How Bruce Springsteen Helped Make Being a Working Class Rebel Cool Again

Editor's Note: An epic account of how working-class America hit the rocks in the political and economic upheavals of the ’70s, Jefferson Cowie's Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class presents the decade in a new light. Part political intrigue, part labor history, with large doses of American music, film and TV lore, Cowie's book makes new sense of the ’70s as a crucial and poorly understood transition from the optimism of New Deal America to the widening economic inequalities and dampened expectations of the present. From the factory floors of Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit to the Washington of Nixon, Ford and Carter, Cowie connects politics to culture, showing how the big screen and the jukebox can help us understand how America turned away from the radicalism of the ’60s and toward the patriotic promise of Ronald Reagan.

The following is excerpted from Jefferson Cowie's Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (The New Press, 2010).

In the summer of 1984, Ronald Reagan campaigned toward his landslide victory over liberal Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. That same summer, America's foremost working-class hero appeared on stages across the nation, dwarfed, Patton-like, by an enormous American flag, pounding his fist in the air like it mattered. Tens of thousands of voices united to chant the most popular song of the summer, the year, and the decade:"Born in the U.S.A."

This audience sometimes drowned out the marshal tones of the E Street Band itself, heightening the pitch of an event that was already equal parts rock concert, spiritual revival, and nationalist rally. Replacing the skinny greaser poet of his earlier tours, Bruce Springsteen had become a superhero version of himself, his new pumped-up body accentuated by exaggerated layers of denim and leather, his swollen biceps working his guitar like a jackhammer. Fists and flags surged into the air at the first hint of the singsong melody, as thousands of bodies shadowboxed the empty space above the crowd to the rhythm of the song, the deafening refrain filling stadiums around the world. Whether one chose to compare the spectacle to the horror of a Nuremburg Rally or the ecstasy of an Elvis Presley show, rock 'n' roll felt almost powerful again -- more like a cause than an escape.

On the surface, the performance seemed obvious evidence that working-class identity had been swept out into the seas of Reaganite nationalism. The toughness, the whiteness, the chant, the fists, the flags, the costume, all pointed to the degree to which this figure, once hailed as "the new Dylan," had, like so much else in the 1980s, been stripped of even the pretense of authenticity. Instead, Springsteen, dubbed "rock and roll's future" only a decade earlier, had been painted red, white, and blue, and packaged as an affirmation of American power and innocence to an eagerly waiting marketplace.

"Like Reagan and Rambo," writes Bryan Garman, "the apparently working-class Springsteen was for many Americans a white hardbody hero whose masculinity confirmed the values of patriarchy and patriotism, the work ethic and rugged individualism, and who clearly demarcated the boundaries between men and women, black and white, heterosexual and homosexual." The many and complex labor questions of the 1970s seemed to have found easy answers in the 1980s with the narrowing and hardening of white working-class identity into a blind national pride that sounded like belligerence.

Yet these surface elements of "Born in the U.S.A." and its performance belie a profound complexity -- much like political discourse and popular culture in the 1980s masked the intricacies of post-New Deal working-class identity more generally. The song's story line, buried beneath the pounding music and the patriotic hollers of the chorus, explores the muffled tale of a socially isolated working-class man, burning within the despair of de-industrialized, post-Vietnam America: a social history of white working-class identity unmoored from the elements that once defined it. Though Springsteen projects the chorus with all his might, the tale told by the verses barely manages to peek over the wall of sound, like a man caught in a musical cage, overpowered by the anthem of his own country. Like the neo-patriotism of the Reagan era itself, the power of the national chorus, "I was Born in the U.S.A.," dwarfs the pain of the "dead man's town" below it. "You end up like a dog that's been beat too much / Til you spend half your life just coverin' it up."

The juxtaposition of this unemployed worker's dire, muted narrative, and a thundering patriotic chorus sparked battles among rock critics, pundits, and fans. Was the song part of a patriotic revival or a tale of working-class betrayal? A symptom of Reagan's America, or the antidote to it? Protest song or nationalist anthem? Both sides assumed that the words and the music could not go together, and in picking one over the other denied the song's unity -- and its subject's -- in favor of its far less compelling individual parts. Conservative columnist George Will famously fired the first shots in the Springsteen wars with a September 1984 opinion column that claimed the singer as a repository of Republican values. Will's assertion of the song's conservatism was a product of his one-night stand with the E Street Band, a concert he admittedly heard through ears packed with cotton. "I have not got a clue about Springsteen's politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts when he sings songs about hard times," Will explained. "He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful, affirmation: 'Born in the U.S.A.!' " Casting this "working class hero" as a paragon of what workers should be -- a little more patriotic, a lot more hardworking, and much more grownup -- he saw Springsteen as "vivid proof that the work ethic is alive and well" in the "hard times" of 1984. A few days later, when Will's informal advisee Ronald Reagan requested the song for his presidential campaign (and was turned down) the president invoked Springsteen anyway during a campaign stop in the singer's home state of New Jersey.

Liberals, leftists, and rock critics responded in kind and, ridiculing conservatives, claimed the song and the singer for their own by shoehorning the rock anthem into the withering protest song tradition. Springsteen's most devoted chroniclers admitted that the song functioned more for the Right in the Reagan years, but with apologies: "Released as it was in a time of chauvinism masquerading as patriotism, it was inevitable that 'Born in the U.S.A.' would be misinterpreted, that the album would be heard as a celebration of 'basic values,' " explained one critic, "no matter how hard Springsteen pushed his side of the tale." Even Walter Mondale presumed (incorrectly) to have Springsteen's endorsement for the presidency.

