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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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Politically, Springsteen’s sympathies may have been more with the Democratic camp, but when Democratic politicians spoke about America, none of them seemed to describe the country found in Springsteen songs. At the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in mid-July — a month after Bruce’s stand at Alpine Valley — Governor Mario Cuomo challenged Reagan’s invocation of John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” by speaking about “the other part of the city [where] there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it.” Two nights later the Reverend Jesse Jackson famously spoke to the convention of “our Nation [as] a rainbow.” What both Reagan and Springsteen understood in 1984, however, was that, after the last 15 or 20 years of battering national history, most Americans didn’t want their nation to be two or many. They wanted it to be one. As one Reagan aide remarked in a memo written on March 8 (while Arthur Baker was adding aerobic-friendly rhythms to the already synth-heavy “Dancing in the Dark”), “If we allow any Democrat to claim optimism or idealism as his issue, we will lose the election.”

Ronald Reagan’s most deeply held ideological tenet, far more important than any specific policy that might have grown out of it, was his belief that the United States was a nation of individuals. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Reagan contended that the core change that his administration had made during the last few years was to shift the government from a philosophy of “statism” that only viewed “people in groups” to one that advanced “the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society.” For the casual listener, how different was that from Springsteen’s current variation on the Elvis Presley freedom speech from four years before, now used to introduce “Born to Run” (in this case, in Largo, Maryland, two nights after Reagan accepted the Republican nomination)?

When I was a kid growing up, and I first heard the music of Elvis Presley, the main thing it did for me was it set my mind free a little bit. I could dream a little bit bigger than I had been. His music and the best of rock ’n’ roll always said to me “Just let freedom ring,” and that’s what we’re here for tonight. But remember you gotta fight for it every day.

For the most part, this was as political as Springsteen got in the summer of 1984. Despite the presence of two or three “Nebraska” songs every night, Springsteen’s most notable response to contemporary politics on this tour so far was his decision to cover the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fightin’ Man” during his encores many nights, as significant an addition on this tour as “Who’ll Stop the Rain” had been four years earlier.

That night at the Capital Centre in Largo, “Street Fightin’ Man” directly followed “Born to Run” during the encores, its first appearance after a two-week absence. In the audience that night was syndicated columnist George Will, who had been invited to the show by Max Weinberg’s wife, Rebecca, who was a fan of his tag-team punditry with Sam Donaldson on Sunday morning TV. For his first and only Springsteen concert, Will wore a bow tie, double-breasted blazer, and dress slacks rather than the increasingly de rigueur denim. At Rebecca’s suggestion, the columnist also stuffed cotton in his ears. In general, Will found Springsteen androgynous, noisy and surrounded by pot smokers, yet in the end he concluded that the singer was “a wholesome cultural portent.” As a political commentator, Will may not have cared about rock ’n’ roll’s future, but he did see Springsteen’s abundant success as an emblem of a robust American present.

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