Friday, September 25, 2009

Born (Again) in the USA

The following is the text of Jim Cullen's plenary address prepared for "Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium," 2009 Eatontown, New Jersey, September 25, 2009

It is also the third in a trilogy of Springsteen posts. Click here for the first and second.

I’m a historian, so I tend to think about lives in time, in contexts. I imagine a lot of other people do, too, but I also think people come to something like the music of Bruce Springsteen from a variety of other perspectives as well. A Springsteen fan who happens to be a musician, for example, is likely to think about his work a little differently than I do. So would a psychologist. Or a nurse.

Anyway, as I said, I tend to think about lives in time, and when I do I sometimes find myself thinking with surprise about two people who are contemporaries in a society but who might as well be on different planets. Back when I was in graduate school for example, I thought it weird to think that Andrew Jackson and Ralph Waldo Emerson were household names for millions of Americans at the same time. Emerson, a Harvard-educated intellectual, toured the world giving talks and writing celebrated essays and poems. Jackson was a soldier and politician and president of the United States who once joked he could never respect a man who only knew one way to spell a word. Or, to take an example closer to home, consider Miles Davis and Elvis Presley. Last month marked the 50th anniversary of Davis’s landmark album, Kind of Blue. The #1 single in the country at the time was Presley’s “Big Hunk o’ Love.” Put them in the same room and I’d guess there’d be a fair amount of mutual incomprehension.

But of course it’s often the case that when you reflect such lives you can discern distinctive patterns that mark people as sharing a cultural moment – different sides of the same coin, but the same currency nonetheless. Emerson and Jackson disagreed on a great many issue in American life, and yet they were both embodiments of a widely noted, and celebrated, individualism that fore-grounded self-reliance and a new emphasis on freedom in the generational turnover following the American Revolution. In many respects, Davis and Presley had antithetical musical goals – one sought to challenge his audience, while the other sought as broad a one as possible, to cite one example – and yet both men were shaped by a social revolution in race relations that they were able to tap in the formulation of distinctive as well as exciting art. As often as not it’s the questions, or even oppositions, which define a time as much as similar outcomes.

I bring up these examples as a prelude to a more relevant odd couple I know we’re all familiar with: Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen. In many respects, it’s hard to imagine two people with less in common. Reagan, born almost forty years before Springsteen, was a Conservative Republican politician who looked upon the counterculture of the 1960s with contempt, and indeed rose to prominence in voicing his opposition toward it. Springsteen, by contrast, was a largely apolitical product of that counterculture and indeed rose to prominence by building on its legacy. Reagan spent the sixties and early seventies hobnobbing with the wealthy of Orange County California in the Governor’s mansion; Springsteen spent that period as a vagrant on the Jersey shore fraternizing with a bunch of scruffy but hopeful musicians. Both men had ties to California, yes, but they were very different Californias. Springsteen’s parents moved to the Bay area to start their lives anew in 1969, when Reagan was governor, and Springsteen would occasionally visit. Reagan used southern California as the power base from which he would launch a successful bid for the presidency that would land him in the White House.

That the two mens’ lives would briefly intersect twenty five years ago this week was the product of a coincidence we can now recognize in retrospect: their professional careers happened to crest at precisely the same moment. In the summer of 1984, Springsteen’s Born in the USA was dominating the airwaves, and the second single from the album, “Cover Me,” was working its way up the Billboard pop chart as he toured the country in what would become a landmark concert tour. Reagan, for his part, had just been re-nominated for president by a united Republican Party, and would soon go on to win one of the most crushing electoral victories in American history. Both men were at the apex of their fame and influence.

In a way, it’s silly to make too much in the way of contrast or comparison. Even the most dedicated Springsteen fan will recognize that Reagan had a more decisive impact on American society, if only to lament that fact. Springsteen may have changed the nation’s tune, but Reagan changed the nation. He did so by embodying a series of ideas, values, and policies we have come to know as neo-conservatism. Like many important collective concepts, neo-conservatism would come to mean a series of different, and at times contradictory, things, and even a figure as plastic at Reagan could not single-handedly represent all of them. Still, when people thought of Reagan, they associated him with a cluster of concepts – capitalism, a rededication to patriotism, and traditional religious values, to cite three prominent examples – that were dominant in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and even into the current decade. It’s for this reason that at least two historians have published books with titles “The Age of Reagan.”[1]

