touch upon (with perhaps one exception) issues of energy consumption or production, or civil rights or women's rights or pollution or gun control or abortion or any of the other standard obvious political topics.

What I mean—and I would have thought this obvious, but clearly not, and my bad—is that from his first album forward, but especially beginning with Darkness on the Edge of Town, one of Bruce Springsteen's primary concerns has always been the subject of class in our society.
Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain't satisfied 'til he rules everything 
Well, Daddy worked his whole life for nothin' but the pain
Well, you're born with nothin' and better off, baby, that way
Soon as you got somethin' they send someone to try to take it away
Some guys they just give up livin' and start dyin' little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home and wash up
And go racing in the streets
Not to mention pretty much the entirety of "The Promised Land" and "Factory."

All those positively scream of class consciousness to me—which is not only a more accurate way of describing his point of view than I perhaps did originally, but is also virtually verboten to talk about in polite society these days, given how, as we all learned in school and have thoroughly internalized, we live in a classless society.

There is no question which class all those singers/subjects belong to, and while there may be a certain dignity afforded them, there's also no question, in my mind, that he's not singing of the glories of being working class or poor, the idea many religions teach that poverty can enrich the soul. It's clear Springsteen sees many of these particular characters as living largely dead-end lives, and you either break out of them through incredible hard work and good fortune, or you find some way to forget about your incredibly hard luck lot in life for a little while—by racing in the streets or getting in a bar fight—or you give up and die, emotionally and spiritually if not physically.

Not that Springsteen's one-dimensional, of course, by any stretch—it's incredibly telling that, as he put, the songs on the album's four corners are in some measure optimistic, whether it's the rousing "Badlands" and "Promised Land" or the quietly determined "Racing in the Streets" or the grimly defiant "Darkness on the Edge of Town."

Yet even in those songs, there's a desperation in these hard-scrabble lives depicted in the cinéma vérité style films with which he'd then become enchanted. These are people born into difficult lives through no fault of their own (not that where/how/when anyone's ever born is ever his or her fault) and in a world where no one is going to hand you anything, and where even if you do all the right stuff, you still might not make it out. And I don't think Springsteen needed to mention the 1978 equivalent of Paris Hilton to make obvious the flipside of that situation.

The father in "Adam Raised a Cain" and "Factory" are characters who tried to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, who did all the things they were told to do. And what did they get in return?
Well, Daddy worked his whole life for nothin' but the pain
Factory takes his hearing
According to the text, they get pain and they lose their hearing. That's what they get.

Having politics run through an album doesn't mean it's espousing a particular candidacy. You can certainly have politics without politicians and/or without dryly or didactically discussing concrete policies. As DT pointed out, Jon Landau himself wrote in his original review of John Wesley Harding:
“Dylan manifests a profound awareness of the war and how it is affecting all of us. This doesn’t mean that I think any of the particular songs are about the war or that any songs are protests over it. All I mean to say is that Dylan has felt the war, and there is an awareness of it contained in the mood of the albums as a whole.”
That's what I mean when I say Bruce Springsteen's entire body of work, looked at as a whole, is positively suffused with his politics. He certainly makes his position overt with the rallies and benefits he chooses to play, and in some of his between song banter and interviews. But it's right there in the text, more artfully, more subtly, for all to see. 

DT largely agreed with my viewpoint, and added: 

Underclass and underdogs are Bruce Springsteen's main focal point dating all the way back to the first album. The difference, starting with Darkness, is he no longer tends to celebrate and canonize the street urchins around whom he based his songs. With Darkness they are no longer romanticized. They are shown in black and white, and their frustrations and viewpoints are things that Bruce clearly has a keen understanding of. He feels for the father in "Adam," for the workers in "Factory," even for the poor schlub who can't afford to shower his love in riches in "Prove it All Night." And he makes no apologies for it—"I've done my best to live the right way"—but it's still a pervasive feeling throughout that album and the three to follow.

There was no greater domestic issue in the late 1970s than poverty and economic struggle. Vietnam limped to an end, Watergate set fire to ideals we thought would never come into question, and the country wheezed and hacked its way through the post-nightmares of both. And they discovered that the jobs they once counted on had started to go away and the lifestyle they thought they had earned was no longer a given. I mean, gee whiz, do you think Springsteen wrote "Factory" in a vacuum?

How often is September 11th, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, al Qaeda, the hijackings, Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden, the NYPD, the NYFD, or the 2,900 deaths specifically mentioned on The Rising?

I think the answer is zero. Still, isn't it clear that September 11, 2001 runs throughout every fiber of that album?

I am actually surprised this is even a debate. I have long thought this to be a given.

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