Born in the U.S.A.: When the president met the Boss

Bruce Springsteen's politics were unformed in the '80s. When Ronald Reagan invoked his name, that changed fast

Published May 28, 2012 6:00PM (EDT)

Bruce Springsteen    (AP)
Bruce Springsteen (AP)

Excerpted from "Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll" by Marc Dolan. Copyright © 2012 by Marc Dolan. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

In the same week that "The River" hit No. 1, in a seemingly unrelated event, Gov. Ronald Reagan of California was elected the 40th president of the United States, garnering a whopping 489 Electoral College votes, while incumbent Jimmy Carter received a mere 49. During the last days of the campaign, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were on tour, of course, still promoting the month-old "River," but they had election night off. The next night, on November 5, they played a concert at Arizona State University in Tempe that was virtually identical to the one they had played in Los Angeles the previous Thursday — except that it was longer. "All you guys in the aisle find your seats, OK?" Bruce announced three songs in. "There’s gonna be a real long show."

That night Springsteen rambled, more than usual. Before the postindustrial triptych of “Independence Day,” “Factory” and “Jackson Cage” midway through the first set, he began a long monologue, although not about his father, whom he frequently talked about before “Factory.” Instead, Springsteen used this opportunity to talk about his love of pop music, about what it had meant to him growing up. Spontaneously, falteringly, he offered the most coherent argument he would ever make for the essential unity of the two distinct compositional strains that had flowed into "The River," its idealistic and pessimistic “hearts”:

I never did good in school, never did good, and they always figured that if you’re not smart in school, it’s because you’re dumb. But I always felt that I never really learned anything, or learned anything that was important to me, till I started listening to the radio back in the early '60s. And it seemed that the stuff that I was hearing off the radio in all those great songs was stuff that if they knew how, they’d be trying to teach you in school ... but they just didn’t know how to. They always talked to your head, they could never figure out how to talk to your heart, you know. And it seems that, like all those singers and all those groups, there’s one thing that they just knew: what it was about. And when I started listening, I found out that the first time ... that, instead of the fantasies that you have when you’re a little kid, I had dreams now and that they were different, it was different, and that if that was possible, that I didn’t have to live my life the way that I was, that things could be better. If you just go out, take a chance, find out what’s going on ...

It was only toward the end of the first set in Tempe that Springsteen finally addressed the election. "I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night," he said as a transition between “The River” and “Badlands,” "but I think it’s pretty frightening. You guys are young, there’s gonna be a lot of people depending on you coming up, so this is for you." When you listen to recordings of this concert, during this speech you hear scattered cheers from the crowd, but nowhere near as strong as when Springsteen actually started the next song.

Springsteen’s comments before “Badlands” in Tempe that night were virtually the first recorded statement he ever made about politics. At the MUSE concerts a year earlier, he was practically the most apolitical performer on the stage. He had played a small acoustic benefit for George McGovern’s campaign at the Red Bank Drive-In in 1972, but there is no other record of his ever endorsing a political candidate up to this point, or even expressing displeasure with one as he did in the wake of Reagan’s election. In subsequent interviews, he would admit that he had maybe voted once, but no more than that. Like the draft or Kent State, politics was something that happened outside of his life, to his life, while he was trying to make his dreams come true. And he was obviously not the only American who viewed politics that way, especially not in the fall of 1980. Ronald Reagan’s victory, much closer in the popular vote than in the Electoral College, reflected the will of about a quarter of the electorate; only a little more than half of those eligible to vote had done so that year. Like Bruce Springsteen, many other Americans at that point in our history were essentially apolitical.

But there’s a subtle difference between politics and ideology, between elected officials and the policies they enact on the one hand and the underlying principles that cause people to trust or distrust politicians on the other. You can live your life without ever having an opinion on any elected official or legislative body, but you cannot live your life as an adult without having some notion of what a better world would look like. In the late 1970s, as the two dominant political parties in the United States reacted to contemporary economic crises by dissolving into ever greater procedural disarray, such utopian visions of what might work better suddenly became far more important. In 1979, however, only the college professors called this “ideology.” The word that both First Lady Rosalynn Carter and the Reverend Jerry Falwell of the Thomas Road Baptist Church started using that year was “values.”

In 1979 and 1980, as Bruce Springsteen crafted "The River" and began touring to support it, his politics were virtually nonexistent, but his ideology — his “values,” if you must — was all over his songs. Springsteen believed in “freedom,” in as vague a sense as any American would define it, in the freedom to head out where you wanted when you wanted with whomever you wanted with no bossman or exaggerated patriarch telling you what to do. On Springsteen’s first four albums, his ideal world was the road, the way to the next great place but not necessarily the place itself, because all fixed places had the potential to trap you. In Springsteen’s songs, success was seldom material success (no matter how much the singer might want it in real life). In most cases, the success his characters dreamed of or attained was mere survival, making their stand in an environment that was constantly trying to grind them down.