The key to Reagan’s success, and the reason he of all people became the voice of the Conservative movement, were his exceptional gifts in conveying his message in an appealing and vital way (Springsteen, of course, could do the same in a very different way). There was an element of contradiction in this, just as there was in the crippled FDR managing to convey tremendous personal vitality during the Great Depression that Herbert Hoover never could. Reagan was the oldest man ever elected president, and there were signs, even before as the failed assassination attempt he weathered in 1981, that he was not always fully engaged with reality. But he nevertheless projected a vibrant optimism that even his critics had difficulty resisting. Part of his success in this regard was a gifted staff, notably Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, who managed Reagan’s public image. It was Deaver, following up on a glowing column on Springsteen by conservative columnist George Will, who believed that Reagan could cement his appeal with young voters by having Springsteen appear with Reagan at a campaign rally in New Jersey in September of 1984.[2] As we all know, that was never going to happen. But as we also all know, Reagan ended up invoking Springsteen in Hammonton on September 19thAmerica’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”[3] anyway in an episode that is now part of our collective Springsteen mythology. “

Now I’m guessing that everybody in this room knows to a great degree knows this story to a greater or lesser degree. They may remember George Will’s syndicated column, in which he wrote, “If all Americans – in labor or management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles – made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about protectionism.”[4] They may remember the media coverage of Reagan’s appearance in Hammonton, Democratic challenger Walter Mondale’s witty riposte (“Bruce Springsteen may have been born to run, but he wasn’t born yesterday”[5]), and they may remember that Springsteen referred to the incident a few days later when he wondered what Reagan’s favorite Springsteen album was before springing into a pointed rendition of “Johnny 99.” The dominant reaction at the time – certainly the way I felt, and the way I perceived others did – that Reagan’s invocation of Springsteen was a glib travesty, at best crudely uninformed, and at worst a cynical inversion of everything Springsteen stood for.

This is certainly the dominant chord in what has to be considered the dominant interpretation of this episode by Dave Marsh in Glory Days in 1987 (later incorporated into Two Hearts in 2004).[6] Distinct in the annals of Springsteen chronicles as an amalgam of shoe-leather reporting and cultural analysis, bolstered by his unique degree access to Springsteen himself, Marsh portrayed Springsteen as the victim of cultural theft, albeit as a victim who maintained his dignity and learned from the experience. Interestingly, Marsh observed that a Reagan/Springsteen juxtaposition had actually been made almost a decade earlier by Boston Globe writer Marty Nolan, who called Reagan “the Bruce Springsteen of politics,” adding “Bruce Springsteen may be the Ronald Reagan of rock.” But while Marsh recognized a vein of logic in a Springsteen-Reagan connection, there is never any doubt in his justly influential reading of the event that such an interpretation is finally misleading.

That said, my own reading of the affair partially demurred from it. In a 1992 article for a small scholarly journal, I noted what I called an “ambiguous” strain in Springsteen’s musical politics, arguing that Springsteen’s portrayal of working class passivity left him open to the kind of opportunistic, though finally shrewd, reading of the Right-wing political apparatus represented by Will, Deaver, and Springsteen.[7] Five years later, in my book Born in the USA, I tweaked that view by making a distinction between a “good” conservative like Springsteen, who had respect for the egalitarian values of what I called “the American tradition” and, implicitly, “bad” conservatives like Reagan who denied that tradition and uncritically upheld free-market capitalism as the only valid basis of American life.[8]

But from the perspective of 25 years since that event, five years since Reagan’s death, and a year since a watershed election that many of us consider the final repudiation of Reaganism, I feel a lot less inclined to mince words or nuance concepts. Although I didn’t want to admit it then, I think I should make the assertion straightforwardly now: Bruce Springsteen’s success in the 1980s is a function of him being at heart a conservative artist. Period. It is no accident that the Age of Reagan corresponds to the Age of Springsteen, and I’ll even go so far as to say that in some important respects Springsteen has been a more thoroughgoing conservative than Reagan ever was.

