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How Ronald Reagan Ignited Bruce Springsteen's Politics

In the new book, "Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll" Marc Dolan details Springsteen's political awakening.

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Indeed, with the gas crisis of the Carter years, history practically forced Springsteen to consider the political implications of his apolitical, personal ideology. In his pre-1979 songs, as in rock songs since at least Chuck Berry, cars and motorcycles were the vehicles of the individualized freedom that he craved. In the late 1970s, however, ration-starved cars and motorcycles became much more specific cultural symbols, emblems of how Americans saw their personal freedom limited by current events. Gas prices had been rising since the beginning of the decade, and in one day, June 28, 1979, OPEC raised the price of a barrel of crude oil by 24 percent. That summer, as Springsteen labored at the Record Plant, blocks-long lines at gas stations became a common, even violent occurrence.

Suddenly, Springsteen’s favorite form of mindless fun had taken on economic, political, and even international significance. The two roadhouse numbers he and the band cut that fall, “Ramrod” and “Cadillac Ranch,” spoke about the sheer fun of driving, in purely sensual terms that were a world away from the desperate tales of escape he had trafficked in on his last two albums. Simultaneously, though, in songs like “Stolen Car” and “The River,” it was also becoming clear that cars could take you nowhere as well, that they could signify escape in the sense of avoidance rather than freedom. In many ways, the great lost album that Springsteen could have released but didn’t in 1980 was a single disc of songs about cars, taking in the freedoms and restrictions that they made possible for his fellow citizens. It would have been a perfect project to release during a year in which driving was an implicitly ideological act.

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Like many other Americans of his era, Springsteen was caught up in the “crisis of the American spirit” about which President Carter had spoken during that same brutal summer of 1979. This was another part of Springsteen’s dissatisfaction during the late 1970s, a more abiding need than could be solved by a simple Top 10 single. He knew that something was missing in his life, that just driving off into the night wouldn’t fill the absence he increasingly felt in his soul, but he was still nowhere near embracing Carter’s solution to this crisis: increased civic involvement. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God,” Carter had declared, “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” Springsteen obviously believed in hard work, but the only community he had ever been a part of was the Upstage. Ever the proud individualist, he was innately suspicious of virtually all systems, structures, clubs, and experts, even if they claimed they were trying to help him.

In other words, Springsteen’s criticism of Ronald Reagan from the stage in Tempe was in no way a too-late endorsement of Jimmy Carter. It was simply a voiced suspicion of Reagan, who had been clearly labeled a public enemy of rock ’n’ roll since Jeffrey Shurtleff’s mockery of him at Woodstock at the absolute latest. Given his later admissions of political apathy during the 1970s, it is doubtful that Springsteen was acquainted with too many of the specifics of Reagan’s political platform. He just seemed like the kind of person who wouldn’t be too comfortable with “freaks.”

Nevertheless, there was more truth than Springsteen realized to his knee-jerk statement that he didn’t know what his fans thought about what had happened the previous night. What Springsteen probably didn’t know at that time, but would become clear once the 1980 election results were more closely analyzed, was that the youth vote broke slightly for Reagan, with many of the youngest baby boomers casting their first presidential votes that year for the former California governor. Moreover, Reagan received 49 percent of the Catholic vote, 40 percent of the union vote, and 24 percent of the votes cast by registered Democrats, all groups to which Springsteen had strong personal ties.

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