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Torn in the USA

The Boss is a legend to some and a laugh to others. To me, he's been both.

Bruce Springsteen is a phony piece of crap.

This was my firm opinion as a teenager in the early '90s just starting to seriously get into music. And I wasn't alone. Ask anyone of roughly the same age, and you'll likely hear a similar sentiment: Back then, Springsteen -- America's working-class poet, her great red-white-and-blue-collar champion -- was equated with lame, flag-waving, irrelevant dad rock. Hell, even Bryan Adams was cooler. Did George Bush Sr. ever blast "The Summer of '69" to drum up votes? Nope. But we all grew up hearing Ronald Reagan speak on TV during his 1984 re-election campaign with "Born in the U.S.A." pumping like adrenaline and anti-aircraft fire in the background. Regardless of whatever political leanings children absorb from their folks, no kids in their right mind want to rock out to anything the presidentlikes.

Of course, the Gipper -- assuming he actually ever heard more than a ten-second loop of Springsteen's music -- probably didn't like it at all. And to Springsteen's credit, he did meekly request that Reagan stop co-opting his song. As liberals, rock critics and the Boss himself have been eager to point out ever since, "Born in the U.S.A." isn't some chest-thumping lump of jingoism. It's a human story about the inhumanity of the Vietnam War, a parable of global imperialism on a grave-sized scale.

But all of the Springsteen apologists and revisionist historians are glossing over one major point: His signature tune is ambiguous enough to be taken both ways -- as either protest song or patriotic opiate. To this day, there are millions of middle-Americans who have no idea that "Born in the U.S.A." was intended as anything other than a pinch-hitter for the national anthem. And it didn't come off like an accident. As Jefferson Morley theorized in 1987 in The New Republic, both Springsteen and Reagan "deftly use the mass media to define what is American, to present a seemingly natural but carefully molded persona with which their audience can identify." Even as a teen, I saw Springsteen as cynical and cunning, some shape-shifting ass-kisser trying to be everything to Everyman.

By the start of the '90s, the punk party line of sincerity and honesty had finally started trickling into the mass rock consciousness. The contrived candor of U2 and REM didn't cut it anymore; my friends and I reveled in Nirvana's open-wound howling, in Fugazi's lockjaw tension. I read about the Clash in Rolling Stone, and the band quickly became my favorite. "I was born in the USA" didn't resonate as much with me as "I'm so bored with the USA." Springsteen, who in 1992 released his two most poorly rated albums, Human Touchand Lucky Town, looked as shady and fake as the orchestrated rise of the alternative nation -- you know, all those washed-up metal dudes putting Manic Panic in their hair and getting into Primus.

Since then, Springsteen has experienced an astounding comeback -- not just in popularity, but in credibility. His brand-new album, Devils and Dust, was released in conjunction with a sold-out tour of solo performances featuring the Boss alone and unadorned. The disc, from its gritty cover to its even grittier contents, is sheer, mythic Springsteen: an alloy of slide guitar, side-mouthed sneers, Ford trucks, bloody mud and no small amount of existential humbleness.

But Devils isn't Springsteen's first stab at whittled-down rusticity. In 1995 he enjoyed a renaissance with The Ghost of Tom Joad, a stark record harking back to that dark horse of his catalogue, 1982's Nebraska, which was a savvy move. In the mid-'90s, alt-country was in full swing. Uncle Tupelo and Will Oldham launched a thousand copycats, all of whom were enthusiastically documented in the fanzine No Depression. Indie-rock bands started name-dropping the Flying Burrito Brothers and Emmylou Harris -- anything with a twang that you could hang an "Americana" tag on. And that wholeheartedly included Springsteen. In 2000, Sub Pop released Badlands, a tribute to Nebraskathat featured royalty such as Johnny Cash and Hank Williams III rubbing elbows with indie shlubs like Crooked Fingers and Damien Jurado.

The fact that Badlandswas an homage to Nebraska -- and not Springsteen's music as a whole -- is telling. Even at the turn of the millennium, hipsters were still squeamish about wholeheartedly embracing the Boss. Around 1998, a friend gave me a secondhand vinyl copy of the album; a native of Grand Island, Nebraska, he told me that it had long been a favorite of his. I thought he was crazy. There we were, two guys into emo split singles and hardcore warehouse shows, with our fingerprints all over a freaking Bruce Springsteen record. It was surreal. But when I went home and played the record that night, those hushed and ghostly songs washed away whatever post-punk racket was blasting out of my roommates' stereos. Nebraska, it turned out, was just too plain good not to like.

But Springsteen wasn't off the hook. Three years ago he unleashed that horror of horrors, a 9/11-themed album. The Rising, his first effort with the newly re-formed (and frankly annoying) E Street Band, had as its title track another chameleon-like anthem. Bland and buoyant, "The Rising" addressed the World Trade Center tragedy in a language that was vaguely reassuring to just about anyone -- regardless of your take on the attack, its causes or its consequences. But to those wary of Springsteen's knack for manipulation, it stank of populist pandering. "Waiting for that shout from the crowd," chanted toward the end of "Mary's Place," gave every indication that the roar of the hoi polloi was his main, perhaps one true motive.

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