In 1975 Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen's magnificent third album, crashed on to American radio with a dramatic lyrical intensity riding a rushing wall of rock and soul. Time and Newsweek put him on their covers in the same week and at 26 he found himself, along with Bob Dylan, as the newest avatar in the tradition of popular artists that, beginning with Walt Whitman and rolling on through Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and John Steinbeck have brought a sympathetic poetic attention to the lives and struggles of ordinary Americans.
Springsteen has redeemed that promise for almost forty years with a rare ability to match artistic integrity with popular success. He's brought an astonishing commitment to three hour long shows that offer audiences a sense of community and solidarity rather than the spectacle into which popular music has often descended. And his abundance of albums and songs have often allowed audiences to feel that the music is about them and for them, or about people who may seem different but are ultimately like them, rather than an invitation to worship at the alter of celebrity. Springsteen is cited as an influence by filmmakers, writers, actors and musicians from Run-D.M.C. to Ani diFranco.
Springsteen has twice recorded albums that have become part of the collective experience and memory of a generation. In 1984 Born in the USA, with the rousing chorus of the title track famously misunderstood by Ronald Reagan, became a national soundtrack to a moment. And in 2002 The Rising, drawing on Sufi devotional music and informed by conversations with families who had lost relatives to the attacks on the World Trade Centre, became the definitive popular attempt to make sense of 9/11. Springsteen has also recorded albums that were never designed for the charts but have an integrity and creative intensity that gives them a slow burning power that inspires people, and all kinds of new artistic work, year after year.
Nebraska, released in 1982 is a lyrically and sonically stark take on the underside of Regan's America. In 1995 The Ghost of Tom Joad, an exquisite album initially inspired by John Ford's classic cinematic interpretation of John Steinbeck's great novel, The Grapes of Wrath, marked a shift in the staging of Springsteen's characters from the streets of New Jersey to Southern California. The Marys gave way to Marias and the strategy for getting out changed from a fast car out of small town New Jersey to a slow walk across the desert and from Mexico into California.
Springsteen has become more politically committed as he has got older. His 2006 album, The Seeger Sessions, a rambunctious foot stomping jol of a collection of old folk songs that had been recorded by the communist folk singer Pete Seeger, was an important moment in that trajectory. Forging a direct connection to the popular radicalism of the folk tradition, often linked to the labour and communist movements, has enabled Springsteen to, like all the figures in the tradition stretching back to Whitman, develop a vision of America that is inclusive and directly committed to the struggles of ordinary women and men to win and hold a place in America. This willingness to contest the meaning of the American promise is critically important in a time when conservative elites are, in a manner that has collapsed into straight-up lunacy in the Republican Party, trying to tie patriotism into militarism, war, religious fundamentalism and the vicious scapegoating of blacks, gay people, migrants, single mothers and anyone else on to whom they can deflect popular anger.
But Springsteen's new album, Wrecking Ball, released on the 6th of March, marks a decisive shift in his public politics. It includes elements that have long marked his work - laments for stillborn dreams and lives that haven't been able to come to bloom as well as hymns to endurance and solidarity. But there are also striking differences with his earlier work. For one thing the musical pallet that he draws on in this album – which includes gospel, country, Irish jigs, hip-hop, drum loops and samples from Alan Lomax's recordings of American roots music - is broader than on any previous album. And this album, which is largely about men and work, is also a straightforward call to battle in the tradition of the radical popular culture of the 1930s. Springsteen has written martial calls to overcome before but they've taken the form of a call to personal escape or perseverance and community in difficult times. Here he issues a direct call to arms against a system where 'The gambling man rolls the dice/Working man pays the bills':
"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"
In 'Jack of All Trades' he sings to keep up the faith of a man willing to do anything for a buck while 'The banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin'. But there's also a new and more directly confrontational sentiment:
"So you use what you've got and you learn to make do
You take the old, you make it new
If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight"
Springsteen's work has been preoccupied with war since the drummer in his first band was sent to Vietnam and didn’t come back. He's often contrasted the prospects of returning veterans with the promise of America to implicitly raise the question of exactly who is fighting for what and for whom. In Youngstown, a lament to the world lost with the deindustrialisation of America on The Ghost of Tom Joad album, he had observed that 'Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do'. On Wrecking Ball this idea is fleshed out. He returns to his song My Hometown, another lament, this time off the Born in the USA album in which he sang that:
"They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back"
This time around, in Death to My Home Town, the lament has turned into an Irish rebel song, a war song backed by Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine on guitar that declares that:
"No shells ripped the evening sky, no cities burning down
No army stormed the shores for which we'd die, no dictators were crowned
I awoke from a quiet night, I never heard a sound
The marauders raided in the dark and brought death to my hometown, boys
Death to my hometown
They destroyed our families, factories, and they took our homes
They left our bodies on the plains, the vultures picked our bones"
But while this album is a call to arms its militant will to confrontation, to ensure that 'the money changers in this temple will not stand', is also, in some respects, a symptom of regression. In Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen's sublime fourth album released in 1978, dreams and desires for a better life are posed against work. Factory, based on his father's experience of factory work, gives, in a little over two minutes, a searing critique of alienated labour:
"End of the day, factory whistle cries,
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.
And you just better believe, boy,
Somebody's gonna get hurt tonight,
It's the working, the working, just the working life."
Just over thirty years later Springsteen is singing that:
"Freedom, son, is a dirty shirt
The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt...
Pick up the rock, son, carry it on
What's a poor boy to do but keep singing his song"
He's not alone in this nostalgia for work as it used to be for people in union jobs before capital extracted itself from social obligation by stepping into a global arena while unions and elected representatives were left, at best, on a national stage. He used to lament exploitation and drudgery.
Now he sings a lament to the lives lost to the monster whose taste for flesh has no regard to skills or faith:
"We've been swallowed up
Disappeared from this world"
In the face of social abandonment exploitation often seems attractive and Springsteen's nostalgia is certainly not his alone. But this nostalgia is a mark of how much has been lost to the marauding alliance of politicians and capitalists that promised a brave new world for everyone and left devastation for the majority while they grew fabulously rich behind botox, designer labels, high walls and increasingly brutal police.
Springsteen supported the Obama campaign in 2008. He's indicated that he's unlikely to do the same this year and has made it clear that this album is both inspired by and for the Occupy movement. It's too early to say whether or not Wrecking Ball will become one of the Springsteen albums that marks a moment in time. But the first performance of some of the new songs at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem over the weekend was received with rapturous acclaim.
The bankers, who are still taking their bonuses but are starting to show some signs of panic – like paying universities to tell students that Ayn Rand is a philosopher and an important contributor to American literature, must be starting to get the sense that the tide is turning against the lie that we all have a stake in their wealth.
- Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. Originally published by The South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS) under a Creative Commons License