On Bruce Springsteen’s Music in Film and TV

Bruce Springsteen's music in film and television captured author Caroline Madden's imagination. She discuses her book, Springsteen as Soundtrack, and other things Springsteen in this interview.

Springsteen as Soundtrack: The Sound of the Boss in Film and Television
Caroline Madden
January 2020

While millions claim to be fans of Bruce Springsteen, only an extra-dedicated few have taken the plunge and written an entire book devoted to analyzing the nuances of the Boss’ extensive discography. In her debut tome Springsteen as Soundtrack: The Sound of the Boss in Film and Television, Caroline Madden explores how Springsteen’s music has been used in a variety of film and television projects to underscore political concerns, character motivations, and settings both temporal and place-based–to name but a few elements.

A writer and scholar who hails from Springsteen’s home state of New Jersey, Madden dives deeply into works both well-known (Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, David Chase’s The Sopranos) and more obscure (John Sayles’ Baby It’s You, Edward Burns’ No Looking Back), showing how the Boss’ music has inspired and endured across media for decades.

Let’s warm up with something easy. Is it “sways” or “waves” [as in, “Mary’s dress from “Thunder Road”]? This debate has consumed the internet

I always heard it as “waves”. And then when I thought through the lyrics, I was like, “Oh, I guess it’s ‘sways’.” “Waves” sounds better.

Could it be “swayves”, and he invented a new word?

So… What made you start listening to Bruce? What’s your history with his music, and how did this book-writing adventure come about?

I grew up in New Jersey. When I was about in fourth grade—it was in 2003 —so maybe fifth grade. My mom got the Essential Bruce [2003] album. And we would always listen to [a tape of it] in the car. At the time, I was obsessed with Back to the Future and 1980s stuff, so I really liked “Dancing in the Dark”. I liked “Born in the USA”. That was my first exposure to Bruce.

But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation [1994]. It has a lot of Bruce references. She talks about the song “The Promise”. It’s an outtake from Darkness [on the Edge of Town] [1987]. When I listened to it, I was awestruck with how deep the song is. I got into exploring more of his catalogue, and it just snowballed from there.

In terms of writing a book, I was reading as much as I could about Bruce. There are all kinds of books on Bruce–a lot of them cover, as one would expect, religion or politics. But there was nothing that talked about his music film. In so many interviews, or even in the biography Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin [2012], you really get the sense that Bruce is a cinephile.


Marshall Amp by tookapic (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Top three favorite albums?

Top three favorite albums?

Top five.

Born to Run [1975]. Tunnel of Love [1989]. And I I really like Devils and Dust [2005] a lot. If we’re going to do two more, I would say Born in the USA [1984] and Magic [2007].

I grew up in a Springsteen household. My dad was always playing his music. I have so many memories of Tracks [1998] and saying, “Oh, I like this song. What disc is it? Is it on disc one? Is it on disc four?” I used to do ballet. “Thundercrack” resonated because it has that line: “She’s got the heart of a ballerina.” So that’s “my” Bruce song.

Oh, I love it.

It’s just such a fun little jam song. You just think, “these are a bunch of dudes jamming and having fun. This is obviously never going on like a real album.” But there are so many great songs on Tracks, like “This Hard Land”.

How is that only–I’m sure I mean no offense to Tracks–but how is that on a compilation album? I see a lot of analysis of that song in terms of Bruce’s relationship with gender and sexuality, but also analysis of the protagonists he’s sympathizing with. I also have early memories of hearing “Sherry Darling”.

Right now my favorite Springsteen album is disc one of The River [1980]. It’s such a front-loaded album. I also have really strong memories of The Rising [2002], when we visited family for Thanksgiving in New York, driving through gray woods and hearing these songs. That makes it one of my favorites, just by default. I also really like We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions [2006].

I love The Seeger Sessions.

We had that in rotation for a while.

I slept on those for so long. But then I thought: “wait. I love folk music. Why aren’t I into this? It’s incredible.

So, you’re thinking about “Wow, Bruce Springsteen not only thinks about his music in a cinematic way, but it’s also been used in cinema.” Where did you start with your book?