Half of "The River" reinforced this view, not only such "Darkness" survivors as “Sherry Darling” and “Independence Day” but such newer songs as “Ramrod,” “Jackson Cage,” “Out in the Street” and “Cadillac Ranch” as well. There were also all the new songs about connection (“I Wanna Marry You,” “Fade Away,” “Stolen Car,” “The Price You Pay,” “Drive All Night,” and “Wreck on the Highway”), but they were about personal commitments rather than communal ones. Both these aspects of "The River" were undeniably ideological, but they were not political; they sought no help for their characters through governmental or collective action. Even in the album’s title track, the characters’ situation seems more mythic than political. In that song, Springsteen sings, "Lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy," but there is no sense here that these characters’ problems could be fixed by a government stimulus package or a cut in the mortgage rates. Their problems are synchronic rather than historical and must simply be endured.

But during this same period, as the nation around him felt adrift in an uncertain and uncommitted age, Springsteen was crafting his first specifically topical songs in almost a decade, since the trendy, epic antiwar songs he had written during the Nixon era. The most obvious of these was “Roulette,” written in a white heat during the first week after the event at Three Mile Island but by all accounts never seriously considered for the album. Almost a year later, toward the end of the "River" sessions, Springsteen had also written the little gem “Held Up Without a Gun,” which managed to turn the most pressing political issue of the late 1970s — the exorbitantly rising price of gasoline — into a rocking good joke.

Indeed, with the gas crisis of the Carter years, history practically forced Springsteen to consider the political implications of his apolitical, personal ideology. In his pre-1979 songs, as in rock songs since at least Chuck Berry, cars and motorcycles were the vehicles of the individualized freedom that he craved. In the late 1970s, however, ration-starved cars and motorcycles became much more specific cultural symbols, emblems of how Americans saw their personal freedom limited by current events. Gas prices had been rising since the beginning of the decade, and in one day, June 28, 1979, OPEC raised the price of a barrel of crude oil by 24 percent. That summer, as Springsteen labored at the Record Plant, blocks-long lines at gas stations became a common, even violent occurrence.

Suddenly, Springsteen’s favorite form of mindless fun had taken on economic, political, and even international significance. The two roadhouse numbers he and the band cut that fall, “Ramrod” and “Cadillac Ranch,” spoke about the sheer fun of driving, in purely sensual terms that were a world away from the desperate tales of escape he had trafficked in on his last two albums. Simultaneously, though, in songs like “Stolen Car” and “The River,” it was also becoming clear that cars could take you nowhere as well, that they could signify escape in the sense of avoidance rather than freedom. In many ways, the great lost album that Springsteen could have released but didn’t in 1980 was a single disc of songs about cars, taking in the freedoms and restrictions that they made possible for his fellow citizens. It would have been a perfect project to release during a year in which driving was an implicitly ideological act.

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Like many other Americans of his era, Springsteen was caught up in the “crisis of the American spirit” about which President Carter had spoken during that same brutal summer of 1979. This was another part of Springsteen’s dissatisfaction during the late 1970s, a more abiding need than could be solved by a simple Top 10 single. He knew that something was missing in his life, that just driving off into the night wouldn’t fill the absence he increasingly felt in his soul, but he was still nowhere near embracing Carter’s solution to this crisis: increased civic involvement. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God,” Carter had declared, “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” Springsteen obviously believed in hard work, but the only community he had ever been a part of was the Upstage. Ever the proud individualist, he was innately suspicious of virtually all systems, structures, clubs, and experts, even if they claimed they were trying to help him.

In other words, Springsteen’s criticism of Ronald Reagan from the stage in Tempe was in no way a too-late endorsement of Jimmy Carter. It was simply a voiced suspicion of Reagan, who had been clearly labeled a public enemy of rock ’n’ roll since Jeffrey Shurtleff’s mockery of him at Woodstock at the absolute latest. Given his later admissions of political apathy during the 1970s, it is doubtful that Springsteen was acquainted with too many of the specifics of Reagan’s political platform. He just seemed like the kind of person who wouldn’t be too comfortable with “freaks.”