Now, we could argue about just what it is that people such as Reagan and Springsteen wanted to conserve, and could reasonably conclude that the content of conservation matters more than the temperament to conserve. Certainly that’s true in a political sense. We can talk about that, and I hope we will. But for the moment, at least, I’d like to advance my proposition that conservatism in the 1980s was always more than political conservatism, and that Springsteen, at least as much if not more than Reagan, was captured the spirit of his time in important ways. In the time we have I can only begin to suggest some reasons with a few examples that I hope will serve as a point of departure for further discussion . I don’t feel I’ve worked out my thinking on this to my own satisfaction, and hope this session will both help me and serve as a satisfying venue for intellectual exploration.

1. Springsteen as a musical conservative. We all know that rock & roll music began as an expression of youthful rebellion. (We also know that it derived from the age-old musical idiom of the blues, and that the blues was as much a music of accommodation as it was protest, but we’ll leave that matter aside for now.) But Springsteen, born in 1949, was an heir, not a founder, of rock & roll. More specifically, he was a rock grandchild. The Founders, embodied by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and the girl groups, blazed a new path. The second, represented by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Woodstock generally, took the promethean energies of the first generation and added an element of self-conscious artistry. Literally and figuratively, Presley’s first records were something new under the Sun. Blonde on Blonde, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Are You Experienced?: these were artists who were trying to remake the world. (So, in a different but at least as significant way, were the presumably more conventional performers at Motown.)

Bruce Springsteen absorbed these influences, as well as others like the sounds of Stax, the one-hit wonders of the early sixties, Van Morrison, and others. By the early 1970s, he had forged them into a recognizably personal style that defined Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. Crucially, however, that’s as modern as Springsteen ever got. From that point on, his music was more about revivifying the old rather than creating the new. Two good examples that come to mind from Born to Run are the allusions to Roy Orbison in “Thunder Road." and the Bo Diddley nod of “She’s the One.” Reading accounts of Springsteen’s fabled shows at the Bottom Line in 1975, as I have in Louis Masur’s fine new book on the making of Born to Run, and you get a palpable sense that part of the thrill of those shows was the way in which Springsteen integrated rock’s history into the present moment, typified by his decision to perform songs like the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” or Gary U.S. Bonds’s “Quarter to Three.”[9] “Born to Run,” is nothing if not neoclassic, a quality that Springsteen would achieve, in somewhat different form, in many of the songs on “The River,” ranging from “Sherry Darling” to “Ramrod.”

It’s true that Born in the USA did not sound dated. But it’s striking to juxtapose the choices of Springsteen’s peers of the same moment who made a self-conscious effort to strike out in new musical directions in the years before and after its release. Prince’s Purple Rain, for instance, was the other monster album of 1984, notable for its unmistakable freshness (was there anything on the radio that had ever sounded like “When Doves Cry”?) Moreover, while Prince never quite seemed comfortable with hip-hop, he made a game effort in the years that followed. Or consider the Talking Heads and the ground they covered in the 1980s. Or even, in her own way, Madonna, whose frame of reference in the eighties stretched from disco to the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers to techno.

Springsteen has not been static, of course. But musically speaking, his moves have been backward rather than forward. Perhaps the first hint was the Roy Acuff flavored “Wreck on the Highway.” Another was the decision to add Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” in his live shows. The most cohesive powerful statement in this regard was Nebraska. The passage of time has only seemed to lead him further back, from the thirties of Tom Joad to the Seeger sessions, where he zooms back to Stephen Foster. The choices he’s made are not so much of a man who seeks to embody his time as to incorporate himself into the broader musical flow of history. If this isn’t conservatism in the most elemental sense of the term, I don’t know what is.

2. Springsteen as an exponent of entrepreneurial capitalism..

We’re all familiar with Bruce Springsteen as the sometimes fierce critic of capitalism. No need to explain the ravages of unemployment as depicted in the song “Born in the USA” to this crowd. Whether in the humorous vein of “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch” and “57 Channels” or the caustic outrage of “Roulette” and “Seeds,” Springsteen has consistently depicted the excesses of corporate greed and championed egalitarian values we’ve long associated with the left.

All that said, it seems fair to say that Springsteen is a critic of capitalism’s excesses more than he is of capitalism itself. No one who’s paying attention would ever mistake Darkness on the Edge of Town with Give ’Em Enough Rope, to cite a Leninesque Clash album from the same year. Moreover, Springsteen’s representation of the working class has tended to be more nostalgic than realistic: the dockworkers of “Out in the Street” had largely vanished from New York, at least, by the time he released the song in 1980. And who in 2009 swings a hammer for a living the way the protagonist does in “Working on a Dream?” I will say that Springsteen’s vision of work has generally taken on a more stark clarity in recent years, as in the drug-manufacturing brothers of “Sinaloa Cowboys” or even waitress of “I’ll Work for Your Love.” But none of these characters, much less Springsteen himself, consider it particularly realistic to articulate a class critique of the system.

