Bruce Springsteen: A conservative critique of his latter day anthems

It’s easy to conclude “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “We Take Care of Our Own” are fundamentally liberal songs, pushing liberal policy ideas, given Mr. Springsteen’s own far-left leanings, but is that truly the case?  As the Boss himself used to say, trust the art, not the artist to unlock an underlying message of personal responsibility, individuality, and freedom throughout this work.

Bruce Springsteen is a far-left liberal who bemoans the plight of the poor and disadvantaged while living a life of power, prestige, and privilege few can scarcely imagine.  This disconnect hasn’t escaped his own notice.  As early as 1987, he was singing “I’m just a lonely pilgrim, I walk this world in wealth, I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust, ‘Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself” in the elegant “Brilliant Disguise.”  A few years later, he would confront the irony directly in “Better Days,” “It’s a sad, funny ending when you find yourself pretending, a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.”  Since then, however, he has continued to amass more wealth, power, and influence.  Mr. Springsteen will boast a net worth of well over a billion dollars after he receives a check from Sony for close to $550 million for the sale of his song catalog.  Today, he is the elite of the elite, even hobnobbing with former President Barack Obama, recording a podcast series and writing a book together.  The two call themselves “Renegades” as they sit at the absolute pinnacle of culture and society.

In this regard, it’s tempting to dismiss Mr. Springsteen as one of the world’s biggest hypocrites, and there is certainly some truth to the limousine liberal aspect of his public persona, lecturing us all on how we should conduct our lives and what taxes we should pay while he remains safely insulated by his own wealth and status, not remotely subject to any of the consequences of his beliefs.  At the same time, hypocrisy is a feature of human nature itself, not a direct product of one’s political persuasion, something everyone is capable of and has likely engaged in many times throughout their lives.  The fair-minded person tempers judgement with grace and forgiveness for human foibles.  Thus, we can acknowledge that Mr. Springsteen’s political positions should be taken with appropriate skepticism, while we celebrate his life, his work, and the enduring influence the legendary musician has had on millions of fans.  Even as a red-blooded conservative, you can say it outright:  I love, some may even say worship, the Boss, finding in his music an unparalleled musical and lyrical artistry spanning close to five decades.

Oddly, what I do not find in his work, or at least the vast, vast majority of it, is anything inherently liberal or progressive.  The stories Mr. Springsteen tells, the characters he examines, the situations they struggle against, and even the exhortations he has made for all of us to be better people, can all be seen outside any immediate political frame of reference.  Rarely, if ever are there any policy prescriptions here; his work only becomes political when you consider his personal beliefs in addition to the actual creations themselves.  Mr. Springsteen himself had a saying for avoiding this dichotomy:  Trust the art, not the artist.  With that in mind, consider “Land of Hope and Dreams,” originally released as part of his Live in New York City compilation in 2001.  The song itself is part arena-rock anthem, frequently closing shows on that and subsequent tours, part clarion call for a better, more accepting world.  It’s the type of song Mr. Springsteen would revisit several times in the latter half of his career, foregoing the complex, character driven stories that originally made him famous for the creation of a collective moment with the audience, where he can inform thousands of screaming fans they are all in this together and they can agree by screaming the lyrics back at the band in a celebration of life and music.

It is easy, however, to slip into a lazy interpretation knowing Mr. Springsteen’s personal political beliefs, concluding we can only arrive in the “Land of Hope and Dreams” through progressive policies.  In this conception, the cheery destination Bruce describes, “Well, big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams, Meet me in the land of hope and dreams,” a place where “tomorrow there’ll be sunshine, And all this darkness past,” can only be realized with a Democrat in office and a sufficiently liberal Congress.  The rousing chorus, if anything, only seems to further serve such a political conclusion:

Well, this train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, hear the steel wheels singin’
This train, bells of freedom ringin’

At the same time, there is not a single word in the song that takes any specific political position.  We add our own, after the fact, reasoning that Mr. Springsteen is a liberal and therefore the song must be making a liberal statement, namely his “Land of Hope and Dreams” cannot be the conservative land of the same.

We should be hesitant to do so, however, for a closer reading of the lyrics introduces several innately conservative themes, beginning with personal responsibility and caring for those closest to us.  The speaker declares to a loved one “Well darlin’ if you’re weary, Lay your head upon my chest, We’ll take what we can carry, Yeah, and we’ll leave the rest.”  He continues, making a personal commitment to his lover, “Well, I will provide for you, and I’ll stand by your side, You’ll need a good companion, For this part of the ride.”  It is only together, between the two, that Mr. Springsteen arrives at “tomorrow they’ll be sunshine, And all this darkness past.”  In this framing, it’s the personal relationship that leads them to the “Land of Hope and Dreams.”  Support for this point of view can also be seen in both the notion of a faith that “will be rewarded” and the “bells of freedom ringin’” as the song itself rings in an upbeat mandolin riff, pulling us forward to the chorus.  Further, successful personal relationships require acceptance and grace, therefore the train packed with both winners and losers, whores and gamblers, and lost souls, even kings in the final chorus, becomes one where we personally accept one another, even as we acknowledge their fundamental differences.