Nevertheless, there was more truth than Springsteen realized to his knee-jerk statement that he didn’t know what his fans thought about what had happened the previous night. What Springsteen probably didn’t know at that time, but would become clear once the 1980 election results were more closely analyzed, was that the youth vote broke slightly for Reagan, with many of the youngest baby boomers casting their first presidential votes that year for the former California governor. Moreover, Reagan received 49 percent of the Catholic vote, 40 percent of the union vote, and 24 percent of the votes cast by registered Democrats, all groups to which Springsteen had strong personal ties.

We will never know for sure, but statistically there is an excellent chance that many of the young women and men in Springsteen’s audience in Tempe who had voted the previous day had voted for Ronald Reagan. This may have seemed inconceivable to Springsteen, but if you weren’t listening carefully, it was surprisingly easy to be a fan of both men that fall. Like Springsteen (not to mention the pop singers of the 1960s whom he so admired), Reagan spoke to the heart, not the head; he “made sense of the world narratively”; and he thought that structures and institutions tended to get in the way of individual effort — all attitudes surprisingly consonant with the ethos of a song like “Out in the Street,” for example. The night before the election, Governor Reagan had even declared that he would be honored to lead what he called “the freest society the world has ever known.” Until Bruce Springsteen started telling audiences what he thought about the Soviet Union or the size of the federal budget — until he told them specifically what he found frightening about the president-elect, which he did not do that night in Tempe — it was perfectly understandable for his more casual fans to think that he might be a “Reagan Democrat” too.

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In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran for president mostly on what he considered the most important issues: lowering taxes, shrinking the federal government, rebuilding U.S. defense in the face of what he deemed a détente-emboldened Soviet Union. That year, his campaign aired cheap-looking TV spots in which the candidate spoke directly to the camera about soaring energy costs in front of a fake-looking shelf of books, as if he were a personal-injury lawyer looking for new clients. Four years later, however, after closely reading the poll data, in-house pragmatists like James Baker counseled the president that his long-standing supporters would vote for him no matter what. For the reelection campaign, Reagan’s team focused on images rather than issues, particularly in its advertising, which featured suburban homes, rural churches, forests, and gardens, all of them signifying a bucolic America that the ad copy suggested the president had restored. In 1980, the campaign had sold Reagan. Four years later, it was selling a putatively reborn America, in order to pull in voters who didn’t agree with the president already on specific political policies.

So, just as Bruce Springsteen and his advisers were plotting in the spring of 1984 to snag the broadest possible segment of the record-buying public, Ronald Reagan and his advisers were planning that same season in strategically similar ways to pull in the largest possible portion of the electorate. Reagan might be proceeding from the House Un-American Activities Committee-based right and Springsteen from the Monterey Pop-based left, but in 1984 each man was seeking to go beyond the loyal base that he had painstakingly built during the 1970s in order to capture the hearts and minds of the much wider American center. Viewed side by side, their relaunches look strikingly similar at points, particularly in terms of the visuals they presented. Like Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video, “Morning in America,” Reagan’s most famous 1984 reelection ad, was filled with pastels and variations on the American tricolor: pretty red roses, a true-blue sky over the District of Columbia, and dazzlingly bright white picket fences and wedding gowns. A casual observer might think that Springsteen was trying to cynically cash in on the contemporary rise in patriotism, but the reverse was actually true: Reagan and his team were, like Springsteen, trying to put on a good show. Walter Mondale might have sought to be the rock ’n’ roll candidate of 1984 by using a Crosby, Stills and Nash song in one of his advertisements, but the sad truth of that year’s presidential campaign is that Reagan knew how to throw a better arena-style concert than Mondale did. Skydivers, hot-air balloons, and forty thousand people chanting “U.S.A.!” may not have been how Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have kicked off a reelection campaign, but it did sound like one hell of a finale for a Van Halen concert.

Politically, Springsteen’s sympathies may have been more with the Democratic camp, but when Democratic politicians spoke about America, none of them seemed to describe the country found in Springsteen songs. At the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in mid-July — a month after Bruce’s stand at Alpine Valley — Governor Mario Cuomo challenged Reagan’s invocation of John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” by speaking about “the other part of the city [where] there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it.” Two nights later the Reverend Jesse Jackson famously spoke to the convention of “our Nation [as] a rainbow.” What both Reagan and Springsteen understood in 1984, however, was that, after the last 15 or 20 years of battering national history, most Americans didn’t want their nation to be two or many. They wanted it to be one. As one Reagan aide remarked in a memo written on March 8 (while Arthur Baker was adding aerobic-friendly rhythms to the already synth-heavy “Dancing in the Dark”), “If we allow any Democrat to claim optimism or idealism as his issue, we will lose the election.”

