Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part XI: Meet Me In The Land Of Hopes And Dreams

Arts criticism is, by its very nature, interpretation.

And the human trait of confirmation bias makes it possible for just about any human being to make just about any case for any art.  It’d be hypothetically possible for someone to try to show that Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Dostoëvski’s Crime and Punishment, is really a homoerotic metaphor.  Of course, the burden is on the person making the case that the interpretation is meaningful, or in fact not complete balderdash – a burden nobody has met in re Crime and Punishment or, to the best of my knowledge, ever attempted.

Music is among the more emotionally-evocative art forms – for me, anyway, and I know I’m not alone.

This entire series started last fall, just round election time.  A friend of mine – a fairly mid-level Democrat organizer and consultant type – tweeted a while back something to the effect of “Have any of you Republican Springsteen fans actually listened to the music?”

My response;  Yes.  More than you have, and likely will.  Springsteen’s been one of my musical favorites since my mid-teens, including my brief stretch of time as a liberal, into my early twenties.  If anything I became a bigger fan after I became a conservative.

Springsteen didn’t become overtly political until much later in his career.  His music was expressly non-political until at least the mid-nineties; his Ghost of Tom Joad album was the first to really noodle around in politics (and do it generally badly – Joad is one of his least-remembered records).

Indeed, at the height of his career he made a point of being studiously non-political, at least in terms of the partisan scrum.  Liberals chortle about the 1984 episode where Springsteen rebuked Ronald Reagan for trying to co-opt “Born in the USA”; they – and the media that still mention the event – forget that days later, he did the same to Walter Mondale for trying to make his own hay out of the episode.  Leftist rock critics like Dave Marsh – who was for decades my favorite rock critic, notwithstanding his habit of injecting his infantile socialist politics into every issue, and even as I started realizing “rock critics” were even more useless to this world than paparazzi and Kardashians – hooted and hollered about the political implications of Springsteen’s much-publicized donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities along the way during his Born in the USA tour, ignoring the fact that conservatives as a rule support private charity.

As Springsteen got older, and his career cooled off a bit in the nineties, he got more overtly political – at about the point where his most notable right-of-center fans, the Chris Christies and Laura Ingrahams and Tim Pawlentys (also me) got more “out” about their fandom.  Which led lefties to sniff, in their usual way, “you do know he’s a liberal, don’t you?”

Which led us to here.

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Springsteen during his, ahem, Glory Days was expressly non-political – but it’s entirely possible to listen to a song like “We Take Care Of Our Own” and identify, at least with the sing-along points, as a conservative.

Or as a liberal, for that matter:

Liberals “take care of their own”, too – by getting the larger society to subsidize them; conservatives do it, of course, by trying to make opportunity ubiquitous and giving people the freedom to succeed as well as fail.  To quote Winston Churchill, liberals level out the peaks to fill in valleys (although not that level; Springsteen is well into “the 1%”, has been for 30 years, and will be the rest of his life); conservatives spread a safety net over the chasm.

But this series has largely been about the messages that don’t need to be debated – the messages that resonate with conservative fans because their messages resonate completely with what it takes to be a conservative.

And that’s what this series is about; resonance.  Sprinsteen, despite his best efforts, resonates with conservatives…

…and – here’s the important part – he does it especially when he’s being apolitical.

One of my favorite songs in my crowded list of favorite Springsteen songs is “Land of Hopes and Dreams”:

So listen to it:

Grab your ticket and your suitcase

Thunder’s rollin’ down this track

Well, you don’t know where you’re goin’ now

But you know you won’t be back

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

Big wheels roll through fields

Where sunlight streams

Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

Gospel-revival-style show-stopper?  Sure.

Metaphor for everything conservative believe about America, the exceptional nation, the “Shining City on the Hill?”, where all of us…

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

…are equal in the eyes of God and the law?

Seriously – there may have been descriptions of the conservatives’ vision of America in the rock and roll era that are this good.  But have there been any better?

The question – at least in re Springsteen’s greatest music, from ’74 to about ’87, with a bit of a surge after 2002, the “Holy Trinity” (Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River), Nebraska, Born in the USA, Tunnel of Love and The Rising and a few other odds and ends along the way – isn’t “why do conservatives find resonance in much of his best music”…

…but, vagaries of personal taste aside, how could they not?

(Read the whole series)

Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part X: The Local Cops Rip This Holy Night

I’m gonna give you a two-fer here.  We’ll cover two of Andrew Sullivan’s definitions of what makes  a conservative in one article, since they’re both just a tad thin.

The first of the two – “Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism“?  Gotta confess, that one’s pretty thin throughout the history of rock and roll.  I’ll cop to it; other than “meeting beneath that giant Exxon sign”, or driving out to Greasy Lake, or meeting at Mary’s Place, it doesn’t pop up much.

We’ll let that one slide for now.

