His brand of rock may be the sound of a bygone age, but the best of The Boss -still perfectly captures the erosion of the American Dream.
Bruce Springsteen: The Collection 1973-84
His brand of rock may be the sound of a bygone age, but the best of The Boss -still perfectly captures the erosion of the American Dream, writes Dan Hancox.
The Collection 1973-84
The idea of heartland rock seems anachronistic in 2010. The genre name was coined to describe a style of American 1970s and 1980s blue-collar guitar music, telling earnest tales of hard-working Rust Belt folks living and loving in tough times. Influenced by the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and The Byrds, it found its voice in the likes of John "Cougar" Mellencamp, Bob Seger, Tom Petty - and most of all in The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.
Armed with a simple but effective rhythm section, stirring choruses, and the plaintive wail of a harmonica, heartland rock's story-telling evoked a sense of honest struggle, real despair, and glimmers of defiant optimism in the darkness. As he sings on Badlands: "Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland / Got a head-on collision, smashin' in my guts man." It's the same atmosphere evoked in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter. Ostensibly a Vietnam War film and most famous for its Russian roulette sequence, its scenes "back home" in a small working-class Pennsylvania town speak to a distinct era of American history and to the idea of an American everyman (significantly, not an everywoman) nobly struggling to get by.
Springsteen's 1981 song The River is one of many apotheoses of the heartland rock aesthetic - a passionate tale of a young man full of wide-eyed romance and idealism, who, with his high-school sweetheart Mary would "ride out of this valley down to where the fields were green". The river of the title is the release from the hardship and drudgery of working-class life, something redemptive to aspire to: it represents youth, zeal and optimism - and, ultimately, the American ideal. Tellingly, everything evaporates when the scales falls from the protagonist's eyes:
"I got a job working construction, for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain't been much work, on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister, they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don't remember
Mary acts like she don't care"
"Is a dream a lie if it don't come true?" Springsteen asks in the coda, "even though I know the river is dry." This expression of the American dream gone sour - and heartland rock generally - seemed to dissipate with the end of Reagan's presidency in 1988.
Will Straw, a professor at Montreal's McGill University, identified the cause of the genre's demise in a 1991 essay for the journal Cultural Studies as "the alliance of young adolescents with dance music and heavy metal, and... the hazy buying patterns of older adolescents and young adults, who are distributing their purchasing power across a wide range of catalogue or speciality materials newly available on compact disc".
However, it wasn't just the organic expiration of a musical genre. What SPIN magazine called "meat and potatoes populism" was no longer possible. The tastes of young Americans had begun to undergo a sea-change: a rapidly advancing diversification and specialisation. Since the invention of the teenager in the 1950s and 1960s, there had always been competing subcultures, but not nearly on this scale. Straw argued that technology was facilitating a much greater variety in individual tastes. If this was true in 1990 it was nothing compared to what would happen upon the arrival of the internet.
If heartland rock is the sound of a bygone era, Bruce Springsteen: The Collection 1973-84 offers the very best of it, containing The Boss's first seven albums, from 1973's debut Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ to 1984's Born In The USA. While he has released many great albums since, this was a period in which Springsteen's rugged populism was at its height. The 76 songs brought together here offer all of artist's most potent tropes: "the rain tumbled down hard and cold" on 1980's Wreck On A Highway, "she kissed me just right, like only a lonely angel can" on 1973's Spirit In The Night, "rumbling through this promised land" on 1978's Racing In The Street, he'll "shake this world off my shoulders" on 1984's Dancing In The Dark. It's an astonishingly consistent aesthetic that sits at the heart of a powerfully cohesive body of work.
Springsteen's appeal lies in his determination to retain his status as a voice of the people. After the modest success of his first two albums, Born to Run, his 1975 LP, was given a huge promotional push; he was touted as "the next Dylan" and managed the extraordinary feat for a rock star of appearing on the cover of TIME and Newsweek in the same week. Springsteen was uncomfortable about the nature of the attention, the "future of rock 'n' roll" headlines.
The result was Darkness On The Edge of Town, a downbeat triumph which foreshadowed his genuine masterpiece, the beautiful, bleak 1982 album Nebraska.
Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of Springsteen. The misappropriation of Born in the USA by Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign is the stuff of legend: right-wing commentators ignored the title track's nuanced narrative of a bitter Vietnam veteran, trumpeting it as a rousing patriotic anthem. It was drafted in to serve the idea that white American working-class culture is uncomplicatedly patriotic, monolithic, and aspirational.
This same idea, that American populism was innately right-wing, was propagated by the Republicans in an attempt to nix Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008. A black liberal intellectual could never succeed in white, working-class Rust Belt states, according to received wisdom. The same self-fulfilling prophecy worked when used against John Kerry in 2004: that the masses wouldn't vote for "elitist" Democrats who don't understand the American masses. As a lifelong liberal, it was incumbent on Springsteen to try and reclaim the populist ground for Obama in 2008. He did so by playing numerous benefit shows, and making clear his support for the Democratic candidate.
"Obama's a unique figure in history," he said, saluting "the fundamental Americanness of his story and the fact that he represents for many, many people an image and a view of the country that felt like it was so long missing in action." For Springsteen, Obama and America are the same thing. "This place we've been talking about, singing about… it's alive. It isn't dead. It exists," he has said.
At the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009, President Obama returned the favour, calling him the "rock 'n' roll laureate of a generation", adding his own take on the Springsteen aesthetic: "His tours are not so much concerts, but communions - there's a place for everybody: no matter who you are, or what you do, everyone deserves their shot at the American dream, everyone deserves a little bit of dignity, everybody deserves to be heard. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, when he rocked the National Mall before my inauguration, I thought it captured as well as anything the spirit of what America should be about - I'm the President; but he's the Boss."
Perhaps it took Obama's election campaign to revive Springsteen's notion of the heartland. Obama was the first Democrat since President Clinton in his early, unsullied first term to capture a sense of American universalism, one so easily and regularly wrenched from the party's grasp by the opposition. Obama's populist moment was a brief one, of course; it dissipated with incredible speed after his triumphant inauguration, buried in partisan acrimony. His supporters chided him for not being radical enough, while his enemies portrayed him as a communist, as un-American. Since, the rise of the Tea Party has brought about another grassroots shift toward the country's right wing.
The all-too-rapid corrosion of Obama's promise fits in perfectly with Springsteen's worldview. Nothing worth fighting for comes easily, and nothing beautiful lasts forever. If Obama really is America, it should come as no surprise that he has suffered a similar fate. The question is whether he will keep going down to the river - though he knows that the river is dry.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.