It is seems worth remembering here that Bruce Springsteen himself is a capitalist extraordinaire. We tend to regard the moniker of “The Boss” as an affectionate metaphor, but he got the nickname almost forty years ago as a description of reality, and it’s been true ever since. (Ronald Reagan, for his part, was a salaried employee for most of his professional life, and more specifically a government employee in the pivotal years of his life.) I’m not a financial journalist, and know relatively little about his financial affairs. But it takes no great leap of speculation or exaggeration to describe Springsteen’s business empire as a billion dollar enterprise. According to an article about ticket prices in last month’s New Yorker, the Magic tour alone grossed over $200 million.[10][11] This was not a terribly enlightening read (the lessons include things like “Keep it Fresh” and “Experience Matters”) but one gets a much more concrete picture of Springsteen’s management style in “Springsteen Inc.,” a 2006 Business Management Daily ran a story this spring entitled, “What Leaders Can Learn from Springsteen.” piece in Pittsburgh Quarterly, written by Sanford Neiman, former attorney for Clarence Clemons. There are no scandalous revelations to be had here; only a portrait respectful of The Boss as what Sanford calls the Chairman of the Board in a company in which Jon Landau is CEO. Neiman seemed to understand and accept the 1986 ultimatum Springsteen gave Clemons when Clemons was about to do a Diet Coke commercial, which Springsteen said would result in his expulsion from the E Street Band.[12]

So let’s not be under any illusions here about who runs the show. Springsteen has never given us any indication that getting rich wasn’t part of his plans, and that staying rich doesn’t remain part of them. And you probably can’t succeed the way he has without an executive mentality. A visionary and extraordinarily generous executive mentality, but an executive mentality nonetheless. American tax policy under Ronald Reagan and his successors has been very, very good to The Boss. No need to find offshore havens a la U2.

3. Springsteen as the voice of religious orthodoxy. I’ve had a lot to say about Springsteen’s religious vision, which I will not rehearse in any detail here. I can sum it up by saying that Springsteen is a classic example of the maxim that while you can take the boy out of Catholicism, you can’t take Catholicism out of the boy. The very first song Springsteen performed at his audition for Columbia Records in 1972 was “If I Was the Priest,” a scandalously profane satire of Catholicism that led John Hammond to conclude “I knew he could only be Catholic.” Springsteen took a number of swipes at the Church on his early records, which tended to recede over time. In songs like “My Father’s House” and “Reason to Believe,” from Nebraska, he seemed to point toward a new engagement with religious questions. But all intents and purposes, Born in the USA is a strongly secular record.

As we know, the late 1970s and early 1980s are notable as a time of evangelical revival in the United States. We also know that Ronald Reagan’s ascent to power was to a great degree premised on his support from evangelicals. This of course is a curious fact, given that the man Reagan defeated, Jimmy Carter, was a bona fide evangelical Christian, and that Reagan, a non-churchgoing divorcee from Hollywood, hardly seems like a poster child for traditional family values. But politics, as we know, makes for strange bedfellows.

There are two facts that I want to call to your attention for the sake of this discussion. The first is that the evangelical revival of the 1970s and 80s, which crested in this decade, is by no means a unique event in American history. Evangelical fervor is something that has been waxing and waning at least since the First Great Awakening of the 1730s.

One of the signal characteristics of all these revivals has been their challenge to dominant organized churches of their day. In modern times, notably since the rise of fundamentalism in the 1890s, this has meant mainline Protestant churches, widely perceived by their critics to have become too accommodating to the conventions of liberal secular society. In the minds of their supporters, Evangelical churches, are, in effect, renegade churches. Though secular humanists may see them as at best nostalgic and at worst authoritarian, they see themselves as embattled rebels. They do not hew closely to traditional theological or denominational traditions, and are highly adaptive to the cultural landscape at their disposal, whether in storefront churches or the megachurches of people like Joel Osteen. In some important respects, they buck tradition, not embrace it.