The other – “the Conservative recognizes the need for prudent restraint on power and passion?”

Well, there’s always “Roulette”, the often-bootlegged anti-nuke anthem:

Which isn’t really close, but it’s such a cool recording I don’t care much.

More seriously?

We’ll be back with the final parts of this series later in the week.

Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part IX: I Built The Challenger By Myself

One of the fundamental tenets of the “classical liberalism” that is the basis of modern conservatism is the idea first recorded by John Locke – that men form governments to protect life, liberty and private property; that private property was in fact a cornerstone of real liberty, and that protecting it against the depredations of government and of other people is a key justification for having a government.  To put it in Andrew Sullivan’s words – because it’s his definitions of “classical conservative” that I’m using as the basis for this exercise – “Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked”.

If we have no property rights, then we have no rights.

Now, John Locke isn’t a common theme in the history of rock and roll.  And private property has had a mixed history in popular music; it’s been a metaphor for rites of passage (Jan and Dean’s “409″), or the high life (“Baubles, Bangles and Beads” by everyone from Eartha Kitt to Frank Sinatra) and a yardstick for swagger (“Beamer, Benz or Bentley” by gangster-rapper Lloyd Banks), but also for evil (“I’d Love To Change The World” by Ten Years’ After’s called us to “Tax the rich, feed the poor, ’til there ain’t no rich no more”).

And you can look in vain for references to Locke or Payne or Franklin – in Springsteen’s catalog, and can find plenty on his later albums and his real life as re politics that contradicts them all.

But this series isn’t about proving Springsteen is, personally, a conservative (faith-based blogger Dog Gone’s endless repetitions notwithstanding); it’s about explaining why his music resonates with conservatives.

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Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part VIII: Just A Meanness In This World

SIDE NOTE:  It’s amazing how life can derail a guy’s plans.  While – as is my wont with these long series – much of the rough material was put together in October and November, I held off on actually putting it into a written form, thinking it’d give me something to do during the two-month stretch between the election and the opening of the state legislature, when I’m usually too burned out on politics to care much.

Of course, this past eight weeks of battling for the Second Amendment has derailed a bit of that plan.

But while the battle against Barack Rex carries on, it’s time to make time for the fun stuff.

Or what is for me the fun stuff, anyway.

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This is a quick one, though.

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Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part VII

In “The Promised Land” – a song that constantly flits about the top of most hard-core Springsteen fans’ lists of favorite songs – paints a bleak picture for the everyday schlub:

I done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day.
But your eyes go blind, and your blood runs cold,
sometimes I feel so weak I just wanna explode

Explode and tear this old town apart,
take a knife and cut this pain from my heart,
find somebody itchin’ for something to start…

And then the last verse tees up:

Well, there’s a dark cloud rising, ‘cross the desert floor
I’ve packed my bags, and I’m headed straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
that ain’t got the faith to stand its ground.

Blow away the dreams that break your heart.

Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted…

The song – which is on the surface about a young buck butting his head against a status quo leaving him, in the immortal words of Howard the Duck, “trapped in a world that he never made”.  And beneath the surface?  It’s about everyone trying to stake their claim in the world while they can, and railing against the petty and not-so-petty things that badger and hector you on the way there…

…and noting, obliquely, another of the key facets of what being a conservative really means: the idea that the only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law.

Humans and the societies they build are intensely imperfect, and that the only justice you’re ever going to see is from something – a higher power, in this case, in the metaphorical form of a tornado – that cares not for your specifics, or of that against which you’re banging your head.

The notion that there is an existing, higher moral order is easy; every political and cultural liberal believes it (although cultural liberals and conservative see the source of that order differently).  The idea that we, petty humans that we are, stand on the shoulders of giants and can only rarely improve on them and their ideas is harder; the idea that we can change the world “for the better” is so wound up in the ideals of liberals that they call themselves “progressives”.

But the idea that absolute equality only exists (outside of the purely legalistic, and then only when everyone involves has a lot of integrity) above and beyond this world is the province of the cultural conservative.

 

Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part VI: The Hearts That’ve Been Broken Stand As The Price You Pay

In the world of Rock and Roll, in the words of Neil Young, “it’s better to burn out than fade away”.

In the world of Bruce Springsteen’s music, when characters screw up, they flame out big-time – and usually take other people down with ‘em.

In “Johnny 99″, from Nebraska, the protagonist – “Ralph” – gets laid off from a job at a car plant. He gets “too drunk from mixing Tangueray and Wine” – itself a major botch – and shoots a night clerk. It instantly changes his life; he goes from being a regular guy to a lifer overnight. His life is completely screwed, he declares as he’s sentenced.

