Why not a Springsteen populism?
So I’m scrolling through a backlog of Coverville podcasts and I see that he did a Bruce Springsteen show, and I shot right to it. Because I have a soft spot for the Boss, and I’m fascinated by indie musicians who share it and are going to try like hell to get his reputation revived in the same way that old country-western has been revived. The most effective shot of this was definitely Bonnie Prince Billy and Tortoise covering “Thunder Road”. But I’m skeptical that it’s ever going to take. Springsteen mines the same territory as country-western musicians—valorizing the lives of the most ordinary people—but it’s way more uncomfortable because there’s not a thick layer of nostalgia to give the listener distance. The characters in Springsteen songs are people you know, and if you’re an insufferable music snob, odds are they’re the very people that you’ve spent most of your life trying not to be. It’s painful to listen to a lot of the time, because it’s just depressing to hear the small dreams and little frustrations that are just too close to home. But honestly, that’s what appeals to me about Springsteen. He’s successful as a social realist, and as bonus, his music really means a lot to the very people he writes about. You can imagine the characters in songs like “Atlantic City” or “The River” dipping into their savings to go to a Springsteen show, and making a night of it, taking a little break from the lives of quiet desperation.*
The resurgence of ugly right wing populism reminds me of one of the more amusing ironies that makes liberals feel superior, which is the disconnect between Springsteen (humongous liberal) and the right wing leaning of so many working and middle class white people who relate to his music. It’s a microcosm of this major frustration—they can get so close, identifying the forces that make their lives harder, and yet can’t make that final leap into realizing what has to be done to make it better, instead pouring out their bitterness into a vote for Republicans. (Obviously, not all, but a significant percentage.) I will say that this lens of seeing things makes the famous story of Springsteen and Reagan much more complicated than it appears to be.
I’m sure you know it, but a recap: During the 1984 campaign, Reagan’s campaign used Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as a theme song, until Springsteen put an end to it. This is Very Funny to we liberals, because it’s so obvious that the lyrics to the song are basically lambasting the conservative forces that were laying waste to the hopes and dreams of working class Americans. The assumption, which I shared, was the campaigners didn’t pick up on how the song was lambasting America for refusing to take care of its citizens, even its veterans.
But rereading the lyrics, I can’t help but think that it’s not that obvious that the song has liberal politics. It’s aimed directly at the bitter sense of betrayal that Vietnam veterans felt, and because Springsteen is Springsteen, he’s more interested in describing said bitterness than offering pedantic solutions, or even tipping his hand with wry humor that might indicate an left-leaning mentality. Liberals and conservatives didn’t disagree that there was a problem in this sense, they just disagreed on the solution—liberals wanted class justice, but conservatives convinced themselves that the problem was that we weren’t “allowed” to win Vietnam by the yammering liberals with their concerns for human rights, and if we’d won Vietnam, then the country wouldn’t be emasculated and listless. If you squint your eyes and look at it sideways, you could easily interpret lyrics like these:
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
I go down to see the V.A. man
He said “Son don’t you understand”
In a right wing populist sense. The main character is adrift and emasculated (because we didn’t win) and can’t get a job (you can convince yourself that it’s an affirmative action loss, instead of an economic downturn issue). Springsteen surely intended “born in the U.S.A” to enrage you because the wealthiest country on the planet won’t take care of its citizens, but through the entitled eyes of someone who thinks that easy street is their birthright as white Christians with right wing leanings, it could be read entirely differently. So maybe the Republicans weren’t stupid, but trying to harness certain people’s bitterness for a right wing populist agenda.
Which is why my eyebrows shot up when Sarah Palin pulled out her “white flag of surrender!” line during the V.P. debates. Clearly, the right wing is moving towards that same narrative—we lost the war, and our country lost its way not because our leadership made bad decisions, not because Republicans are waging class warfare on working people, but because a bunch of pussy liberals waved the white flag of surrender. It’s an appealing narrative to those few, because it simplifies things. It gives you an excuse to avoid some ugly truths (such as “some wars are unwinnable”) because you can convince yourself that success is just a matter of will. And it’s no surprise that the people who buy into this largely overlap with religious fundamentalists, who have the same belief that the complexity of life can be boiled down to having enough willpower to avoid temptation (mainly sexual) and therefore getting the reward of paradise. It feels true, because it’s simple.
*The music is the main problem. Springsteen musicians are artless and blunt. But I’d say that’s not really true of the lyrics, which veer closer to terrifyingly concise. I can’t get past this part of “The River” without choking up:
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don’t remember
Mary acts like she don’t care
I can’t think of much else that describes any better the process by which Marriage grinds Love down and destroys it.