Is Bruce Springsteen a symbol of the decline of the Democrats?

One day in 1968, Bruce Springsteen received a draft notice from the army, calling on him to join the Vietnam War. Springsteen was 19 and left community college to concentrate on the two things he loved most: singing and playing the guitar. He did not want to join the army, not only because it was far from the rock clubs of the Jersey Shore but also because he did not believe in war.

The previous year, civil rights protests in Newark, NJ, had spread 40 miles south to Freehold, Springsteen’s hometown. There was a “riot in Freehold,” Springsteen recalls in “Renegades: Born in the United States,” a new coffee table that features a lengthy conversation he and former President Obama had in summer 2020 about political awareness. (The two share a podcast with the same name.) Springsteen saw how blacks were overrepresented in the military and had fewer economic opportunities than whites, and he developed “a sense that the system was fixed and biased toward many of its citizens,” he said. says Obama.

In the book, Springsteen, 72, also explains the background of his political awakening. He describes Freehold as “your typical small, provincial, racist” American town, island, ur-American hamlet of Memorial Day parades and VFW marches. His parents did not talk about politics; they were more concerned about whether they could pay their bills. In high school, when Springsteen asked her mother if the family is Democrat or Republican, she said, “We’re Democrats because Democrats are for the workers.” For the most part, it was current affairs, not his parents, that began to shape his policy.

Springsteen successfully avoided the draft, he tells Obama, by pretending to be too stupid to fill out his draft papers. He was recently in a motorcycle accident that resulted in a concussion, and the Army declared him a 4-F. Next he came to Vietnam was to write “Born in the United States”, an elegy for a soldier who died in the 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh.

“Renegades” does not continue to describe the progress of Springsteen’s emergence as a publicly political person. But you can see another stage of that progress in “The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts,” a film by Springsteen and the E Street Band playing a flawless, herculean 90-minute set at Madison Square Garden as part of an anti-nuclear power concert. . (The DVD, as well as a CD, was released on November 16.) One of the notable things is that at no point does he mention nuclear power.

For years, Springsteen “showed considerable concern whenever asked to speak politically,” Eric Alterman writes in his 2001 book “It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen.” Although Springsteen performed at a fundraiser for George McGovern, the Democratic candidate for president in 1972, he admired singers such as Bob Dylan, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, who were socially conscious but not explicitly political. Although he never declared himself a leftist, people on the left found liberal themes in his songs. Then again, people on the right heard conservative issues.

In 1982, Springsteen released “Nebraska,” a stern, sad album about hard times during late capitalism, about “debts no honest man can pay” and the “evil in this world.” Music critic Greil Marcus, in his review, called it “the most complete and probably the most convincing statement of resistance and rejection that Ronald Reagan’s United States has elicited from any artist or politician.”

Springsteen’s next album, “Born in the USA”, made him the world’s biggest rock star. For more than a decade, as part of its infamous Southern strategy, the Republican Party repositioned itself as the party that spoke for the working people, to use the expression of Springsteen’s mother. No wonder his stories of urban life caught the attention of Republicans. “I have no clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any,” conservative columnist George Will wrote, “but flags are waved at his concerts as he sings songs about hard times.” Will called Springsteen’s songs a “grand, gay statement” of American life.

A few days later, as then-President Reagan was campaigning for re-election in New Jersey, he spoke admiringly of “the message of hope in songs that so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”

Did the premonitions of doom in “Cover Me” or the fantasy of “a better life than this” in “Working on the Highway” constitute a gay claim? Is the dead friend in “Born in the United States” or the racial violence in “My Hometown” a message of hope? Of course not. But Springsteen used the iconography of the American flag often in the 1980s, and as he realized, iconography is not part of the message, it is the message. He made it possible for the right side to compose his music.

During the Born in the USA tour, he raised money for and contributed to local charities, mostly food banks. He felt, he later said, that he was able to build more credibility by remaining impartial while maintaining his vision of progressivism for his music. Springsteen denounced Reagan’s hug to his music, but when asked if he preferred Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, he shrugged: “I don’t feel a real connection to electoral politics right now,” he told an interviewer.