Now judge I had debts no honest man could pay

The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they were gonna take my house away

Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man

But it was more `n all this that put that gun in my hand

 

Well your honor I do believe I’d be better off dead

So if you can take a man’s life for the thoughts that’s in his head

Then sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time

And let `em shave off my hair and put me on that killin’ line

Clearly, the character of Ralph/Johnny didn’t preconsider his actions according to the long-term consequences one might expect from them – but then if Mr. 99 had merely thrown up and gone to bed, the song would be a pretty mundane commentary on the human condition. People do act in ways that ignore their actions’ long-term consequences, in ways big and small, all the time.

And there’s the point.

Another of conservatism’s key tenets is the idea of prudence; a conservative measures actions against their likely long-term consequences, and tries to decide and act accordingly.

They also recognize – as Johnny 99 did not, until the end of the song – the consequences of failing at this.

And among the many reasons Springsteen’s music resonates with conservatives is that the characters, for decades, illustrated the princple, in ways positive and negative, in a way that sounds like…

…well, real life.

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Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part V: The Cross Of My Calling

Rock and roll has always been, ostensibly, about upsetting the existing order.  In the beginning, its very existence upended what passed for “order” in popular culture, at least to the extent of helping create a “youth culture” – something that’d never existed before, and really started in America.  As culture and the genre evolved through the sixties, pop music smeared itself in the “revolutionary” rhetoric of the rest fo the counterculture; in the seventies, the punk counter-counterculture (at least in the English art-school variety) flipped the hippies’ putative idealism on its head in an orgy of self-indulgent nihilism.  Post-punks – U2 would be the most famous and enduring of the bunch) in turn, flipped that on its head in an welter of often self-righteous activism.

And against that backdrop, the music of Bruce Springsteen has always been refreshingly non-revolutionary. Continue reading

Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part IV: Learn To Live With What You Can’t Rise Above

It’s a little-noticed verse of a song buried in Bruce Springsteen’s biggest studio album:

Now, honey, I don’t wanna clip your wings
But a time comes when two people should think of these things
Having a home and a family,
facing up to their responsibilities

They say in the end true love prevails
But in the end true love can’t be no fairytale
To say I’ll make your dreams come true would be wrong
But maybe, darlin’, I could help them along

It’s from “I Wanna Marry You”, from The River.  It’s a nice, simple, romantic little trifle.  Given Springsteen’s personal life over the past 25 years, it’d be easy to call it “ironic”…

…but again, the series isn’t about any artist’s personal life, or personal beliefs.  It’s about the resonances his audience finds in the music.

The next tenet of conservatism we’re covering is that conservatives adhere to custom, convention, and continuity (provided ones customs and conventions continue things that are worth continuing – which we’ll get to later on in the series).

And shelve the past twenty-five years of history – because this is about as customary, conventional and continuous as one gets:

Little girl, I wanna marry you
Oh yeah, little girl, I wanna marry you
Yes I do, little girl, I wanna mary you.

My daddy said right before he died
that true, true love was just a lie.
He went to his grave a broken heart
An unfulfilled life, darlin’, makes a man hard

No apple-carts upset here, right?

Of course, there’s a lot more to custom and tradition than that.

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Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part III: The Ties That Bind

In the song “Darlington County” (from Born in the USA), a couple of ne’er-do-wells drive south to find a little work and raise a little ruckus:

Hey little girl standing on the corner,
Todays your lucky day for sure, all right.
Me and my buddy we’re from New York City,
we got two hundred dollars, we want to rock all night.

Girl you’re looking at two big spenders,
Why the world don’t know what me and Wayne might do
Our pa’s each own one of the World Trade Centers,
For a kiss and a smile I’ll give mine all to you…

At the end of the song, we find out how it went:

Driving out of darlington county
My eyes seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
Driving out of darlington county
Seen Wayne handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford

It’s comic trifle – the whole song is, really.  But it hints at a theme conservatives believe as a part of being conservative; that the world has an enduring moral order.  That there is a battle between right and wrong, Yin and Yang, good and evil – and that right and good are better, and should be exalted, or at least striven for.

“Wayne” ran afoul that order – with comic results, unless you’re “Wayne”, I suppose.

But it’s usually a lot deeper than that.

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Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part II: Yapping In The Back Seat

Before I get into the beef of the series, it seems I need to do a little remedial art appreciation, logic and rhetoric.

For starters, my thesis, and the case I’m making, is “Why Bruce Springsteen is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter”.  Not “Bruce Springsteen is a Conservative”.  He’s not.  That’s all duly noted and stipulated in advance.

Not “Everything Bruce Springsteen Has Ever Written Resonates with Conservatives”.  It does not.  Merely most of his best stuff.