I first went to IMDB, just looking: “where are Bruce’s songs?” What films, what shows? At the time, there were over 200 movies or TV shows. The book could have gone one of two ways. I could have done an overview of a lot of movies and TV shows, but written about them sparsely. [But] I wanted to do something more in-depth.

Sort of using each work–each project–as an object lesson, and then folding in the other songs that he’s written that address the same themes, even if they’re not in that movie or TV show specifically.

Each [chapter] covers a fundamental theme in Bruce’s work. For example, the film In Country [Norman Jewison, 1989] is about Vietnam veterans, and it uses songs from “Born in the USA”. So for the first half of my chapter on that film, I do close readings, and tell how the song is used on the soundtrack: how it’s used in a scene, how it complements the visuals, and what you’re seeing there. Then I take my focus and broaden that to discuss what was going on with Bruce in the ’80s, and what is his relationship with Vietnam and veterans in general, and how that extends to his personal life and his concerts. Even today, he’s releasing a song like “The Wall”, [from High Hopes, 2014] and he’s discussing the draft in his Broadway show [Springsteen on Broadway]. So it ties everything together.


Bruce Springsteen performing at the Roskilde Festival in 2012. [Photo Bill Ebbesen / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0]

You’ve gotten great interviews with key people [Jon Landau and John Sayles, for example], and you found some great source texts. Tell us about that process.

I reached out to the filmmakers. I tried to get in touch with [Edward] Burns. I really loved his film No Looking Back [1998]. He’s friends with Bruce. But unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get in touch with him.

I did manage to talk to John Sayles, which was really great because not only had he made this movie [Baby It’s You, 1983] that used so many Bruce songs, but he also directed some of Bruce’s music videos [“Born in the USA” 1984; “Glory Days” and “I’m On Fire”, 1985]. We talked about that for a while. I knew I would probably never be able to interview Bruce, but I tried. But then I also wanted to talk to his manager Jon Landau, because he has a background as a film critic. I sent him some questions and he answered them, and he gave me a peek into how Bruce selects films and what his process is with that. So I’m grateful that I was able to speak with him.

I think it might be a generational thing, but there’s this perception–that’s incorrect!–that Springsteen’s music is “Dad Music” No offense to dads–but that means it’s dated, it doesn’t really have that much to say, it’s something that older people listen to. That misperception has led to his music to being underrated.


It seems people are writing about him every week. There’ll be an article because it’s the anniversary of this or that album, and how it sheds light on what’s happening today. Do you you see a lot of the issues that Springsteen talks about becoming really prominent–mainly this new class consciousness. Do you think that Gen Z [and millennials]’s rising class consciousness will lead them back to his music?

Sure. Unfortunately, our political climate today has made Bruce’s music all the more relevant… his outspokenness about Trump… If you know his music, you understand, you know where he leans on a lot of these issues.

Do you think people will be wanting music that addresses the class struggle, which has been at forefront of our current culture?

I definitely think Bruce’s depiction of the lower and working class is going to resonate with younger people. […] The politically-conscious Gen Z and millennial generation will connect to his scathing critiques of capitalism and worker exploitation, particularly on Wrecking Ball [2012]. But even today his Born in the U.S.A. image haunts him, some younger people think that because of the song title, he’s blindly jingoistic. If they that song and his overall canon a deeper listen, they would connect with the rage and passion found in his music. His fury is particularly resonant today with our failing economy, skyrocketing student debt, and lack of jobs. It’s unfortunate that these cycles of history just keep repeating.

There are a lot of indie writers, who are from this generation that are discussing a lot of the queer imagery in his work.

Yes. I’ve seen some of those articles too. They’re great.

They’re pointing out some things I think a lot of fans don’t realize, so I’ve been enjoying seeing that perspective on Bruce’s music.

I sent my dad that Bruce Springsteen’s “Jewish themes” article, and then I bought him Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen when I read that that essay was going to be in that collection. There’s so much that has been written about him from every possible angle. But you found a really important one.

Definitely. That’s what makes Bruce such a significant artist… everyone can see themselves in him or in his work. That’s why his music resonates.


