What Bruce Springsteen Has to Say about the Crisis of Responsibility

Springsteen on Broadway has become the talk of New York City, and for good reason.  Whether one is a die-hard Bruce Springsteen fan (like me) or not, the 150 minutes of uninterrupted Bruce Springsteen biography and acoustic music from The Boss himself, just dozens of feet away, is surreal.  The show which began in the second half of 2017 has now been extended through June of 2018, selling out 960 seats at the Kerr Theatre every single night.  Mr. Springsteen walks his audience through his life story, from early childhood infatuation with the guitar, to the challenges of “making it” as a musician, all the way through the band’s adventures into stardom, and his marriage to his wife of the last 27 years, Patty Scialfa.  The show is deeply personal, the script mostly extracted from his autobiography of 2016, Born to Run.  And the music?  Well, the music is just pure Bruce, which is to say, unforgettable.

Bruce Springsteen made a career out of writing songs to blue-collar, working-class Americans, and he did it in the 1970’s, when much of that demographic was spinning out of the Vietnam War.  Societal turmoil was at a peak, as economic malaise rather violently ended what had been a robust multi-decade post-war economic expansion. A variety of cultural transformations were not favorable to many working class Americans.  Anxiety and often desperation were common and even understandable responses to the plight of industrial America.

And out of this cultural dynamic came Bruce Springsteen, whose appeal was pure aspirational American dream stuff at its finest:

In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway nine
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run

The reality is that if one listened to the 2016 campaign rhetoric, and the mid-1970’s lyrics to a Bruce Springsteen song, they may not know the two things being described were actually forty years apart.  Indeed, as the Trump campaign successfully tapped into, at least in rhetoric and attention paid, significant challenges persist in Rust Belt America.  Bruce Springsteen wrote songs about the desperation felt by many living at a time where the economic challenges were far worse, and far newer.  Steel mills really were closing by the day, and a generation of people who wanted to work was facing brand new obstacles to their hopes and dreams.  The escapism embedded in Springsteen lyrics was appealing, but so was the aspiration:

Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets
Well now, I ain’t no hero, that’s understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey, what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well, the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven’s waiting on down the tracks

The dynamics created by globalization and now technological automation continue to warrant an intelligent policy response.  But they also warrant a vibrant cultural response, and it is the failure of that response that has caused me to deem the present era a Crisis of Responsibility, and write a book on the same (coming February 13, 2018).

It is as tragic now as it was then to “waste our summers praying in vain for a Savior to rise from the streets.”  There was no 1970’s version of NAFTA, immigration, politicians, foreign countries, banks, media outlets, or grievance du jour at the heart of Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics.  Put simply, there was a context of struggle, a moment of pause, and then, a decision to overcome.  There was no defeatism in the urge to “believe in a promised land,” or to “spit in the face of these badlands.”  Song after song and album after album acknowledged the challenges his target audience faced (challenges that Springsteen comically admits in his biography and theater production, he actually never encountered whatsoever), but then to take responsibility for the overcoming of these challenges.

This is not to say 1970’s Bruce Springsteen abdicated external forces of their role in creating societal angst.  In fact, it would seem that there is a heavily implied acceptance of the populist angst that elites are suppressing opportunity for disgruntled classes (a premise widely accepted in contemporary populist-nationalism as well).

But I would suggest that the mantra laid out in a couple decades of Bruce Springsteen lyrics makes for a better playbook than what we are seeing prescribed today – namely, a culture of blame-casting, political polarization more severe than any we have ever seen, and a defeatism made only more tragic by the amount of forces defending it as opposed to working against it.

To his credit, Bruce Springsteen, a self-proclaimed liberal Democrat, is reasonably restrained in his Broadway show when it comes to his left-wing politics.  He doesn’t hide the ball entirely, but limits his comments to a few barely veiled references to the need for change, and how important it is that his [Manhattan] audience wait things out, and usher in a new day (presumably a post-Trumpian day).  Few would be surprised that Bruce Springsteen is anti-Trump, or that his audience is.  As a passionate Bruce Springsteen fan for over thirty years, his politics don’t bother this conservative Republican in the least.  I love his music, I love his songwriting, and it has never occurred to me to turn to any musician or celebrity for a prescription of great policy or political debate.

But maybe The Boss does have a lot to say about the present crisis of responsibility.  In fact, maybe much of what he has to say is far more important than what politicians or policymakers on either side of the aisle are saying about it.  But maybe, The Boss said it all best in song lyrics written in the 1970’s.

It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win.