Bruce Springsteen's Artful Criticism of American Culture

This is an ambitious undertaking, weaving American history, popular culture, and Bruce Springsteen’s music into a cohesive narrative.

Bruce Springsteen: American Poet and Prophet

Publisher: Scarecrow
Length: 175 pages
Author: Donald L. Deardorff II
Price: $35.65
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-12

In the pursuit of truth, it's best to turn to art. More than politicians, journalists, and even teachers, artists have historically captured the human experience in its purest, primal form. Picasso’s Guernica, for example, shows the brutality of war more honestly than any political speech or news broadcast, and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street tackles American greed with an unbridled passion most politicians and media outlets could never match.

Donald L. Deardorff II reminds us of the artist's crucial significance in Bruce Springsteen: American Poet and Prophet, an engaging new study of the iconic rock star’s impact on American culture. In the pages of Deardorff’s accessibly written book, Springsteen’s music is taken seriously and given a thoughtful—if sometimes obvious—analysis, and it’s a welcome introduction to Springsteen’s cultural relevance.

Deardorff’s central argument that “Springsteen is a poet for his times, whose personal background and music met the changing psychological needs for so many people over five decades” is well-articulated and supported by song lyrics, interviews, and existing scholarship on Springsteen, American history, and American culture (xxxiii).

The first chapter, “Adam Raised a Cain: Biographical and Musical Influences”, is a straightforward introduction to “the events of Springsteen’s life and the musical influences that have shaped and reshaped his artistic vision over the course of his long and illustrious career” (xxxvi). Much of the information presented in this chapter will be familiar to Springsteen scholars and fans, but the novice will certainly benefit from Deardorff’s contextualization.

Chapter 2, “Those Romantic Young Boys: Reviving the Quest in the 1970s”, argues that Springsteen’s music in the early '70s “features young, often desperate characters trying to escape their circumstances in the quest for fulfillment” (23). Deardorff suggests that these characters are inspired by the cynical sentiment of the '70s, one that can be described as a “sea of alienation and discouragement, where the quest for fulfillment seemed all but lost” (39). With songs like “Born to Run”, "Mary, Queen of Arkansas”, “Blinded by the Flight”, and “Meeting Across the River”, Deardorff claims that Springsteen calls attention to life’s harsh caprice while simultaneously offering the “possibility of hope” (ibid.).

The next chapter, “Streets of Fire: Working-Class Heroes”, finds Deardorff focusing on Springsteen’s interest in the working-class, including his family and childhood friends. As Deardorff writes, “What [Springsteen] saw in their eyes was the sense of desperation and defeat that so many working-class people felt in the 1970s, and he wanted to give them a voice” (49). Here, Deardorff analyzes some of Springsteen’s most powerful albums, including Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska, and Wrecking Ball.

Chapter 4, “Boys Try to Look So Hard: Reinventing Masculinity”, is the most intriguing section of the book, as Deardorff demonstrates Springsteen’s fascination with “the men who were often encouraged to hide their pain, to suck it up, to stifle their complaints even as they were being victimized in ways that they didn't fully understand” (76). Springsteen is often credited for his ability to speak for disenfranchised groups of America, but rarely is he celebrated for his perceptive insights about masculinity. Songs like “The River”, “Downbound Train”, and “The Hitter” are just a few examples, in addition to nearly all of Tunnel of Love.

In the fifth chapter, “I had a Brother at Khe Sahn: Redefining Patriotism in an Age of War”, Deardorff describes Springsteen’s anti-war music. As he writes, “Angered by the effects of the [Vietnam] war and the government lies and cultural myths that trapped so many young men of his generation, Springsteen wrote many songs that gave voice to the veterans that America wanted to forget after the war ended so disastrously in 1975” (91). Born in the U.S.A. is Springsteen’s most commercially successful album in the United States, and it’s also his defiant anti-war stance. More recent albums like Magic find Springsteen attacking the Iraq War, thereby illustrating Springsteen’s lifelong devotion to the cause.

Chapter 6, “It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive: Social Justice”, suggests that Springsteen’s music reminds listeners of the suffering in the United States as a result of failed leadership and a broken economic system. According to Deardorff, Springsteen wants to draw attention to “those on the margins of American life and advocate for empathy as well as financial and political help for most in need” (107). Although this chapter is well-written and supported, it isn't necessary, and at times it feels repetitive.

The next chapter, “Deliver Me From Nowhere: Redemptive Myth”, is more successful. Deardorff argues that “the entire Springsteen canon plays out against a postmodern milieu in which many Americans have lost faith in several traditional narratives” (126). Among the “traditional narratives” Deardorff considers are a loss of faith in religion, government, marriage, and the American Dream. As a result, Springsteen’s albums like The Rising, Devils & Dust, Working on a Dream, and Wrecking Ball “reveal the culmination of his lifelong attempt to rescue his audience with a larger narrative that can be trusted to nurture and redeem” (ibid.). I imagine that this chapter will appeal to scholars the most, as it is more sophisticated and less obvious than others, and offers a number of original insights on Springsteen’s role in popular American culture.

The final chapter, “The Ministry of Rock ‘N’ Roll”, mirrors the first chapter in its attempt to contextualize. If the first chapter highlights Springsteen’s life and influences, this one illustrates the many artists Springsteen has inspired since his emergence in the '70s, including Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire, and Eric Church. Although most Springsteen fans and scholars will already know this information, this chapter is a clever way of proving Springsteen’s significance, which then makes a case for the existence of Deardorff’s book.

Bruce Springsteen: American Poet and Prophet is an ambitious undertaking, as it attempts to weave American history, popular culture, and Springsteen’s popular music into a cohesive narrative. Each chapter situates Springsteen’s music within the specific time period in which he worked, implying that Springsteen’s music was influenced by American culture and in turn, Springsteen refracted this culture through his personal lens, thereby making meaning for millions of downhearted Americans.

Complete with an historical timeline and suggestions for further reading and listening, Deardorff’s study is a useful resource for those who want to understand Springsteen’s significance more deeply.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.