There is little in my mind more inherently conservative than that.  Nor is “Land of Hope and Dreams” the only latter day Springsteen anthem open to this more conservative interpretation.  “We Take Care of Our Own” is a song that serves a similar purpose and uses a similar structure, eschewing characters for the collective power of music.  It is also one with a more inherently political connotation, referencing the horror of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and featured prominently at the 2012 Democrat Political Convention.  A closer examination of the lyrics themselves, however, reveals a much more complex picture.  This time, the speaker has “been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone” and “The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone.”  While it might be easy to view that in a political context, the words themselves are purely describing the individual speaker’s experience.  He or she meets other individuals who have let themselves become jaded, personally.  It’s the responsibility of all of us as individuals to keep an open heart and ensure our actions meet our intentions.

This idea is made even more explicit in the next verse, where the speaker alludes to crime in Chicago and the aftermath of Katrina.  “From Chicago to New Orleans, from the muscle to the bone, From the shotgun shack to the Superdome.”  He derides that “There ain’t no help,” but then specifically identifies a failure of government and collective action, claiming the “cavalry stayed home.”  The speaker quickly returns to the theme of personal responsibility in the very next line, “There ain’t no one hearing the bugle blowin’.”  This theme echoes throughout the rest of the song, when the speaker questions:

Where’re the eyes, the eyes with the will to see
Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me
Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free
Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me
Where’s the promise from sea to the shining sea

Where’s the promise from sea to the shining sea

To be sure, in Springsteen’s liberal-leaning mind, these questions might well have a progressive political answer, but whatever solutions he might propose aren’t actually in the song.  Instead, it can be seen as a call for all of us to be better as individual people, more loving, more caring, more charitable, more giving, and that we can only achieve our goals through personal choices, turning our hearts from stone.  This is how we realize the “promise from sea to shining sea,” and “take care of our own, Wherever this flag is flown.”  It’s a call for us to take care of each other on a personal rather than a collective level.  Indeed, according to Springsteen himself in the song itself, the collective level has already completely failed after the cavalry stays home.  Once again, you can’t get much more conservative than insisting a personal choice to improve ourselves and help our neighbors is more effective than massive collective action by the government.

Nor is “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “We Take Care of Our Own” the only latter day Springsteen anthems in this mode.  “Wrecking Ball,” from the 2012 album of the same name, is part autobiography, part ode to personal achievement, challenge, and ultimately loss.  The song throws down the gauntlet of individuality and the power to overcome adversity from the very first verse:

So if you’ve got the guts mister
Yeah, if you got the balls
If you think it’s your time
Then step to the line
And bring on your wrecking ball

We might even consider an even more overtly political song like “American Skin (41 Shots),” written after Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times by the police in New York City in 1999, originally performed in 2001.  In concert, New York City police officers stood up and turned their backs to the stage, but was that really warranted?  To be sure, the song does repeat “41 shots” dozens of times, making it clear Springsteen was concerned about the shooting.  At the same time, the song puts you in the mind of the police officers themselves, explicitly, saying “Is it a gun?  Is it a knife?  Is it a wallet?  This is your life.”  The officers are also “kneeling over his body in the vestibule, Praying for his life.”  Intentional or not, it also gets to the root cause of much of the police involved violence on the streets.  Lena tells her son Charles, “If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite, And that you’ll never ever run away, Promise Mama, you’ll keep your hands in sight.”

Of course, Mr. Springsteen and other progressives will likely disagree with these conclusions.  Mr. Springsteen might even dislike me personally given my promotion of conservative ideas and my refusal to accept the conventional wisdom propagated by the mainstream media.  They are and he is entitled to their opinion, but the beauty of art is that it takes on a life of its own outside the personal predilections of the creator.  If you can argue on behalf of feminist critiques of Shakespeare, you can argue for conservative critiques of Bruce Springsteen.  Therefore, it is my opinion that Springsteen’s work is at least partially founded on a deep respect for the individual and the power of personal achievement against the impersonal forces of the government and big business, all of which are primarily conservative concerns.  In other words, trust the art, not the artist, and prove me wrong.

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