Let us stipulate that Springsteen’s first two records with the E Street Band are pure bar rock, a docudrama of the dreams and doldrums of a beer-soaked long-hair desperate to get lucky and avoid anything like real work. (And I say all that with the utmost respect.) Let’s stipulate that even the third album, Born to Run, which the conventionally wise take to be Springsteen’s magnum opus, is a transitional work — the familiar bluster and bull cut through with hints of a creeping new fatalism. And let’s stipulate further still that it’s the masterful triptych that followed Born to Run — namely, Darkness at the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska — that established the mature Springsteen’s reputation as the at-turns-mournful-and-defiant bard of the Working Man.
The odd thing is that these three records were conceived, gestated, recorded, and released between 1975 and 1982. On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. It was an era bookended by recessions and shot through with stagflation, fertile ground for a trilogy of records about how the little guy can’t win for losing, as enshrined in soot-covered Springsteen songs like “Badlands,” “Factory,” “Atlantic City,” and “The River.” (The last contains the almost parodically quintessential Springsteen line: “I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company / But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy.”)
But, on the other hand, it was also a period in which the top marginal-income-tax rate was 70 percent. The top corporate tax rate was 48 percent. Income inequality — as measured by such things as the Gini coefficient and the amount of wealth held by the “1 percent” — was at its post-war low. The tinsel was just being put on the New Deal/Great Society welfare state, and a gentle, progressive philosopher-farmer had been elected president of the United States. The wealth was truly being spread.
Yet none of this is to be found in the Boss’s tales of dead-end jobs, dreams deferred and drag racing, lovers, losers and outlaws, sinners and sweethearts and racketeering and redemption. The population of Springsteenville may lament the shuttering of the auto plant in Mahwah (“Johnny 99”) and getting nothing but a union card and a shotgun wedding for their 19th birthdays (“The River”), but there’s no bailouts, no card check, and not a subsidized prophylactic in sight. When the state shows up at all, it’s usually in the form of Johnny Law chasing antiheroes in stolen hot rods. Politics — never mind liberal politics — simply has very little to do with Springsteen’s defining work.
That’s not to say you can’t situate High Springsteen in its socio-historical context, or understand his music as a vernacular reflection of the political quandaries of its time. But that’s not an unambiguous exercise, either. Bruce, I’m sure, would disagree emphatically, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to read Springsteen songs more and more as funeral dirges for a very particular political promise that died some time in the Seventies — namely, the promise that America’s long streak of post-war prosperity meant that the great liberal and great conservative priorities were mutually deliverable; that a universal middle class was achievable by some magic mix of entrepreneurialism and redistribution; that high taxes, anticompetitive regulation, and industrial planning were consistent with limitless growth; that the nuclear family and the white picket fence could survive the institutionalization of the Sixties. And so on. On this reading, Springsteen’s music is indeed about the “distance between the American Dream and American reality,” just not in the way he thinks it is.
Of course, it doesn’t matter if I’m right about this. It suffices to establish that you can map more than one politics onto Springsteen’s oeuvre — or at least onto the good stuff. It’s (sadly) true that, post 1982, Springsteen’s work has gotten more explicitly political even as it has grown increasingly uneven. Born in the U.S.A., a fine record notwithstanding some cringeworthy Eighties markers, takes on civil rights and Vietnam 20 years late. But ironically, it does so with such a poppy sound that a Reagan-reenergized public mistook it en masse for a piece of upbeat Americana and made it a No. 1 record. It’d be ten years and another recession before Bruce went political again on the pitch-black The Ghost of Tom Joad, which is exactly as much of a drag as it sounds. September 11 inspired Springsteen to return again after a seven-year absence and to produce his last great album, The Rising, an ecumenical rallying cry that perfectly distills the flag-waving days of resolve before everyone hated George W. Bush. Everything since then has been the story of Springsteen’s decline into a sort of conventionally liberal Woody Guthrie.
Part of this was probably inevitable. Like the president, Springsteen is a Baby Boomer, and now that the Boomers run the world, even the Boss is liable to take on a whiff of the company man. In 1980, Springsteen was staring flinty-eyed at a “Mansion on the Hill,” and now he’s raising money for Barack Obama at one.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.