“In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream.”
— “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen, 1975.
There’s trouble in the heartland these days over promises broken and hopes betrayed. Somewhere on that lonely stretch of highway between the boardwalk and the interstate, the landscape turned dark, the American dream receded.
More than a few of the characters in Springsteen’s songs probably would have voted for Donald Trump.
That’s something Bruce Springsteen has been singing about for more than four decades. It’s also a message that has been almost willfully misinterpreted for nearly as long, the first stirrings of a now-familiar world in which reality is anything I say it is, and everything to the contrary is fake news.
The collapse of America’s industrial heartland and the human toll it continues to take is a theme that creeps like a ghost through many Springsteen songs. It’s a perspective that cuts across political lines – workers feel like they’re disposable. Millions of Americans have come around to Springsteen’s view of the country’s problems, even if there’s bitter disagreement over who’s to blame and what to do about it. More than a few of the characters in Springsteen’s songs probably would have voted for Donald Trump.
In Springsteen’s 1978 album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” one Springsteen character finds himself “working all day in my daddy’s garage / Driving all night chasing some mirage” and fighting to maintain a belief in “the Promised Land.” On the album’s title track, the darkness on the edge of town seems to grow ever larger, creeping over more lives. The narrator of “Factory” sees the price his father has had to pay to put food on the family table:
Through the mansions of fear
Through the mansions of pain
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain
Factory takes his hearing
Factory gives him life
The working, the working, just the working life
On 1982’s “Atlantic City,” Springsteen paints a somber picture of a once great American vacation destination gone to seed. In Atlantic City, there’s trouble busing in from out of state, the D.A. can’t get no relief, and the Gambling Commission is hanging on by the skin of its teeth. Atlantic City is dying an ugly death, and the only question is whether there’s any hope of redemption:
Everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on
Fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City
The same year that “Atlantic City” was recorded and released, Donald Trump broke ground on Trump Plaza, a glittering 614-room hotel and casino on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. In the end, not even Trump could turn Atlantic City’s sand into gold. After years of financial difficulties, Trump Plaza closed in September 2014, putting nearly 1,000 employees out of work. Trump would later say in an interview: “Atlantic City fueled a lot of growth for me. The money I took out of there was incredible.”
In 1984, Springsteen released “Born in the U.S.A.,” his most explicit statement about what it means to be an American. The song’s protagonist kicks around in a dead-end town until he gets drafted and shipped off to Vietnam “to go and kill the Yellow man.” After his tour of duty, he returns home to an indifferent America that offers no job, no dignity and no respect for his sacrifice. The song’s superficially patriotic chorus – Born in the U.S.A.! / I was born in the U.S.A.! – is a bitter comment on how the privileges of American citizenry are distributed unequally.
“Born in the U.S.A.” was widely misinterpreted as an irony-free celebration of all things America, mostly by those who wanted that to be Springsteen’s message. Conservative columnist George Will famously misread the song’s meaning in an embarrassing syndicated column in 1984, “A Yankee Doodle Springsteen.”
In Will’s column, the intrepid bow-tied commentator recounted his experiences at a recent Springsteen concert, revealing that he was at first unfamiliar with the odor of marijuana at the concert venue and that three beats into Springsteen’s first song, he stuffed cotton into his ears to protect his hearing.
Having firmly established his rock n’ roll credentials, Will pronounced Springsteen as a shining exemplar of American values. “He is no whiner,” Will wrote. “And the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’”
It was an epic misreading, but a harbinger of things to come. “Born in the U.S.A.” came to mean whatever the listener wanted it to mean, never mind the actual lyrics or the intent of the author.
Will’s misappropriation of Springsteen was soon taken up by others. At a September 1984 campaign stop in Hammonton, New Jersey, President Ronald Reagan declared: “America’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.”
When Springsteen was asked what he thought of Reagan’s invocation, he said, “I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what’s happening, I think, is that that need — which is a good thing — is getting manipulated and exploited. You see it in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, ‘It’s morning in America,’ and you say, ‘Well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh.’”
But why get hung up on things like “meaning” and “truth” when there’s that killer chorus to sing along with – Born in the U.S.A.! Born in the U.S.A.! In 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole played “Born in the U.S.A.” at campaign rallies until Springsteen told him to knock it off. That didn’t stop from Pat Buchanan from expropriating the song four years later during his presidential campaign.
By the 2016 presidential campaign, all shame had been removed from celebrating Springsteen’s music while simultaneously holding views fundamentally opposed to the values championed by his songs.
New Jersey governor (and brief presidential candidate) Chris Christie made much of being Springsteen’s #1 fan, having attended, to his count, more than 140 Springsteen concerts. If nothing else, the fact that Christie can be an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump and still go to a Springsteen concert and pump his fist along to lines such as “Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain’t satisfied until he rules everything” is proof that in the post-factual world, you get to write your own lyrics.
No wonder politicians these days love to quote Springsteen. His uncanny ability to give voice to working Americans is more resonant than ever.
In one of his best songs, “Youngstown,” Springsteen recounts the rise and fall of Youngstown, Ohio, over the course of multiple generations. In 1803, James and Danny Heaton built the Hopewell blast furnace near Youngstown, giving rise to a booming iron and steel industry that would make the cannonballs that helped the Union win the Civil War, and the tanks and bombs that drove the Allies to victory in World War II.
Springsteen’s protagonist in “Youngstown” works in the local steel mills just like his father did, until the invisible hand of global capitalism does “what Hitler couldn’t do” – shuts down the mills. Smokestacks that once reached into the sky “like the arms of God” are torn down. Lives that once depended on the mills become rusted scrap. The narrator of “Youngstown” speaks for millions of casually discarded American workers:
From the Monongahela Valley
To the Mesabi iron range
To the coal mines of Appalachia
The story’s always the same
Seven hundred tons of metal a day
Now sir, you tell me the world’s changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name
Today, the runaway American dream seems further away than ever. Still, we press on in our tightly sealed cars, with the windows rolled up and the radio cranked to a station that espouses views completely in alignment with our own, headed straight for that darkness on the edge of town.