‘Show Me a Hero’ and I’ll Write You a Springsteen Song

Show Me a Hero's brilliant use of Springsteen’s music deepens both the characterization of the series’ central characters and the situations in which they are embroiled.

David Simon’s HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero, based on true events, uses 11 Bruce Springsteen songs on the soundtrack. These songs do more than place the show within its 1980s/early 1990s time period. They serve as the trajectory of Nick Wasicsko’s (Oscar Isaac) story. Springsteen’s own image connects to Wasicsko’s character, solidifying him as a working-class hero and connecting him to the audience. Wasicsko lives and works hard in a blue-collar town, as well as being a former cop, bringing to mind classic Springsteen characters. Wasicsko becomes the mayor of Yonkers, New York, during a campaign to build low-income housing onto sites in predominantly white neighborhoods, despite numerous protests. There’s a deeper meaning to the use of Springsteen’s songs, however; they grapple with the issues of class and the complexity of the American Dream, which Show Me a Hero deftly explores.

Springsteen opens Show Me a Hero, as his song “Gave it a Name” plays over the first scene, establishing the city of Yonkers and New York life. The song’s melancholic, driving pulse plays over images that juxtapose the suburban homes in front of which little children ride on their Big Wheels, to the graffiti walls of the urban projects with trash on the streets. Springsteen sings of Cain and Abel, and an abusive husband who “can’t stand the shame” of their actions, which they give a name to hide and push away. “Gave it a Name” illuminates the passing of the blame and the hiding of wrongful actions that will occur throughout the show, whether driven by personal gain or racism.

The second song’s off of 1980’s The River, a huge hit for Springsteen: “Hungry Heart”. Nick’s feeling as great as a hit song, choosing it from the jukebox and announcing, “it’s my theme song!” While Nick’s better off than the song’s narrator, who leaves his wife and kids in Baltimore to go out for a ride and never come back, the upbeat song drives Nick’s newfound hunger for success, as he happily plans to run for mayor. One of the song’s lines “Everybody wants to have a place to rest, everybody wants to have a home”, plays over a man drawing an illustration of the new townhouses. This is a bit on the nose, but the meaning still resonates: homes are being made for everybody. The River album is used again when the heart-pounding and hard-rocking “Ramrod” plays as Nick drives with his date Nay (Carla Quevedo) through a local neighborhood. He discovers, to his surprise, that the residents have taken the time to make their own signs to show support for his campaign. His dream of becoming a mayor is close to coming true, and Nick looks around in utter elation, matched to the gleeful wails of Clarence Clemmons’ saxophone.

When Nick and Nay move in together, the “All That Heaven Will Allow” from Tunnel of Love plays in the background. It’s a sweet love song that aptly reflects their blossoming relationship, but it’s clear the song has more meaning. Tunnel of Love represented Springsteen’s more mature outlook on love and relationships; no longer the romantic visions of hot rods and high school graduates born to run, but focused on the complications of sex and adult relationships. Wasicsko will eventually lose his idealized vision of the world, and Springsteen’s music starts complements his slow decline in confidence and happiness. By the end of the series, Nick becomes isolated after exposure to the dirtiness of politics, a game he willingly played until it turned against him. It may be no coincidence, then, that the volume is raised on the line “Now some may wanna die young man, young and gloriously”, an eerie foreshadowing of Nick’s fate.

Tunnel of Love‘s songs are a theme of Nick and Nay’s relationship; “Brilliant Disguise” plays as Nick and Nay move into their new house. In this instance, the song, which is about infidelity, doesn’t seem to reflect their relationship, but rather Nick’s relationship to his career: what’s politics but wearing a series of brilliant disguises in order to get ahead? The song informs Nick’s lapsarian narrative, as he slowly becomes disillusioned with both politics and life.

Returning to The River with “Cadillac Ranch”, another foot-stomping party song, the series juxtaposes the song “Ramrod” with Nick driving through a neighborhood and seeing Spallone support signs, and Wasicko signs tarnished with graffiti on them., indicating that Nick has been ostracized due to his support of the housing project; he no longer feels like joining Springsteen’s party. In this instance, the elation of the song doesn’t reflect Nick’s emotional state, but rather the changing climate of politics: the songs remain the same but the attitudes change at the drop of a hat. Nick’s constantly harassed, yelled at, and spit on; he fears it’s the end of his run as mayor. “If I’m not the mayor of Yonkers, will you still love me?” Nick asks Nay, his voice breaking.

Using another Tunnel of Love song puts the focus on Nick and Nay’s relationship; Springsteen sings in the background, “That ain’t what scares me baby, what scares me is losing you.” The song, “Valentine’s Day”, aptly expresses Nick’s fears. Nick equates losing his job with losing both his identity and his worth as a person. He fears Nay won’t look at him the same if he’s not successful and making changes in the political world. The song also has more death imagery, where Springsteen sings, “they say if you die in your dreams, you really die in your bed”.

The joyous romp “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” plays as Nick, now unemployed after his run as mayor, finds odd jobs to do around the house. Nick tries to make the best of it — the world’s at his feet after all — by putting on a fun Springsteen song to jam out with as he makes himself productive. This, however, is only a brief glimmer before things once again go downhill, which the music clues us into. “Secret Garden”, a song recorded in 1995, plays as Nick and Nay get married and continues until it ends on explicit epithet sprayed on the new housing walls. The song is mysterious and sensual, telling the story of a woman who erects a wall, the “secret garden” between herself and her man to hide her true self. Mostly, the song is about barriers, “where everything you want, where everything you need, will always stay a million miles away.”

