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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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Throughout the concert that night, Springsteen made his displeasure at the current administration known, as he had done briefly after Reagan’s election and during the VVA benefit. It’s important to note, though, that in the ensuing three or four years the specific fight that Springsteen had hinted at back then had never really come. In 1980 and 1981, Springsteen implicitly feared another culture war, like the one the nation had experienced during the early Nixon years. But in its rhetoric, the Reagan administration stressed unity rather than division, especially during this election year. Rock ’n’ roll was not a designated enemy for Ronald Reagan (as it might have been for a previous Republican like Spiro Agnew); pessimism was. Springsteen seems to have prepared himself for a fight that wasn’t even an open disagreement.

That night in Pittsburgh, in trying to definitively distinguish himself from Reagan, Springsteen went somewhere he had rarely gone before: Into the politics of class — not the division of the world into conformists and free spirits, but rather its division into haves and have-nots. Pushed to articulate his political convictions, Springsteen finally moved beyond his 1960s rock ’n’ roll individualism, back to the New Deal communalism he had instinctively absorbed from his parents. Now, as he once again reformulated the monuments story before “My Hometown,” he made his most directly anti-Reagan comment yet:

It’s a long walk from the government that’s supposed to represent all the people to where we [are now. It] seems like something’s happening out there where there’s a lot of stuff being taken away from a lot of people that shouldn’t have it taken away from them. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that this place belongs to us, that this is our hometown.

This was a start. If actively articulating his political concern for those less fortunate, those who might benefit from a larger federal government, was all it took for Springsteen to distinguish himself from the president, then a statement like this should have solved his problems of misperception.

But despite Springsteen’s increasingly explicit political statements as the tour rolled on, the ideological similarities between the two men remained. Springsteen could tell you better than anyone else that music speaks louder than words, and arrangements and setlists often speak louder than both. Every night, Springsteen took his audience on the same phased journey from the bad times of late 1981 to the good times of 1983-84, precisely the same historical journey on which President Reagan took his audiences during his stump speeches; from the “Nebraska”-esque days of “drift” and “torpor” to the promise of “you young people.” “[M]y generation,” Reagan declared near the end of his standard stump speech that fall (almost setting his audience up for a rendition of “Born to Run,” his allegedly favorite Springsteen song), “and a few generations between mine and yours . . . grew up in an America where we took it for granted that you could fly as high and as far as your own strength and ability would take you.” In the end, when you compared Springsteen’s fall 1984 tour with Reagan’s, no matter how different their political visions were supposed to be, their rhetoric seemed a lot alike.

Bruce put in more appearances that fall than the president, whose campaign had restricted his stumping to two or three well-chosen photo ops a week. Springsteen was still introducing “Born to Run” by saying “Let freedom ring” but now added “but it’s no good if it’s just for one. It’s gotta be for everyone.” More effectively, he started making room at his concerts for representatives of local food banks and political organizations, giving a shout-out from the stage of the Tacoma Dome to Washington Fair Share, a local coalition dealing with the results of toxic-waste dumping in the Northwest. By that point in the tour, the rock critical establishment (in the person of Jersey Shore-born soon-to-be MTV employee Kurt Loder) had stepped in to try and reburnish Bruce’s liberal reputation. As the tour made its way down the coast to Los Angeles, Loder conducted Springsteen’s first extended interview with Rolling Stone, giving him a widely distributed, rock-friendly forum in which to make his differences from the president clear.

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