“There has always been political consistency in Springsteen’s songs,” says David Masciotra, author of the 2010 book “Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen.” Masciotra cites several examples, including the anti-war song “Last to Die” and its companion, “Magic,” about political deception, both from the 2007 album “Magic” and “Streets of Philadelphia,” the theme song to “Philadelphia.” , (2007). which in 1993 was the first Hollywood film to deal with the AIDS plague. And in 2000, Springsteen began performing “American Skin (41 Shots),” which commemorates the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant who was shot 41 times by the NYPD in a case of misidentification. This was a song the GOP could not choose – Mayor Rudolph Giuliani condemned it, and the president of the country’s largest police organization called the singer a “dirty bag”.

Springsteen’s policy, Masciotra adds, “is in the best of the American progressive tradition: an emphasis on the common ground of class interests and the struggles of the working people against exploitation of working class class and the political system that enables it, and more radical. and a redemptive form of empathy, whether it’s the immigrant, the Black American, or the gay American experience. “

Springsteen wrote about politics without ever mentioning politics. However, Masciotra says, “he was not comfortable or at least confident in expressing his policy in more explicit terminology.”

Twenty years after “Born in the USA,” Springsteen gave up impartialism to highlight the 2004 Vote for Change tour, which featured musicians from Babyface to REM, focused on registering young voters in swing states and recommended for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who was running against current George W. Bush.

“Why have you stayed away from being actively involved in party politics for so long ?,” Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner asked Springsteen in a 2004 interview.

“Sitting aside would be a betrayal of the ideas I’ve been writing about for a long time. Not getting involved, just somehow keeping my silence or being afraid of it somehow, just won’t work this time around, ”Springsteen replied. This choice, he added, “is a time to be very specific about where I stand.”

Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa during the reopening night of “Springsteen on Broadway” on June 26 in New York City.

(Taylor Hill / Getty Images)

The topics cited by Springsteen in that interview are uniformly predictable: an emerging oligarchy in the United States, economic inequality between rich and poor, the way politicians blur the line between truth and falsehood, the toxic influence of Fox News and the devotion of the media to appear impartial is. things that only grew in meaning. They make up a large part of the conversation in “Renegades,” though Springsteen and Obama largely avoid relating to Donald Trump, the personification of those things.

After a Vote for Change, Springsteen not only stated his support for Obama during the 2008 race but he also performed at campaign appearances and, later, at Obama’s inauguration. Since then, he has become a royalty of the Democratic Party. In 2016, he played at an election night rally for Hilary Clinton in Philadelphia and also supported her, while he called her opponent Trump a “smelly toxic narcissist.” And in the 2020 election, he narrated a TV ad for Joe Biden, allowed his music to be used by the candidate’s campaign and featured at Biden and Kamala Harris ’inaugural event.

Predictably, Springsteen’s plea has led to many accusations from the right that he is a “limousine liberal” who is out of touch with America and who should keep quiet and sing. (Anyone who thinks his songs are separate from his politics doesn’t pay attention.) During the 2004 Vote for Change tour, Wall Street Journal editor Phil Kuntz wrote in an essay that his experience “as an avid fan of Bruce was going to do it, a little harder, a little less fun. ” Increasingly, Springsteen’s conservative fans have struggled to reconcile their love of his music with their aversion to his politics. “I share,” once said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Springsteen fanatic. [Springsteen’s activism] especially annoying, but I like his music, ”said Sean Hannity earlier this year.

When Springsteen played a benefit of McGovern, the Democrats were reliably supported by white Labor voters, and the Republicans were the party of big business and the rich. In the last 30 years, there has been a major reversal of class incorporation, culminating in the election of Trump; in 2016, white voters without college degrees favored Trump 64% to 28% over Clinton, and 65% voted for him in 2020, when they made up 42% of the total electorate. The characters in Springsteen songs – the disappointed Vietnam vet, the guy who earns his money by racing on the streets – they’re probably Trump supporters now. If the Democrats lose the House in next year’s midterm elections, it will be largely because the people who most resemble his characters no longer believe the same things he does.

Some people inherit their politics as a kind of birthright and join the same party as their parents. But there are families, like the Springsteens, for whom politics feels unimportant. One thing is to accept liberalism after growing up around liberals, and another to make your way to it despite never meeting a liberal while you were growing up. In “Renegades,” Springsteen outlines the slow but genuine path he took, beginning in a small town where patriotism was synonymous with waving the flag, and moving to an understanding that patriotism is not about the flag, but about the ideals that flag represents. . .

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