HACKENSACK, N.J. — “Banker man grows fatter, the working man grows thin.” “Send the robber barons straight to hell.” The message of Bruce Springsteen’s bare-knuckle recession broadside, “Wrecking Ball,” couldn’t be clearer.
So what happens now? Do the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J. (Tuesday and Wednesday), Madison Square Garden in New York (Friday and April 9) and Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. (May 2) become seething cauldrons of revolutionary activity, as 20,000 Bruce fans prepare to man the barricades to save America from the Wall Street hyenas? Do right-wingers loudly demand to see Springsteen’s birth certificate?
Or will Springsteen’s fans, on the left and right, continue to tailgate in the parking lot, chug beer and discuss whether Bruce — this time — will sing “Rosalita”? Just how real is Springsteen’s increasingly upfront role as a social gadfly?
“I think he’s sincere,” said promoter John Scher, who knew Springsteen in the early days and brought him several times to his Capitol Theatre in Passaic, N.J. “But everything about Bruce Springsteen is complicated.”
It’s been obvious, for years, that Springsteen has been positioning himself as heir apparent to Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger — artists who used their music as a force for social change. And just as obviously, this prompts questions.
Some of them are superficial: How can Springsteen adopt an archetypical poor-boy persona, when he is in fact a millionaire with a 378-acre horse farm in Colts Neck, N.J.? (Historically, the rich always speak for the poor; the poor don’t have the media access to speak for anybody.)
More important, how is it that a guy who speaks consistently — often scathingly — from a left-of-center position seems to raise so few hackles? Why does he continue to have fans on both the left and right? And is that a measure of his success, or his failure?
“I’ve always puzzled over this myself,” said Glenn Stuart, frontman for The B Street Band, a Springsteen tribute that found itself, in January 2010, at the center of this ball of confusion. It happened when Chris Christie, the new Republican governor of New Jersey, asked Springsteen to sing at his inaugural bash.
Christie is on record as the First Fan: he claims to have seen Springsteen 126 times. When The Boss declined the invitation, The B Street Band was brought in to play instead. “We played for so many people who you’d almost think would be antithetical to what (Springsteen) says,” Stuart said.
Nor was Christie’s ardor dampened by Springsteen’s 2010 snub: Last week, he asked Springsteen if he would consider playing the new $2.4 billion Revel casino in Atlantic City. “I think Labor Day at Revel would be an incredible show of support for his home state, and for all those working men and women,” Christie said. The new album, the governor admitted, was “a little dark,” but given New Jersey’s “comeback,” we should see “more optimistic music from Bruce going forward.”
Back in 2010, Springsteen’s response to the governor-elect was reportedly polite: He didn’t want to get involved in state politics, he said, and wished the new governor every success. But it was widely assumed that Springsteen declined because of his own politics.
There’s certainly no question that The Boss has gotten more political in the years since his “Born in the U.S.A.” was misappropriated as a Reagan-right anthem. In 2004, through the Vote for Change tour, he campaigned for John Kerry; in 2008, he performed at Barack Obama events in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.
What’s odd is how little difference this seems to make in his broad-based appeal. Christie still loves him. No one ever demands that he be banned from the radio, like The Dixie Chicks (Glenn Beck, in a 2010 broadcast, did call “Born in the U.S.A.” “anti-American,” but even he didn’t call for a boycott). No one ever calls Springsteen a “socialist,” though on the evidence of this most recent album, he may be closer to one than Obama ever was alleged to be. Blue-collar conservatives and liberal college professors who can’t find any other common ground can all agree on one thing: Springsteen is awesome.
“It’s always amazed me that he’s never been Dixie Chicked,” said Stuart, whose own band personnel — tellingly — runs the whole political spectrum (they try not to discuss politics, Stuart added).
“The only thing I can figure, people focus on his success and perseverance,” Stuart said. “Either they don’t hear what he’s saying, or they just overlook it.”
Does Bruce perhaps make it easy — too easy — to overlook? “Born in the U.S.A.” is about an embittered Vietnam vet, true, but the uplifting music and throbbing mantra “BORN IN THE U.S.A.!” almost beg to be misinterpreted (“We Take Care of Our Own,” the anthem from the new album, seems to be causing similar confusion).
Springsteen tends to deal in archetypes. The hard-luck working stiff in his new song “Jack of All Trades” is a John Steinbeck character from 1935, not an outsourced computer programmer from 2012. Unlike the Dixie Chicks, he doesn’t name names or point fingers at specific people. It’s “robber barons,” not Bernie Madoff, “banker men,” not Goldman Sachs. Scher, for one, thinks his message suffers because he’s not more forthright.
“He certainly wants to be heard, but in order to have that kind of impact, he’d have to overtly speak about things he’s only hinted at,” Scher said. “That’s a decision he has to make. Is he willing to step up for these ideas and risk losing some people?”
Others would say Springsteen’s ability to speak in broad terms, to broad audiences, is his special genius. “His choice of language is not divisive,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor who teaches a course on Springsteen at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College.
Springsteen, he says, trades in words that, since the 1980s, seem to have become the special property of the right: “home,” “flag,” “work,” “blood.” Yet he uses those terms in service of a progressive agenda. And he delivers them with a common-man touch. How to sum up Springsteen? Borick made an attempt, in a paper he wrote in 2009 with David Rosenwasser. “He’s got a Democratic ideology, a Republican vocabulary, and a populist delivery system,” they wrote. In other words, he may be the big-tent politician that everyone, from Mitt Romney to Obama, has tried to be.
“I think he’s walked the line incredibly well over his career,” Borick said. “When we go to shows, we always tailgate outside, and we talk to people. Many of them are conservative. All of them say, ‘I love (Springsteen).’ Even though we disagree in our particular politics.”