October 20, 2020

In September 1984, the bow-tied conservative columnist and Ronald Reagan adviser George Will turned up at a Bruce Springsteen concert, and came away with a message for a country just two months away from a presidential election:

“If all Americans — in labor and management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles — made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about protectionism”.[1]

For Will, Springsteen was a model of virulent American masculinity, who, without a “smidgen of androgyny, resembles Robert de Niro in the combat scenes of the Deer Hunter”. Embodying traditional American values of “community” and “family”, Springsteen’s music impressed on his fans the need to “downsize” their expectations. “It is music for saying good-bye to Peter Pan: Life is real, life is earnest, life is a lot of work…”

In Springsteen, Will believed he had found a potential ally for a resurgent Republican Party that had four years previous swept the “Rust Belt” states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. In that year, Ronald Reagan had broken the Democrats’ hold on the working-class in a political realignment that will be familiar to observers of the Conservatives’ smashing of England’s “Red Wall” in 2019.

 

No doubt distracted by the red, white and blue in which the stage was decked that night, George Will clearly misunderstood his man. For like the many millions of Americans that bought Springsteen’s Born in the USA, still one of the best-selling records of all time, it is unlikely he would have been aware of its predecessor, Nebraska. Recorded by Springsteen on a simple four-track tape machine, the album was a howl of American despair delivered in idiomatic, first-person narration by a cast of teenage murderers, corrupt policemen and out-of-work men driven to petty crime.

On Born in the USA, the E Street Band’s exuberant ‘heartland rock’ of synthesisers, squealing guitars and soaring saxophone solos, belies a strikingly similar theme. Its opener, for instance, infamously played by the Reagan camp on the campaign trail, tells the story of a young Vietnam veteran who returns to his hometown to find himself shut out of employment opportunities:

“Down in the shadow of the penitentiary, out by the gas fires of the refinery. I’m 10 years burning down the road, nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.”

The album’s narrators work traditionally masculine jobs: on the railways, on the roads, in lumberyards, and at the refinery, but they are far from the no-nonsense blue-collar heroes of George Will’s reckoning. They are vulnerable, cheated by the system, and deprived of meaningful work like the narrator in “Downbound Train” who loses his job and ends up working “down at the car wash where all it ever does is rain”.

The album sleeve captures its contradictions. It depicts a macho, blue-jeaned Springsteen, back to camera, facing the American flag. It could be interpreted either as an expression of blue-collar patriotism or as an ironic call on America to fill the widening gulf between the American Dream and the American Reality.

These contradictions ­— between community and freedom from responsibility, between patriotism and alienation, between responsibility and redemption at the end of the road — lie at the heart of Springsteen’s work. They are also the contradictory values that define ‘Springsteenland’, the psychological and political geography that will decide next month’s presidential election.

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Bruce Springsteen was born in 1949 in Freehold, New Jersey — a small industrial town half an hour inland from the east coast — to Irish and Italian-descended parents. His mother, who worked as a legal secretary, provided the family’s main source of income. His father, who bounced between various blue-collar jobs, struggled with bouts of mental illness and alcoholism. Springsteen has written that Nebraska was made for the kitchen in which his father silently brooded, “the stillness covering a red misting rage”.

Springsteen’s first major success as a musician, Born to Run, was released in 1975 in the wake of the oil shock which saw working-class wages fall for the first time since the war. Its anthem, “Thunder Road”, introduces one of Springsteen’s most enduring themes: the car as a vehicle for escape to a “promised land”. But even here, the narrator, who appears outside the house of his love interest Mary one summer night knows that whatever choice they make will mean taking responsibility for their actions: “The door’s open but the ride ain’t free”.

But it is on 1978’s Darkness at the Edge of Town and 1980’s The River, that Springsteen both literally and figuratively “puts on his father’s clothes”. The E Street Band drives the listener out into the American heartland, leaving the boardwalks  of New Jersey behind. The car features heavily once more, but it offers only a temporary reprieve, more often transporting the working-class narrators back into the bitter landscape of the past.

There is cautious optimism on these records, but there are also valleys of despair. There is an increasing pessimism with the American experience itself: a sense that the good times have reached the end of their road.

1982’s Nebraska is Springsteen’s nadir: a barren land of perpetual darkness. The car becomes an almost ironic symbol in the wake of the collapse of the Fordist social order; the effects of which are “easily measurable in statistics in crime, fatherless children, broken trust, reduced opportunities for and outcomes from education”, as Francis Fukuyama writes in The Great Disruption.

This social deterioration led to the emptying out of places like Youngstown, Ohio — whose population fell from 166,000 in 1960 to just 65,000 in 2016 — and culminated in the opioid crisis which killed almost half a million Americans. These effects fractured the New Deal coalition, which produced Democratic majorities in both Houses for all but four years between 1933 and 1981. As Springsteenland — in the face of economic hardship and successive culture wars — switched allegiance to the Republicans, the Democrats abandoned Springsteenland and beat a trail back to the big cities.

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Springsteenland, then, is a psychological condition as much as a geographical entity. It certainly couldn’t be drawn on a map. Loosely though it stretches from the old mill towns of Massachusetts to the Badlands of Wyoming, as far south as the Carolinas. It bypasses the big cities, encompassing small-town America. Its would-be citizens have a cautious optimism — a defiance in the face of difficult circumstances — but too often their lives are blighted by despair.

It’s no stretch to imagine Springsteen’s out-of-work narrators, now in their sixties and seventies, among the ranks of Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ in 2016. For while Clinton failed to speak for Springsteenland at all, Trump was adept at speaking to its despair, characterising it in his inaugural address as a land of “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones”; a wasteland littered with the aftermath of “American Carnage”, stretching from the “urban sprawl of Detroit” to the “windswept plains of Nebraska”. It is the end of the road, but it is no promised land.

If there is any candidate that ought to be able to negotiate the geography of Springsteenland then it is Joe Biden. Born in Pennsylvania, just seven years before Springsteen, Biden’s family moved to Delaware, which borders Springsteen’s own New Jersey, when he was 10.

If Trump is Springsteenland’s Nebraska, then Biden is its heartland. It may be a stretch to imagine a septuagenarian emerging out of a balmy summer night in a hot-rod, but his is a brand of cautious optimism and straight-talking realism that characterises so many of Springsteen’s heroes.

But beyond his cautious optimism, Biden is no stranger to despair either. His wife and one-year old daughter were killed in a car crash shortly after his election to the Senate in 1972. His eldest son, Beau, an Iraq War veteran, died of brain cancer in 2010. In his convention speech, Biden emerges into the election glare out of a “season of darkness”. The darkness is Trump and it is coronavirus, and Biden, who has seen so much tragedy, speaks to the tragic sense of Springsteenland, which has buried so many of the dead.

[1] George F. Will, “Bruce Springsteen’s U.S.A.,” Washington Post, Thursday, September 13, 1984, p. A-19