The Undercover Boss
On conservatism and Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen performs for Team Obama in Parma, Ohio, October 18, 2012.


Daniel Foster

Listen to his voice.

That’s the first thing I tell people who ask me how I can reconcile my ongoing (knock wood) employment at National Review with my Bruce Springsteen partisanship — as many did after the Obama campaign carted out the Boss in Ohio last week to shill for four more years of Hope Things Change.

Now, I’m not the first portly conservative from Jersey who has been called on to square his politics with his taste in music. In a lengthy profile on the subject, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg asked Governor Chris Christie, whose love for the Boss borders on the monomaniacal, how he maintained such enthusiasm for a man who treats the governor with active indifference and the governor’s politics with blasting contempt. Christie’s response was subtle and manifold and all too familiar to me, but it boiled down to: “I compartmentalize.” And indeed, there’s a lot to that. Folks on the right understand better than anybody that the contours of a man’s aesthetic imagination are not reducible to or derivable from his fiscal-policy preferences. And if political conservatives consumed only popular culture made by other political conservatives, Pat Boone would still be flying off the shelves of Walmarts all across the heartland.

So yes, we compartmentalize. But I’ve got news for you: So does Bruce.

Just listen to his voice. Springsteen grew up in Freehold, one of the innumerable quiet, Catholic towns in the hinterlands of Jersey between the City and the Shore. Linguistically, he comes from the fringe of the New York dialectical region, where o’s turn into aw’s and r’s are enunciated or elided with caprice. Travel 20 miles west and you’re into Philly territory, where water is wooter and “wit” is a preposition, not a gift for repartee. Now, as a kid who was born outside Philadelphia and grew up in North Jersey, Springsteen should sound, roughly, like me. But he doesn’t. He sounds like a world-weary, middle-aged Huckleberry Finn. “Thiseer’s a song called ‘Livin’ in the Future,’” he growled at a concert at the old Giants Stadium that I covered a few years ago. “But it’s ’bout what’s happenin’ right nah.”

Does this bother me? Not one teensy little bit. As I wrote at the time, and you’ll have to forgive me for quoting myself:

Like his musical godfather Bob Dylan — who on arriving in New York spun bulls*** tales of his exploits as a cowboy and boxcar vagabond for anybody who’d listen — Springsteen understands that it is the job of a folk hero to be larger than life, to bring to his particularity an impossible universality.


So the voice that said “Hello Jersey!” at around 8:30, sending up a frenetic roar from the crowd, is cut from whole cloth, a mix of Midwestern clip and southern twang that is miles and years from the Irish-Italian kid who grew up down the Shore. A bit of a noble lie as a means of conveying The Truth.

And so that’s what I tell people when they ask me how a conservative can pay the cost to love The Boss. It’s not the man, you see, that I’m cranking up on the car stereo that cost more than my ’94 Cherokee is worth. It’s the character. The alter ego. The voice.

Fine, you say. But Springsteen’s “voice” — his music — is every bit as liberal as he is, no? Does he not say all the time — did he not say in Ohio — that his music is about “the distance between the American Dream and American reality”?

Sure, Bruce says that. But the truth — The Truth — is not nearly so simple.