Cleveland, Ohio, on November 2, 2008 / Photo: TonyTheTiger at English Wikipedia [Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0]

Speaking of that… obviously, you were finished with your book before Blinded By the Light [Chadha, 2019] came out… I figured you probably would have put in a chapter about that, and that whole process, had that movie come out sooner.

When I heard that movie was being released… I was in the midst of writing my book, and I thought, “Should I include it?” It’s an important work, and it obviously would have a place in my book, but it covers some themes that I already touch upon, like Bruce’s take on racism. I cover a lot of that in the chapter on Show Me a Hero [HBO, 2015]. And another thing was–not to be exclusionist or anything–but I was focusing on stories about America.

I don’t know if Blinded By the Light would fit, per se, with the vision I have for my book, but it’s certainly worth writing about, and I think it’s wonderful to see a person of color who is a fan of Bruce, because pretty much all of the other films that I watch where there is a fan of Bruce–they’re always white. That in and of itself is refreshing.

I enjoyed that movie. I know it was cheesy… but it felt sincere. It wasn’t about how Springsteen is singing about universal themes, but that the specificity of the emotions in his music is able to cross the barriers of time and ethnicity and the Atlantic Ocean. Show Me a Hero did a good job of illustrating that.

I agree. And with the sincerity of it… some people were criticizing it for being too cheesy, but it captures the spirit of Bruce’s work. The film is a sweet reminder of why Bruce’s music means so much to his audience.

When I think of “Blinded by the Light”, I don’t think of the Springsteen version [Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., 1973]. I think of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band version [1977].

I haven’ listened to Manfred Mann’s [version]… I know it’s super popular, but I’m really trying to avoid it.

There was a really great article [Vox] where the premise is that with her new album, Taylor Swift has taken on this role of “millennial Bruce” with like her storytelling, and her inhabiting characters. [This comparison has also been made by Paste]. Do you think that that’s valid? What other artists do you see as carrying on his social critique? I know Brandon Flowers [of the Killers] wants to be Bruce, but that’s really more of an aesthetic.

I haven’t listened to much Taylor Swift. From what I know of her writing, it seems to come from a very personal and authentic place. I think she’s similar to Bruce in that sense ,where she’s drawing from her own life and circumstances by putting it into song or into other characters.

With Brandon Flowers I see a lot of similarities in terms of… his music has such a sense of place. And then also the religious themes in some of his music. But I hear what you’re saying. It’s more of an aesthetic thing. I don’t think the lyric writing is similar to Bruce’s, but they share similar themes.

In Springsteen as Soundtrack, you write about Working on a Dream [2009]. You say that it didn’t do as well critically because people didn’t feel that his themes of happiness and middle-aged contentment resonated. But at the same time, many of his most beloved songs are the ones where he inhabits roles and people other than himself.


What do you see as a way for Bruce to continue to make authentic music that still speaks to these issues? Is it basically in albums like Wrecking Ball? Is it a kind of elder statesman model? Because he’s not young and striving anymore. There are not parallels between the factory worker and himself, and no one wants to hear about happy people all the time.

Absolutely. Western Stars [2019] was really good. It reminds me a little bit of Working on a Dream, but that’s because he stepped into the characters’ worlds a little bit more… people enjoy that. As Bruce gets older, he’s reflecting more on his personal life in his music—his friendships, relationship, children rather than engaging with the external state of the world.

On Wrecking Ball, he’s an elder statesman, saying, “Come on, y’all, we gotta do better.” As opposed to the earlier attitude of “I want this. I want something better for me.”

Yes—he supports Black Lives Matter on his radio show “From My Home to Yours” and condemns the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Springsteen on Broadway.

You note in your book that Bruce’s music has this tension between “pulling out” and getting away onto the open road in his older songs, whereas nowadays he sings more about an interdependent America. Where in his discography do you see shift?

[I see it in] Lucky Town [1992] and Human Touch [1993]. He had this interesting dichotomy of love where he was fighting: he was fighting between and sort of push and pull between settling down and his independent self.

How do you differentiate when Bruce is writing autobiographical songs versus when he’s inhabiting a character?

