#253: Bruce Springsteen, "The River" (1980)

The first time Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” was on November 5, 1980, the night after Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. “I don’t know what you thought about what happened last night,” Bruce told the audience at Arizona State University,  “but I thought it was pretty frightening.” The Tempe show is a milestone in Springsteen lore, cited as the first time the Boss spoke about politics publicly. Four years later he would release Born in the U.S.A., one of the most politically charged, and subsequently misappropriated, rock ‘n’ roll albums of all time.

But if you listen through the lyrics of those six records before Born in the U.S.A., you realize that Bruce’s music has always been political. With a technique he learned from Bob Dylan, he creates characters to appeal to a listener's morality: Mary, Queen of Arkansas; Outlaw Pete; Spanish Johnny and other tramps like us. In his memoir, Born to Run, Bruce writes:  “I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on.” We can never assume that the narrator of the song is him. And in that way, Bruce Springsteen is as much of a politician as he is a rock star.

There many reasons why Hillary Clinton is not president right now. When Wikileaks published excerpts of a speech she gave to Goldman Sachs, a line about having “both a public and a private opinion” revived the characterization of Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy, corrupt, queen of the establishment. (The quote, unsurprisingly taken out of context, was paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, and not made in reference to Wall Street reform.) For her entire career, Hillary has been accused of pandering, contradicting herself, and containing multitudes. But for her to have gotten as far as she did, there had to be several Hillarys: the policy wonk, the mother, the feminist, the down-to-earth daughter of a man who made window drapes. And likely due more to misogyny than incompetence, her performances fell flat. “The life of a rock band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself, and [they] can look up at you and see themselves,” Bruce told MTV’s Kurt Loder in 1984. “If the price of fame is that you have to be isolated from the people you write for, then that’s too fuckin’ high a price to pay.”

Humility and authenticity are tenants of all of Bruce’s personas. In my favorite song, he sings: “Now I’m no hero—that’s understood.” My boyfriend recently asked me if Bruce had ever done or said anything that disappointed me, and I couldn’t think of anything. It was a few days later that I remembered I had written an academic paper not even a year ago about how Springsteen appropriates black culture in his stage performances, most egregiously when he speaks in the voice of a black preacher. And as an academic I stand behind this criticism, but his approval rating in my mind hasn’t budged. My love for Bruce is inherent—I respond to his music viscerally, not intellectually. I have both started and ended romances because of Bruce Springsteen. The River came out the year my parents met, and I can’t listen that album without imagining them falling in love, which might disqualify me from evaluating the album in any culturally meaningful way. My father has seen him more times than he can remember, and took me to my first Boss show when I was in high school. We had the worst seats in the house: behind the stage, in the very last row of the 18,277-seat Verizon Center in Washington D.C. I’ve since seen him a dozen more times, including a few shows where I made it to the front pit, but that first one when I stood next to my father in shared awe remains the most meaningful. Even with his back to us, Bruce still appeared to have as much faith in us as we had in him.

Bruce re-released The River in a box set at the end of 2015, accompanied by a massive tour in which the E Street Band would play the entire double album—20 tracks—all the way through. In April 2016, two days before he was scheduled to play a show at the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina, Bruce announced that he was cancelling the show to protest the HB2 law that prohibited transgendered individuals from using the bathroom of their preference, and further obstructed protections for the LGBT community. He posted a statement to his website explaining his decision, writing,  “Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry—which is happening as I write—is one of them.” And while tickets were fully refunded, many fans posted their distress to social media:

So disappointed in you. Did you forget the little people? The ones that paid a week’s salary to see you play? You could have made this statement another way.

I am shocked and sad that Springsteen takes this stance against normal people and against protections for women and children. Giving in to vile sinful culture seems to be all you care about when it may affect your popularity among liberals.

Bad move Boss. Many people will miss a chance on seeing a great show because of the ignorance of a few lawmakers. Music should be bigger than politics.

It’s a fallacious argument Bruce has bumped into many times before: celebrities should stay out of politics for the sake of their fans. (Ironic, considering how many of those speaking out against Bruce’s cancellation likely voted for Donald Trump.) Springsteen’s music, and the characters he embodies, appeal equally to the white working class and the bourgeois, to conservatives and liberals. He is both Jon Stewart’s and Chris Christie’s favorite musician. And despite the “Bruce Springsteen for President” T-shirts and bumper stickers floating around, he knows the limits of his power. Politicians let people down, and rock stars help them back on their feet. Bruce manages to do both.

In an interview with Marc Maron after the 2016 election, Bruce described his fear of a Trump presidency as distinct from his reaction to Reagan’s, saying, “I’ve felt disgust before, but never the kind of fear that you feel now. It’s as simple as the fear of, is someone simply competent enough to do this particular job? Do they simply have the pure competence to be put in the position of such responsibility?” He did express sympathy for blue-collar Trump voters, a number of whom identify as Boss fans:

“I think if you were affected deeply by the industrialization, globalization, and the technological advances, and you have been left behind, and somebody comes along and tells you ‘I’m gonna bring all the jobs back. Don’t worry about it. They’re all coming back.’ You’re concerned about America changing, the browning of America—‘I’m gonna build a wall’....These are all very simplistic, but very powerful and simple ideas.” He added: “They’re lies. They can’t occur.”

Rock ‘n’ roll is also a powerful and simple idea—the notion that anyone with a hungry heart can find redemption in three chords, no matter what family you were born into. It might very well be a lie. The person on stage—holding a guitar or at a podium—might be in character, might just be after your money or your vote and nothing else.

There has been a significant protest in Washington, D.C. every day since Donald Trump got elected. Marchers often sing the chorus of “This Land Is Your Land,” as the lyrics have new resonance after the Muslim Ban went into effect. Nobody knows the words to the verses, one of which includes an obvious socialist message. But they sing it anyway, in several keys at once.

“I don’t think people come to music for political advice,” Bruce once said. “They come to be touched and moved and inspired....people aren’t coming on an informational basis. I was attracted to Dylan because he sounded like he was telling the truth. I didn’t sit there with a lyric sheet. It was just in the way it sounded.”


One of the last times I saw my grandmother, my dad and I sat with her as she slid into and out of consciousness on a hospital bed. We still talked to her, but it was unclear how much she could comprehend at that point. To ease the tension, my dad turned on the TV and flipped through the channels. Bruce Springsteen: Live in New York was playing on HBO.

“That’s my hero, Mom,” he told her, to no response. I had never heard my father speak to his mother like that, like how he might have spoken to her when he was a little boy. Your parents are the first politicians you know; from them, you learn how to read the room. I think he was taking his last chance to introduce her to another version of her son, and the people and things he believed in.

On the little screen, Bruce bellowed, asking us as he had so many times before: “Is there anybody alive out there?”

As my grandmother slept, my dad and I watched the rest of the concert in silence. The answer was understood.

—Susannah Clark