Ronald Reagan’s most deeply held ideological tenet, far more important than any specific policy that might have grown out of it, was his belief that the United States was a nation of individuals. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Reagan contended that the core change that his administration had made during the last few years was to shift the government from a philosophy of “statism” that only viewed “people in groups” to one that advanced “the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society.” For the casual listener, how different was that from Springsteen’s current variation on the Elvis Presley freedom speech from four years before, now used to introduce “Born to Run” (in this case, in Largo, Maryland, two nights after Reagan accepted the Republican nomination)?

When I was a kid growing up, and I first heard the music of Elvis Presley, the main thing it did for me was it set my mind free a little bit. I could dream a little bit bigger than I had been. His music and the best of rock ’n’ roll always said to me “Just let freedom ring,” and that’s what we’re here for tonight. But remember you gotta fight for it every day.

For the most part, this was as political as Springsteen got in the summer of 1984. Despite the presence of two or three "Nebraska" songs every night, Springsteen’s most notable response to contemporary politics on this tour so far was his decision to cover the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fightin’ Man” during his encores many nights, as significant an addition on this tour as “Who’ll Stop the Rain” had been four years earlier.

That night at the Capital Centre in Largo, “Street Fightin’ Man” directly followed “Born to Run” during the encores, its first appearance after a two-week absence. In the audience that night was syndicated columnist George Will, who had been invited to the show by Max Weinberg’s wife, Rebecca, who was a fan of his tag-team punditry with Sam Donaldson on Sunday morning TV. For his first and only Springsteen concert, Will wore a bow tie, double-breasted blazer, and dress slacks rather than the increasingly de rigueur denim. At Rebecca’s suggestion, the columnist also stuffed cotton in his ears. In general, Will found Springsteen androgynous, noisy and surrounded by pot smokers, yet in the end he concluded that the singer was “a wholesome cultural portent.” As a political commentator, Will may not have cared about rock ’n’ roll’s future, but he did see Springsteen’s abundant success as an emblem of a robust American present.

Although his columns that year never made this clear, George Will was in fact an off-the-books adviser to the president’s reelection campaign. He seems to have come up with the idea of linking Springsteen with Reagan, but his genuine reaction to Springsteen’s concert was very much in keeping with the Reagan camp’s wider reelection strategy — don’t divide, co-opt. In attempting to seize many formerly liberal strains (even ones associated with the 1960s) and claim them for their own, Reagan’s advisers were piggybacking on a larger, hegemonic shift that had been building in U.S. society for the last year or two. In retrospect, historian Gil Troy has dubbed this shift “the Great Reconciliation,” which evidenced itself, in his words, “in the rise of the corporate activist, the consumer with a conscience, a society filled with people yearning to earn like Rockefellers, but occasionally live and sometimes even vote like Beatniks.”

Very much in this spirit, Will essentially announced in his column that rock was not rebellion. It was hard work. “Backstage,” he noted, “there hovers the odor of Ben-Gay: Springsteen is an athlete draining himself for every audience.” Moreover, he classified Springsteen’s brand of rock as a well-made American product, one that produced large profits and need not be shipped overseas (except on well-managed tours). “If all Americans,” Will continued, “—in labor and 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.”

Whether it was just a lucky accident due to Will’s vacation schedule or a more purposeful delay to help out the president’s cause, Will’s column on Springsteen finally appeared in print on September 13: Over a month after the concert he had attended; a week or so into the official presidential campaign; as “Dancing in the Dark” sank down to no. 50 on the Hot 100, “Cover Me” rose to no. 15, and John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band’s ersatz E Street track “On the Dark Side” sat between the two genuine articles at no. 37. Less than a week later, Ronald Reagan made a scheduled stump appearance in Hammonton, N.J., a fairly rural community about an hour’s drive southwest of Freehold and half an hour northwest of Atlantic City. At this appearance, Reagan’s standard stump speech was altered as usual to include a local reference or two. In this case, the president noted, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in [the] songs of a man 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.”

Over the weekend, between shows, Springsteen tried to make light of Reagan’s comments, but the impression persisted that Reaganism and Springsteenism were one and the same. When you heard Springsteen extol unrestricted individualism as he did in the Let freedom ring rap before “Born to Run,” or speak about the Revolutionary War monument in Freehold as he frequently did before “My Hometown,” you could easily understand why. Generationally specific as Springsteen’s remarks before “My Hometown” might be, they were still stylistically in tune with the similarly honorific remarks that the president had made in France in early June on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, not to mention the tribute to the Statue of Liberty with which he had concluded his speech in Dallas.