The second fact that’s notable here is that Springsteen has not surrendered his Catholic identity. Actually, it’s an identity he has been increasingly explicit about claiming in art and life since the time of Tunnel of Love. Religious metaphors and religious concerns have become increasingly important, and while they were once a source of satire or irony, they are now embraced with a high degree of spiritual intensity (my favorite recent example is “Jesus Was an Only Son” – an assertion which is, by the way, a specifically Catholic interpretation of the New Testament, as Protestant doctrine holds he was not an only child). Springsteen has also apparently resumed going to his mass periodically with his family.

I don’t want to go too far down this road, either in claiming with any certainty that I know just what Springsteen’s degree of religious fidelity is, or in believing he has much interest in knowing, much less hewing to, a Roman Catholic doctrinal line that many Catholics, myself among them, have difficulty taking seriously as regards the role of women in the church, for example. My real point is that in the context of the late twentieth century of Reagan’s America, Springsteen’s spiritual orthodoxy is a form of conservatism.

For most of American history, Catholics, as well as Jews, were socially marginal in what has been, and culturally remains, a Protestant nation. One of the unique characteristics of modern evangelicalism is its newfound alliance with conservative Jews and charismatic Catholics. But Springsteen’s life and work have shown little affinity for this. Politically speaking, he may be liberal Catholic. But culturally speaking, he’s a traditionalist Catholic.

So: music, economics, religion. These are all ways in which one can speak of Springsteen as a conservative, in a period in American history where conservatism, political as well as other kinds, has been dominant. As we know, Springsteen has been understood as a liberal in the political realm, and I don’t really contest that, except to say that liberalism has traditionally been a matter of advocating managed change, a more pragmatic form of conservatism. But in many other ways, ways that are likely to matter in the long run in our view of the man, Springsteen has been a conservative. He was born again when he was baptized, the old-fashioned way.

Many of the points I’ve made here today have been made by others, notably Robert Christgau, who recognized Springsteen’s conservatism early on (and, I think, has struggled to make his peace with it).[13] Marsh has also noted that he and others have recognized Springsteen’s bedrock conservatism, as has Springsteen himself (“I’m pretty conservative in some ways,” Marsh has him saying in an unattributed quote that I’m guessing came from a personal interview in the eighties. “I don’t really have a desire to experiment for the sake of experimentation”). I believe that we don’t tend to focus on this truth, because the feelings of many Springsteen fans toward Reagan have led us to displace, if not ignore them. My hope is that by trying to achieve some clarity on candor on this point, we might be able to see Springsteen in a more realistic and fruitful way. Whether that’s true is something I may be able to find out very quickly. Thanks for your attention; I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

[1] Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (New York: Harpercollns, 2008). The avowedly partisan Steven F. Hayward is the author of a two-volume work also entitled The Age of Reagan: the first volume, Fall of the Liberal Order, 1964-1980 was published by Prima Lifestyles and reissued by Three Rivers in 2009. The second volume, The Conservative Counterrevolution,1980-1989, was published by Crown Forum in 2009.

[2] My treatment of this event comes from a variety of sources, among them my own memory, but the principal account is that of Dave Marsh in Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s (New York: Pantheon, 1987), pp. 254-266.

[3] Francis X. Clines, “President Heaps Praise on Voters n the Northeast,” The New York Times, September 20, 1984, B20.

[4] One easy way to access this column is at

[5] Mondale quoted in Marsh, 264.

[6] Dave Marsh, Bruce Springsteen/Two Hearts: The Definitive Biography, 1972-2003 (New York: Routledge, 2004). The passage in question occurs pp. 479-489.

[7] Jim Cullen, “Bruce Springsteen’s Ambiguous Musical Politics in the Reagan Era,” Popular Music and Society 16:2 (Summer 1992): 1-22.

[8] Jim Cullen, Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), Chapter One. The book was reissued in a second edition by Wesleyan University Press in 2005.

[9]Louis P. Masur, Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 9-14.

[10] John Seabrook, “The Price of the Ticket,” The New Yorker, August 10/17 2009, p. 35.



[13] I base this assertion on my own reading of Christgau’s work over the years and Masur’s references to him in Runaway Dream (126, 142-147). For one specimen of his ambivalence, see his treatment of the 30th anniversary release of Born to Run at