Bruce has always maintained… even though his songs are obvious– that his music is influenced by his life in some way. He always insists that he’s using his life, but it’s not necessarily about him. If you listen to the Tunnel of Love album, it’s hard not to think, “well, this is probably pretty much Bruce.”

How I differentiate… I just think he’s an artist where even when it’s explicitly from a character’s voice, there are some parts that come from Bruce. The fundamental emotional core of the song is probably something that he has felt. He has a lot of songs about murderers. Obviously, he’s not a murderer. He can relate to feelings of rage or terror. A lot of his characters who are criminals, they’re just wanting to provide for their families.


Springsteen performing with drummer Max Weinberg behind him, on the Magic Tour stop at Veterans Memorial Arena, Jacksonville, Florida, August 15, 2008. Photo: Craig ONealThe Boss~Live! [Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 2.0]

When you get deep into your analysis of a theme in each chapter, you often mention songs that are outtakes. Do you consider the outtakes to be a part of the text of the album? Is the outtake usually so connected with that final record that you see it as representative of the themes of the record, even if it didn’t make it on the record?

Yes. I don’t consider the outtakes a part of the album per se, because Bruce was clear about the story he wanted each album to tell. He arranged the songs in the order that he saw fit to take his listener on a specific journey. But I consider the outtakes as integral parts of the album’s conception, as the songs reflect the particular themes and ideas that he’s grappling with at the time. I like to think of Bruce’s canon as an enduring ecosystem, with songs of the past continually being reinforced by contemporary circumstances.

I didn’t know that “Nothing Man” was an old outtake [about Vietnam]—I learned that from your book.

Right? And “My City of Ruins” is about Asbury.

That one translates visually to 9/11 Ground Zero.

I love “Nothing Man”. … I guess most people imagine him a firefighter or police officer in the [9/11] attack. I like to think of it as a Vietnam song. It puts a different perspective on that as well.

I just love The Rising.

The Rising, for our generation, is a significant album. I’ve rarely heard an album that so perfectly captures a period of history, and captures a tragedy with such grace and understanding. It’s a masterpiece.

I don’t know. Does it risk setting Bruce on this path of, “Oh, big world event. Now as the elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll, you have to make an album responding to it”?

Right. After Trump’s inauguration, I recall many fans clamoring for Bruce to release some politically-conscious music, but he pretty much said that all of his thoughts on Trump’s presidency and policies could be found in his past music. Everyone who wants him to make an anti-Trump album…

For someone who’s called “the boss”, he writes about hating your boss a lot.


“I work down at the car wash for a dollar and a dime.” I remember that song, “Car Wash”, from Tracks.

When I discovered Tracks, it just was like “holy shit, wow!” I didn’t know he was this good to have all these songs — and none of them on his albums.

And there’s even more on YouTube. That’s what I wanted to do in my book. I didn’t want to just talk about the songs everyone is familiar with. There are a lot of these unreleased outtakes on YouTube. With some of them, it’s just like, “How the hell did this not get on anything?” Like “Preacher’s Daughter”. Songs like that.

It feels as if every few years we see, “here’s the secret unreleased version of this album.” There’s The Ties That Bind [for The River] [2015] or The Promise disc set [for Darkness on the Edge of Town] [2010]. It’s like, “you thought you knew this album. But here’s all the other stuff about this album.”

I kept thinking while reading your book, how do you differentiate between texts like Prozac Nation and In Country, where Bruce is explicitly mentioned in the source material, versus Philadelphia [1993] and Dead Man Walking [1995] or Baby It’s You, where the director either commissions a song, or uses existing songs to shape the film? With Prozac Nation [Erik Skjoldbjærg, 2001] and In Country, the source texts mention Springsteen. As in, that’s not the director making a choice.

Oh, yes, yes. To be frank, I didn’t really discuss that too much, but that’s definitely something that’s very important to consider. What I was interested in is if the characters had a relationship with Bruce because sometimes his “presence” is just the soundtrack and the film doesn’t mention him. But in the majority of these films, the characters have a kinship with Bruce, and I found that really fascinating because you don’t see that with a lot of artists.


Caroline Madden. Photo, courtesy of Conni Freestone Photography, provided by the author.

Works Cited

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