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 president likes.
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.
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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 Touch and 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 Nebraska that featured royalty such as Johnny Cash and Hank Williams III rubbing elbows with indie shlubs like Crooked Fingers and Damien Jurado.
The fact that Badlands was 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.
But a funny thing has been happening over the past few years. Call it irony. Call it decadence. Call it boredom with indie-rock dogma. Stephen Malkmus started citing Thin Lizzy as an influence. Low covered Journey. And they didn't appear to be joking. The bad classic rock and crass, plastic pop of my youth was somehow becoming cool again. The more I was exposed to Springsteen's older albums like Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River, the better they sounded. There was still a certain guilty-pleasure factor at play, but those records suddenly sounded so tough and raw and real -- even with Clarence Clemons's overblown sax and Little Steven's limp Clapton-isms. Now, Elizabeth Wurtzel's reconciliation of punk rock and the Boss in Prozac Nation made a whole lot more sense. "For me there was just Bruce," she wrote, "and the Clash, the Who, the Jam, the Sex Pistols, all of those punk bands talking about toppling the system in the UK, which had nothing to do with being so lonesome you could die in the USA."
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This past Saint Patrick's Day, I watched Bruce Springsteen step up to a podium, slouch over, unfold a scrap of paper and make a speech inducting U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was channel-surfing at my mom's house. I don't have cable, nor would I ever have consciously chosen to watch the program. But as soon as I realized what was going on, I was glued to the screen. One icon of my childhood, Springsteen, was roasting another, Bono, for being a sellout, the "operator of the Bono burger franchise," possessor of "one of the greatest and most endearingly naked messianic complexes in rock and roll." After the burst of laughter from the audience died down, the Boss cracked a crooked grin and backpedaled: "God bless you, man! It takes one to know one."
Now, listening to Devils and Dust through for the tenth time, its self-deprecating weariness and acidic glory eat into me. With only the barest backing -- strings, piano, violin, the occasional forlorn moan of a trumpet -- Springsteen spins near-biblical tales of saviors, survivors, prostitutes, murderers and demons with a voice that wanders from gulping yodel to menacing growl. This isn't duplicity. It's multiplicity. Yes, Springsteen had whored his art out to the masses in the past. Yes, he's less cloying than Bono -- only in the sense that he at least laughs at his own messiah complex. But that same complex drove him to take the most overt political stance of his career last year, campaigning (albeit in vain) to defeat George W. Bush. Maybe the Boss felt guilty that he never made a very big deal about Reagan's appropriation of "Born in the U.S.A." Ever image-conscious, perhaps he's trying to secure his legend as a paragon of rock-and-roll sincerity, the myth that he's built his entire career on.
But does that make him a phony? After all, as social pundit Simon Frith so pithily pointed out, "Bruce Springsteen is a millionaire who dresses as a worker." Looking at myself and my friends, though, we're a bunch of dorks who dress like Bruce Springsteen: ragged jeans, Western shirts, beat-up Telecasters. I even listen to "Born in the U.S.A." nowadays, by choice -- and not just the grainy, Nebraska-era demo, either. I mean the same version that's been sunk into my cerebrum like a hypnotic suggestion since childhood. And maybe brainwashing is all it is. I was, after all, born in the USA. But when that song comes on the radio, I don't think of Reaganomics anymore or pop exploitation or even the inherent evils of nationalism. I just crank it up and yell along.
With every goddamn word.