While “Secret Garden” is anachronistic for the time period of the series, it’s an appropriate choice within the narrative’s context. All throughout the show, we’ve seen countless people, because of their racist mindsets, put up barriers between people of color/people who are economically disadvantaged and the proper homes they could have. The white people in the neighboring communities want to enforce these barriers by refusing to let these individuals live in their “backyards”; they’d rather such people stay together in their dilapidated homes that don’t allow their children a chance to grow up in a stable environment. Even when the new low-income houses are built, people still try to enact those barriers, clearly spelled out in the disgusting graffiti Nick and Nay witness. The American Dream of a home is a million miles away for the less fortunate of Yonkers.

“Racing in the Street” from Darkness on the Edge of Town plays as Nick and Nay eat dinner, fighting over Nick’s latest plans to get her boss fired. “Racing in the Street” is a raw and searing portrait of working class life. In the song, racing in the streets allows the song’s narrator to feel alive, to feel a part of the world. While the song only plays for a few lines, it manages to encompass the little joys that one gets in a life that generally beats you down and wears on your soul. For Nick, the song touches on the way he’s starting to feel invisible; he just wants people to know that he’s still there, so he enacts these little political games to get attention. Nick, or any of those in the lower-income housing, just want their struggles and perspectives to be heard. Like Springsteen’s hard-luck heroes, they need to “be on that hill with everything [they]’ve got”. “Racing in the Streets” also has more foreshadowing death imagery, “Some guys they just give up living, and start dying little by little, piece by piece”, pointing to the ways in which Wasicsko’s belief in himself is slowly starting to fragment and wither.

“My Beautiful Reward” from Lucky Town playing briefly in Nick’s car is another moment of foreshadowing of Nick’s ultimate ending. Springsteen constructs an image of the man’s afterlife as a bird flying over the fields. The song also tellingly deals with the nature of home. “From a house on a hill, a sacred light shines. I walk through these rooms but none of them are mine.” This brings to mind the scene with Carmen’s (Ilfenesh Hadera) family visiting their friend at the new townhouses, wishing that they were no longer on the waiting list and could occupy a beautiful home like this.

Springsteen’s music begins and ends Show Me a Hero; his song “Lift Me Up” serves as a beautiful coda to the story as a keening elegy to the fallen Wasicko. As is slowly revealed through intercuts of a funeral procession and the final shot of Wasicko with a gun in his mouth, he sadly ends his life. Springsteen sings in a haunting falsetto, a mournful dirge on what has unfolded. As Nick’s being lifted up into the afterlife, we learn of what happened to each character in the series. The lyrics sing of lifting one another up through the power of unconditional love, and this still rings true to Show Me a Hero’s narrative, which emphasizes the need to accept one another, lift ourselves out of the ugliness of racist perspectives, and transcend the primitiveness of racism. Sadly, the dream of transcending racism is still far from reality; even in 2016, racial turmoil is no better than what’s depicted in Show Me a Hero; we’re still dealing with discrimination and barriers. Whether calling for a bigger Mexican border or banning Muslims, many still continue to define America as a home for only white people.

Bruce Springsteen feels that his music “judges the distance between American reality and the American dream”; so too does Show Me a Hero. Springsteen sings of blue-collar workers like Nick Wasicsko, down on their luck boxers, killers from Nebraska, immigrants in The Ghost of Tom Joad album. He writes about all kinds of everyday people who yearn for something more, but what binds them is that they are constantly beaten down by America’s traps and systems. The American dream that they believe in is quite distant from the reality of their day-to-day lives, whether caused by economic strife or losing the ones they love.

No gulf between reality and dream is as wide as that of the people of color we see in Show Me a Hero. They struggle against the political system, protest, and speak out at city hall meetings where white Yonkers citizens vehemently voice their hostilities, willing to do anything to keep them out of their neighborhoods, in the mistaken belief that people of color are the root of drugs and crime. It becomes an endless cycle in which no one can rise above their circumstances, because no one will provide them the opportunities, and the system itself, which should provide those opportunities, blames them. Springsteen’s songs don’t just echo Wasicsko’s journey and internal life, but all of the characters in Show Me a Hero desperate for better lives.

The series is that it does not sanctify Nick Wasicsko as a pioneer for equal housing and the end of racism. He’s not ideologically tied to the housing project; it’s not a cause he champions because of his whole-hearted belief in it. He does care about his job (if only out of self-interest), but he finds politics to be a dirty game of popularity and power, rather than a way to do good for the world. The reality of his profession collides with his childhood dreams. Soon, to paraphrase Springsteen’s “The Promise”, every day just got harder to live the dream he believed in. Show Me a Hero, like Springsteen, questions the reality of the American dream of leadership. Can one be a leader in such a complicated system? Do politics help us get close to the American dream or push us further from it?

In “Hungry Heart”, Springsteen reminds us that “everybody needs a place to rest, everybody wants to have a home. Don’t make no difference what nobody says, ain’t nobody like to be alone.” Almost shrouded in the pop song’s good-natured spunk, the song’s message encapsulates universal ideals. Everyone wants to have a good home in an accepting community surrounded by those they love. In Show Me a Hero, people of color find themselves held down by oppressive whites in power who wish to block them from a simple dream, a right: a decent place to live. Wasicko wants a home in politics, and a loving home with his wife Nay. Springsteen’s music ends up serving as the emotional and narrative core of Show Me a Hero. His themes of the American dream, forging identity, and finding a home run throughout the narrative, and echo in the chosen songs. Springsteen and Show Me a Hero know that when life beats us down, we start to believe that the American dream is unattainable, but that doesn’t mean we stop being hungry to make that dream a reality.

Caroline Madden is currently attending Savannah College of Art and Design for her Masters in Cinema Studies. She’s a staff writer for Screenqueens and runs her own blog Cinematic Visions. Caroline has also been featured as a guest writer on Bitch Flicks.