“As if that were not enough
to make you shiver
while the angel of fate passed you over, somewhere
in New Jersey
you have Bruce Springsteen
writing songs about you and wondering how you are.”
Matthew Dickman, “Byron Loves Me”
I love the above line from Matthew Dickman, not just because it is funny and smart, but because it also captures what Bruce Springsteen is really good at: something we might call “empathic songwriting.” Now this isn’t to say that Springsteen doesn’t write biographical songs or talk about his own experiences (he does this and does it well). But I would argue that much of his best work involves imaginatively projecting himself into the experiences of other people. Very often these are the type of people who don’t normally get songs written about them: undocumented immigrants, meth cookers, suicide bombers. There is a political dimension to this type of songwriting in that it attempts–often explicitly–to help listeners understand and feel for/with people who are ignored, mistreated, or dehumanized. How you feel about this type of political project has a lot to do with the extent to which you believe that people can speak from the position of other people, and I admit that it can sometimes feel more comfortable to hear Springsteen sing in the voice of an unemployed New Jersey autoworker than as a Mexican man trying to cross the US border. And yet, it is a demonstration of Springsteen’s imaginative generosity that most of these songs do convince.
While the voices on Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, aren’t as specifically individual as on previous albums (after all, no characters in these new songs are given actual names), the situations are perfectly clear. Wrecking Ball is Springsteen’s most political album in years. Not surprisingly, I would also rank it with 1982’s Nebraska and 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad as his most angry albums–albums that offer a wholesale indictment of American life in their decade. Wrecking Ball is a scathing critique of late capitalism. It offers portraits of people struggling to survive during our Great Recession, people who are bitter and resigned and angry. And anger, on this album, is envisioned as productive (indeed, the title track demands that you “hold tight to your anger”). Several of the songs seethe at bankers in language that recalls the Gilded Age, e.g., the exhortation to “send the robber barons straight to hell” (yes, please!). But the album is not relentlessly dark. Although some of the evocations of hope on the album fall flat for me, the visions of solidarity do not. It would be hard to resist the appeal of the trans-historical solidarity (from beyond the grave!) offered in “We Are Alive”:
A voice cried I was killed in Maryland in 1877
When the railroad workers made their stand
Well, I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham
Well, I died last year crossing the southern desert
My children left behind in San Pablo
Well, they’ve left our bodies here to rot
Oh, please let them know
We are alive
Oh, and though we lie alone here in the dark
Our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
This is a form of solidarity that binds together social justice struggles and, for me, it’s one of the most moving moments on the album–as well as one of the highlights of the concert I saw Tuesday night in San Jose.
Not all of Bruce’s songs are concerned with social justice (indeed, most of the iconic ones are not) and that’s fine. He writes protest music, but he also writes love ballads, soul songs, rock and roll anthems, etc. For a number of reasons, I think most casual fans are less interested in Bruce’s critique of capitalism than his hits about youth, love, and loss. There is no question that more people in the audience at a Bruce concert would rather hear “Dancing in the Dark” than “Johnny 99.” Even so, a tour to support Wrecking Ball must be unabashedly political. And as I watched a crew of brosephs shotgunning Bud Lights at the tailgate of their Saab before Tuesday’s show, I could guess which version of Bruce they were expecting to see that night.
The frat boys got what they came for, of course; it’s a rare Bruce show that doesn’t include beloved songs like “Born to Run” (and don’t think I am criticizing “Born to Run” here–it’s one of my favorite songs and I pump my fists to it just like everyone else does). But that’s not all they got. Bruce did not spare this San Jose crowd the ugly truths about the “New Economy” that has made so many of them rich (and I have no doubt there were any number of Silicon Valley execs present). He made clear from the beginning of the show that he was going to talk about “what’s happening outside” the arena. He name-checked the Occupy movement. He talked about how the current economic system “gives the folks at the top and rich guitar players a free pass” (despite all the criticism of Bruce as a simplistic “limousine liberal,” he obviously recognizes the complexities of his class position).
And the music was even more insistent. He played “Johnny 99” (which sounds as horribly contemporary in 2012 as in 1982):
Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month
Ralph went out lookin’ for a job but he couldn’t find none
He came home too drunk from mixin’ Tanqueray and wine
He got a gun shot a night clerk now they call ‘m Johnny 99
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
He played “Shackled and Drawn”:
Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill
Up on banker’s hill the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn
He played “Rocky Ground” and “My City of Ruins” and, in a clear commentary on the Trayvon Martin murder, “American Skin (41 Shots).”
Perhaps the highlight of the night for me was the song “Jack of All Trades” from the new album. It’s a deceptively powerful song: quiet, with a slow (almost plodding) melody. The main character of the song is a composite of the low-wage workers that make life possible for our overclass. He mows lawns, cleans pools, patches roofs, picks crops, fixes cars. Throughout most of the song, he’s bitter, but he’s also resigned and maybe even hopeful–the refrain that ends each verse is “I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right.” And yet, there is a suppressed violence here, a violence that appears (almost) out of nowhere at the end of the final verse: “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight.” In such a lulling song, this line is a punch in the gut. And on Tuesday night, it drew a cheer from a significant portion of the crowd (maybe a fifth of the audience–myself included). This cheer made my night and I hope it planted a seed of discomfort in the tech execs and frat boys in the audience. And I hope that, the previous week, Governor Sandwiches heard a similar cheer at the New York show he attended and that, just for a moment, he worried.