One day in 1968, Bruce Springsteen received a draft notice from the Army, summoning him to join the Vietnam War. Springsteen was 19 and had dropped out of community college to focus on the two things he loved most: singing and playing the guitar. Springsteen didn’t want the Army because it was far away from the Jersey Shore’s rock clubs and also because he did not believe in war.
The previous year, civil rights protests in Newark, N.J., had spread 40 miles south to Freehold, Springsteen’s hometown. There was “rioting in Freehold,” Springsteen recalls in “Renegades: Born in the USA,” a new coffee table book that features a long conversation he and former President Obama had in summer 2020 about political awareness. The podcast is the same as theirs. Springsteen noticed that Black men were more represented in the Army than whites and had less economic opportunities than the other races. He told Obama that he felt the system was biased towards some of its citizens.
In the book, Springsteen, 72, also explains the background of his political awakening. Freehold is described by Springsteen as “a typical small, racist, American town”, a ur-American hamlet that hosts Memorial Day marches and VFW marches, and a “provincial, racist, American” American town. His parents were not interested in politics, but more worried about how they would pay the bills. Springsteen was in grade school when he asked his mother if they were Democrat or Republican. She replied that she was a Democrat because Democrats are for working people. Springsteen’s politics began to take shape mainly from current events and not his parents.
Springsteen successfully dodged the draft, he tells Obama, by pretending to be too stupid to fill out his draft papers. The Army had recently declared him 4-F after he was involved in a motorcycle accident. The closest he came to Vietnam was writing “Born in the U.S.A.,” an elegy for a soldier who died in the 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh.
“Renegades” doesn’t 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 of Springsteen and the E Street Band playing a flawless, herculean 90-minute set at Madison Square Garden as part of an antinuclear-power benefit concert. The DVD and CD were released in November. 16.) 256 One thing that is notable about his speech is the fact that he does not mention nuclear power.
For years, Springsteen had “demonstrated considerable unease 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 had performed at a fundraiser for George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, he admired singers like Bob Dylan, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, who were socially conscious but not expressly political. Although he didn’t declare himself to be a left-winger but people who listened to his songs found liberal themes. People on the right, however, heard conservative themes.
In 1982, Springsteen released “Nebraska,” a stark, joyless album about hard times during late capitalism, about “debts no honest man can pay” and the “meanness in this world.” Music critic Greil Marcus, in his review, called it “the most complete and probably the most convincing statement of resistance and refusal that Ronald Reagan’s USA has elicited from any artist or politician.”
Springsteen’s next album, “Born in the U.S.A.,” turned him into the world’s biggest rock star. The Republican Party, in its notorious Southern strategy, had been trying to reposition itself as the party that speaks for working people for more than a decade. Springsteen was his mother’s name. It’s no wonder that his stories of small-town life caught the attention Republicans.
A few days later, while then-President Reagan was campaigning for re-election in New Jersey, George Will wrote that he had no idea about Springsteen’s politics. However, he said that Springsteen’s songs were “a grand, joyful affirmation of American life: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”
A few days later, while then-President Reagan was campaigning for re-election in New Jersey, he spoke admiringly of “the message of hope in songs 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 cheerful affirmation? Was the message of hope contained in the death of a friend in “Born in the U.S.A.” and the violence against racial minorities in My Hometown “? No. But Springsteen used the iconography of the American flag often in the ’80s, and as he began to realize, iconography isn’t part of the message, it is the message. His music was now available to the right wing.
As part of the Born in America tour, he contributed money to and raised funds for local charities, most notably food banks. Later, he stated that he felt he could gain more credibility by being nonpartisan and still preserving his vision of progressivism for music. Springsteen criticized Reagan’s support of his music. But when asked by a reporter if he preferred Walter Mondale as Democratic candidate, he said that he didn’t feel any connection to electoral politics.
“There was always a 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 antiwar song “Last to Die” and its companion, “Magic,” about political trickery, both from the 2007 album “Magic,” and “Streets of Philadelphia,” the theme song to “Philadelphia,” which in 1993 was the first Hollywood movie to address 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 mistaken identity. This was a song the GOP couldn’t co-opt — Mayor Rudolph Giuliani condemned it, and the president of the country’s largest police organization called the singer a “dirtbag.”
Springsteen’s politics, Masciotra adds, “are in the best of the American progressive tradition: an emphasis on the common ground of class interests and working people’s struggles set against exploitation of labor from the corporate class and the political system that enables it, plus a radical and 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. Still, Masciotra says, “he wasn’t comfortable or at least confident expressing his politics in more explicit terminology.”
Twenty years after “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen gave up nonpartisanship to headline the 2004 Vote for Change tour, which featured musicians from Babyface to R.E.M., focused on registering young voters in swing states and advocated for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who was running against incumbent George W. Bush.
“Why did you stay away from being actively involved in partisan politics for so long?,” Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner asked Springsteen in a 2004 interview.
“Sitting on the sidelines would be a betrayal of the ideas I’d written about for a long time. Springsteen responded that not getting involved, but just keeping my silence or being coy about the matter, was not going to work this time around. This election, he added, “is a time to be very specific about where I stand.”
The issues Springsteen cited in that interview are uniformly prescient: an emerging oligarchy in the U.S., economic inequality between rich and poor, the way politicians erase the line between truth and lies, the toxic influence of Fox News and the media’s devotion to appearing impartial are issues that have only grown in significance. These issues are a large part of the discussion in “Renegades,” despite Springsteen and Obama avoiding referring to Donald Trump as the personification of these issues.
After Vote for Change, Springsteen not only declared his support for Obama during the 2008 race but he also performed at campaign appearances and, later, at Obama’s inauguration. He’s been a Democratic Party royalty since then. In 2016, he played at an election eve rally for Hilary Clinton in Philadelphia and also endorsed her, while calling her opponent Trump a “flagrant 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 performed at Biden and Kamala Harris’ inauguration event.
Predictably, Springsteen’s advocacy has led to many charges from the right that he’s a “limousine liberal” who’s out of touch with America and who should shut up and sing. Anyone who doesn’t see the connection between Springsteen’s songs and his politics isn’t paying attention. During the Vote for Change tour in 2004, Wall Street Journal editor Phil Kuntz wrote in an essay that his experience “as a diehard Bruce fan was about to become a little more difficult, a little less fun.” Increasingly, Springsteen’s conservative fans have struggled to reconcile their love of his music with their disgust at his politics. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, “I compartmentalize.” Chris Christie, Springsteen fanatic, once stated. Sean Hannity stated earlier this year that “I find [Springsteen’s activism], particularly annoying, but he music is my favorite.” When Springsteen performed at a McGovern benefit in 2016, the Democrats were supported by white working-class voters. The Republicans were the party for big business and the wealthy. In the last 30 years, there’s been a significant inversion of class affiliation, culminating in Trump’s election; in 2016, white voters without a college degrees favored Trump 64% to 28% over Clinton, and 65% voted for him in 2020, when they comprised 42% of the total electorate. Springsteen’s characters — the disillusioned Vietnam veteran, the man who races in the streets for his money — are likely Trump supporters. The reason the Democrats will lose the House in next year’s midterm elections is that the people closest to his characters don’t believe the same things as him.
Some people inherit politics as a sort of birthright and choose to join the same party their parents are in. For some families, such as the Springsteens’, politics is irrelevant. It’s one thing for someone to accept liberalism as a child, but it’s another to try to make it happen despite not having ever met a liberal like you did growing up. Springsteen describes the slow, authentic journey he took to understand that patriotism wasn’t just about the flag.