By the night of Springsteen’s next performance, at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh on September 21, it was clear that the singer’s Reagan problem was not going away. That night, almost the first thing Springsteen mentioned to the audience was Reagan’s appropriation of his music. "Well, the President was mentioning my name in his speech the other day, and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know? I don’t think it was the 'Nebraska' album," Bruce concluded, "I don’t think he’s been listening to this one," and he led the band into their customary rave-up on “Johnny 99.”

Throughout the concert that night, Springsteen made his displeasure at the current administration known, as he had done briefly after Reagan’s election and during the VVA benefit. It’s important to note, though, that in the ensuing three or four years the specific fight that Springsteen had hinted at back then had never really come. In 1980 and 1981, Springsteen implicitly feared another culture war, like the one the nation had experienced during the early Nixon years. But in its rhetoric, the Reagan administration stressed unity rather than division, especially during this election year. Rock ’n’ roll was not a designated enemy for Ronald Reagan (as it might have been for a previous Republican like Spiro Agnew); pessimism was. Springsteen seems to have prepared himself for a fight that wasn’t even an open disagreement.

That night in Pittsburgh, in trying to definitively distinguish himself from Reagan, Springsteen went somewhere he had rarely gone before: Into the politics of class — not the division of the world into conformists and free spirits, but rather its division into haves and have-nots. Pushed to articulate his political convictions, Springsteen finally moved beyond his 1960s rock ’n’ roll individualism, back to the New Deal communalism he had instinctively absorbed from his parents. Now, as he once again reformulated the monuments story before “My Hometown,” he made his most directly anti-Reagan comment yet:

It’s a long walk from the government that’s supposed to represent all the people to where we [are now. It] seems like something’s happening out there where there’s a lot of stuff being taken away from a lot of people that shouldn’t have it taken away from them. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that this place belongs to us, that this is our hometown.

This was a start. If actively articulating his political concern for those less fortunate, those who might benefit from a larger federal government, was all it took for Springsteen to distinguish himself from the president, then a statement like this should have solved his problems of misperception.

But despite Springsteen’s increasingly explicit political statements as the tour rolled on, the ideological similarities between the two men remained. Springsteen could tell you better than anyone else that music speaks louder than words, and arrangements and setlists often speak louder than both. Every night, Springsteen took his audience on the same phased journey from the bad times of late 1981 to the good times of 1983-84, precisely the same historical journey on which President Reagan took his audiences during his stump speeches; from the "Nebraska"-esque days of “drift” and “torpor” to the promise of “you young people.” “[M]y generation,” Reagan declared near the end of his standard stump speech that fall (almost setting his audience up for a rendition of “Born to Run,” his allegedly favorite Springsteen song), “and a few generations between mine and yours . . . grew up in an America where we took it for granted that you could fly as high and as far as your own strength and ability would take you.” In the end, when you compared Springsteen’s fall 1984 tour with Reagan’s, no matter how different their political visions were supposed to be, their rhetoric seemed a lot alike.

Bruce put in more appearances that fall than the president, whose campaign had restricted his stumping to two or three well-chosen photo ops a week. Springsteen was still introducing “Born to Run” by saying "Let freedom ring" but now added "but it’s no good if it’s just for one. It’s gotta be for everyone." More effectively, he started making room at his concerts for representatives of local food banks and political organizations, giving a shout-out from the stage of the Tacoma Dome to Washington Fair Share, a local coalition dealing with the results of toxic-waste dumping in the Northwest. By that point in the tour, the rock critical establishment (in the person of Jersey Shore-born soon-to-be MTV employee Kurt Loder) had stepped in to try and reburnish Bruce’s liberal reputation. As the tour made its way down the coast to Los Angeles, Loder conducted Springsteen’s first extended interview with Rolling Stone, giving him a widely distributed, rock-friendly forum in which to make his differences from the president clear.

None of it, though, made any difference, at least not in terms of the presidential race. On Sunday, November 4, two days before the election, Bruce and the band finished up a seven-night stand in Los Angeles, pulling out a rarely performed “Shut Out the Light” as a dedication for audience member Ron Kovic. Four days later, they were right back where they had been almost exactly four years earlier: onstage at Arizona State University in Tempe, looking ahead to four years of Ronald Reagan in the White House, this time elected by a wider margin than any nominee since Franklin Delano Roosevelt nearly half a century before. This time, Bruce didn’t say anything from the stage about the election.

Reprinted from "Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll" by Marc Dolan. Copyright © 2012 by Marc Dolan. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

By Marc Dolan

Marc Dolan is an associate professor of English and Film Studies at John Jay Colllege, CUNY, and the author of "Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll"

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