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America neglects Springsteen’s message

Guest Blogger

Bruce Springsteen rode to the top of American music as conservatives and market ideologues climbed into power in Washington. His music and the poetry of his lyrics have challenged the status quo for four decades and as his reward he has been largely misunderstood, his radical calls for reform ignored. David Masciotra seeks to give the Boss his due in “Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen,” published by Continuum.

By David Masciotra

American culture is quite adept at co-opting figures of political significance and resistance, and transforming them into sanitized and sterile shadows of their authentic selves. Every January, there is much discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of course his “I Have a Dream Speech,” but there is scarce acknowledgement of his fierce anti-racism, anti-war, and anti-poverty message. This year McDonalds even used his image on the paper that comes with each food tray. King has been transformed from a warrior for justice to a benign Santa Claus offering hallmark sentimentality about harmony.

Bruce Springsteen is not the leader of the greatest social movement in American history. He is a rock ‘n’ roll musician. Therefore, it should come as very little surprise that mainline culture has relegated him to the role of entertainer or partisan Democrat without examining the subversive lyrical content at the heart of his wildly eclectic and exciting musical ride. Much more important than an entertainer, and much more deeply democratic than a Democrat, Springsteen offers a message that condemns the status quo and challenges the listener’s political, moral, and spiritual sensibilities.

It is a message that begins with radical love. Whether it is for the gay man dying of AIDS in “Streets of Philadelphia,” Amadou Diallo -- the West African immigrant shot down by police officers in “American Skin,” the child forced to grow up in a neighborhood where bullets are flying and families are collapsing in “Black Cowboys,” or the soldier killed in an unnecessary and unjustified war in “Last to Die,” Springsteen spotlights everyday people whose suffering is too often ignored by the American political system.

The political establishment has prioritized Wall Street in the current financial crisis. Springsteen encourages listeners to begin with the unemployed in “Atlantic City” and “Seeds.”

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have focused on the needs of the Pentagon and themselves when dealing with war. Springsteen begins and ends with the active serviceman and veteran in “Devils and Dust” and “Born in the USA.”

The insistence on viewing the world through the lens of suffering and struggling people is motivated by and indicative of a radical love that extends to the “least of these” -- the nightside of America that is forced to the locational and political margins.

Radical love is inseparable from justice. If one loves people one cannot stand to see their needs neglected, their voices muted, or their pain untreated. Throughout his life, Springsteen has invested his music, labor, and money in causes that serve the suffering, attempt to hold self-minded elites accountable, and bring justice and democracy to all who live under America’s great flag.

The failure to recognize the complexity and challenge of Springsteen’s message, along with that of much more important figures like King, demonstrates America’s inability to wrestle with its toughest questions and critically examine itself.

While Springsteen’s music objects to this conservatism, it also presents hope in the form of community and solidarity. It peers into the darkness, sings a sweet song, encourages a combative spirituality, and asks those in the audience to reach out their hands to those around them, both in the arena and the world.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  March 23, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: bruce springsteen's politics; springsteen's political impact  
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