How Ronald Reagan Ignited Bruce Springsteen's Politics
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But there’s a subtle difference between politics and ideology, between elected officials and the policies they enact on the one hand and the underlying principles that cause people to trust or distrust politicians on the other. You can live your life without ever having an opinion on any elected official or legislative body, but you cannot live your life as an adult without having some notion of what a better world would look like. In the late 1970s, as the two dominant political parties in the United States reacted to contemporary economic crises by dissolving into ever greater procedural disarray, such utopian visions of what might work better suddenly became far more important. In 1979, however, only the college professors called this “ideology.” The word that both First Lady Rosalynn Carter and the Reverend Jerry Falwell of the Thomas Road Baptist Church started using that year was “values.”
In 1979 and 1980, as Bruce Springsteen crafted “The River” and began touring to support it, his politics were virtually nonexistent, but his ideology — his “values,” if you must — was all over his songs. Springsteen believed in “freedom,” in as vague a sense as any American would define it, in the freedom to head out where you wanted when you wanted with whomever you wanted with no bossman or exaggerated patriarch telling you what to do. On Springsteen’s first four albums, his ideal world was the road, the way to the next great place but not necessarily the place itself, because all fixed places had the potential to trap you. In Springsteen’s songs, success was seldom material success (no matter how much the singer might want it in real life). In most cases, the success his characters dreamed of or attained was mere survival, making their stand in an environment that was constantly trying to grind them down.
Half of “The River” reinforced this view, not only such “Darkness” survivors as “Sherry Darling” and “Independence Day” but such newer songs as “Ramrod,” “Jackson Cage,” “Out in the Street” and “Cadillac Ranch” as well. There were also all the new songs about connection (“I Wanna Marry You,” “Fade Away,” “Stolen Car,” “The Price You Pay,” “Drive All Night,” and “Wreck on the Highway”), but they were about personal commitments rather than communal ones. Both these aspects of “The River” were undeniably ideological, but they were not political; they sought no help for their characters through governmental or collective action. Even in the album’s title track, the characters’ situation seems more mythic than political. In that song, Springsteen sings, “Lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy,” but there is no sense here that these characters’ problems could be fixed by a government stimulus package or a cut in the mortgage rates. Their problems are synchronic rather than historical and must simply be endured.
But during this same period, as the nation around him felt adrift in an uncertain and uncommitted age, Springsteen was crafting his first specifically topical songs in almost a decade, since the trendy, epic antiwar songs he had written during the Nixon era. The most obvious of these was “Roulette,” written in a white heat during the first week after the event at Three Mile Island but by all accounts never seriously considered for the album. Almost a year later, toward the end of the “River” sessions, Springsteen had also written the little gem “Held Up Without a Gun,” which managed to turn the most pressing political issue of the late 1970s — the exorbitantly rising price of gasoline — into a rocking good joke.