But as Socrates showed us a few millennia back, the best way to teach is to ask and to answer.  In other words, it’s time for one of my Frequently Asked Questions:

  • “But Springsteen is a teh liberal!”: It doesn’t matter even a little.  The series isn’t about him or his personal politics.  They are, in fact, utterly irrelevant.  Art is in the eye of the beholder.  Many conservatives find resonance, even inspiration, in his music, though; this series merely explains why.
  • “But what if Teh Boss himself were to tell you you were wrong?”:  Again, doesn’t matter.  It’s not about him.  It’s about what he wrote.
  • “What does Nate Silver say?”:  Nothing.
  • “Don’t be teh smartass.  You know what I mean.  How can you empirically prove your thesis?”:  There is no “empiricism” in art criticism.  It’s stating a critical case for a subjective point.
  • “You are just trying to make teh music fit your intellectual template”:  Nope.  I’m stating a case for why the music not only fits my worldview, but reinforces it.
  • “But did you ever REALLY listen to it?”:  As we’ll see in coming days, clearly, more than you have.  Whoever you are.
OK.  Wednesday or Thursday, we’ll get into the fun stuff!

Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part I: Telling Fortunes Better Than You Do

Bruce Springsteen.

There may be no more politically-divisive figure in popular music today.

On the one hand, he openly campaigns for liberal Democrats, and against conservatism, every election cycle.  This earns the ire and contempt of many conservatives.  And with a net worth of $200 million – four times Michael Moore’s portfolio – he’s the very definition of a limo liberal, even if his limo is a ’32 Ford with a 318, fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor.

On the other hand, many of Springsteen’s highest-profile fans – Chris Christie, Tim Pawlenty, me, Laura Ingraham among many others – are one degree of conservative or another.

Now, part of that is no doubt purely visceral.  Eddie Van Halen once said that rock and roll is supposed to make you feel something – angry, horny, lovelorn, whatever.  And Springsteen is if nothing else an extremely gifted writer who has, for two generations now, had a gift for making people feel things – things that cross party lines, because they’re human reactions to art.

But many songwriters have that gift.  And yet, in the face of perceived incongruity and even some muted, passive-aggressive hostility from the artist himself, conservatives soldier on as fans.

Why?

About a year ago a woman I know – a modestly prominent Democrat organizer – asked on Twitter “Don’t you Springsteen Republicans actually listen to his lyrics?”

To which I responded  ”Yes.  Do you really LISTEN to them?”   And by that I meant “without slathering your own worldview and ex-post-facto knowledge of Springsteen’s life and activities outside his music over the past ten years?”

Because as I started arguing a few weeks ago in response to MPR’s question on the subject “what song sums up where this nation is at right now?” (I answered with Bruce’s This Hard Land), Springsteen’s music, especially throughout his peak creative years (which I’d argue started with his collaboration with Jon Landau on Born to Run and ran through Tunnel of Love, and rebounded on The Rising) was overflowing with themes and currents and messages that resonate with political and social conservatives.  And, in fact, those themes, currents and messages were the most important ones in his repertoire.

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“But wait, Berg – all you’re going to do is pound some isolated out-of-context odds and ends into a context you make up to define conservatism as conveniently as possible for your dubious premise!  Right?”

Not even close.

I’ll be building this piece around a ten-point definition of conservatism from none other than that noted Paleocon tool, Andrew Sullivan who, back before his brain flitted away into Trig-Palin-triggered dementia, put together what I thought was a pretty good definition of a classical conservative:

According to Sullivan, the conservative…:

  • believes that an enduring moral order exists.  Not an easy one, but an enduring one, anyway.
  • adheres to custom, convention, and continuity, barring any compelling reason to change.
  • believes in what may be called the principle of prescription – the idea that most of the great ideas on which our sociey was founded are good enough as is; improvement faces a steep curve.
  • are guided by their principle of prudence – we try to gauge actions against their probable long-term consequences.
  • believes that only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law.
  • believes human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults.  Human nature is not inherently good.
  • believes that freedom and property are closely linked.
  • upholds  voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
  • sees the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.
  • knows permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.

That’s a good definition of classical conservatism, from Hobbes and Hume all the way to Milton Friedman.

To that, I’d add some peculiarly American characteristics; here, a conservative believes…:

  • That while Humanity is not perfectable, and Americans – especially as acting through government – are far from perfect, America has coalesced into a nation around a set of ideals that are in themselves inherently noble and worth upholding.
  • That this nation – imperfect as it is – is a free association of equals, governed by mutual consent.  Government is not a set of parents needed to discipline recalcitrant children.

I’ll be doing 2-3 of these a week for the next few weeks; showing in each case how and why Bruce Springsteen’s music (if not his personal politics, obviously) not only resonates with, but inspires, people who believe in all of the above.

So roll down the window and let the bracing wind of freedom blow back your hair!  C’mon – rise up!  We’ll meet beneath that giant “Friedman” sign that gives this shining city light!

Don’t end up like a dog that’s been beat too much, all you henpecked conservative Bruce fans; it’s a state full of lemmings, and we’re pulling outta here to win!