Lost to listeners on the Right and the Left was the fact that "Born in the U.S.A." was consciously crafted as a conflicted, but ultimately indivisible, whole. Its internal conflicts gave musical form to contradictions that grew from fissures to deep chasms in the heart of working-class life during the '70s and their aftermath. The song was first written and recorded with a single acoustic guitar during the recordings for Nebraska (1982) -- a critically acclaimed collection of some of Springsteen's starkest and most haunting explorations of blue-collar despair, faith, and betrayal during the economic trauma of the early Reagan era. "That whole Nebraska album was just that isolation thing and what it does to you," Springsteen explained. "The record was basically about people being isolated from their jobs, from their friends, from their families, their fathers, their mothers -- just not feeling connected to anything that's going on -- your government. And when that happens, there's just a whole breakdown. When you lose that sense of community, there's some spiritual breakdown that occurs. And when that occurs, you just get shot off somewhere where nothing seems to matter."

Most of the lyrics of the original Nebraska period "Born" remain the same in the popular electric version released two years later, but the first recording lacks the pounding accompaniments, and, with them, any reason for pumping fists. "To me," Springsteen explained of the earlier version, "it was a dead song…. Clearly the words and the music didn't go together." So the first draft was shelved, only to emerge again, in a much stormier, amplified form, as the title track of its own album, Born in the U.S.A., in 1984.

In the intervening time, the song had found its soul. As producer Jon Landau explained, Springsteen had "discovered the key, which is that the words were right but they had to be in the right setting. It needed the turbulence and that scale -- there's the song!" The electrification, projection, and anthemification of the first draft placed the chorus-lyrics tension at the center of the song. For Springsteen's project of giving voice to working-class experience, then, the words of working-class desperation "went together" with the music of nationalism -- the "protest" only worked within the framework of the "anthem." For the song to convey its message, the worker had to be lost in the turbulence of the nation's identity. As Springsteen once explained, the narrator of "Born in the U.S.A." longs "to strip away that mythic America which was Reagan's image of America. He wants to find something real, and connecting. He's looking for a home in his country." Putting the pieces together, as Greil Marcus recognized, the song was about "the refusal of the country to treat Vietnam veterans as something more than nonunion workers in an enterprise conducted off the books." As loud as the final product was, then, "Born in the U.S.A." was actually more about silence -- both existential and political.

"Had a brother at Khe Sanh," Springsteen sings, "Fighting off the Vietcong / They're still there / He's all gone." When Springsteen singles out one of the bloodiest and most closely watched battles of the Vietnam War, he has also selected one of the most pointless. The siege of Khe Sanh forced American combat soldiers to live in their own labyrinth of holes and trenches while waiting in fear of the moment when an estimated twenty thousand enemy soldiers amassed outside of the perimeter would storm their position in the winter of 1968. Two and a half months of constant attack ended with American carpet-bombing around Khe Sanh, turning the area around the fort into a sea of rat-chewed bodies, shrapnel, and twisted ordnance. Despite the heroism of the soldiers' stand, a mere two months after the battle, General Westmoreland ordered the fort destroyed and abandoned. The gruesome defense was for naught. "A great many people," explains Michael Herr, "wanted to know how the Khe Sanh Combat Base could have been the Western Anchor of our Defense one month and a worthless piece of ground the next, and they were simply told that the situation had changed."

Springsteen's song was never a ballad of the foreign and faraway, however, but an anthem of the U.S.A. -- the reality of a war, yes, but also a metaphor for domestic working-class life under assault. Khe Sanh and deindustrialized places like Youngstown or Flint (or Cleveland, Toledo, St. Louis, Buffalo, South Chicago, or any one the other battle zones across the Rustbelt) were not that different. The site of the song is not "Khe Sanh," but a wartorn land in which, economist Barry Bluestone explains, "entire communities" were forced "to compete for survival" as shuttered factories, abandoned downtowns, and whitewashed windows were physical evidence of continued doubledigit unemployment. By 1984, a city like Detroit, once of such strategic national importance to be known as the "Arsenal of Democracy," had, like Khe Sanh, become an abandoned pile of twisted refuse.

"Came back home to the refinery," he laments, but the "Hirin' man said, 'Son, if it was up to me.' " It is not surprising, for a nation out of gas, that Springsteen chose a refinery as his character's workplace. Yet things were little better in other industries: across the industrial sector, global competition steadily increased as advanced industrial countries recovered from the industrial devastation of World War II, and third world nations turned toward manufacturing as a development strategy. Corporations decentralized, moved to the South, relocated abroad, replaced workers with technology or diversified into non-manufacturing sectors where the return on investment was higher. Communities began a downward spiral in the competition to create a better "business climate" than the next community down the interstate. Meanwhile, U.S. research and development sagged, complacency trumped innovation, growth rates shriveled, profits sagged, foreign competition took market share, plant technology proved grossly antiquated, and federal policy remained incoherent -- even at odds with itself. Unionized manufacturing, stumbling since the mid-fifties, dropped off at a vertiginous pace. But many of the biggest firms that shut down were nowhere near bankruptcy, merely demonstrating a return on investment that was inadequate for the capitalist reformation already under way.

When, for instance, Ford announced the final closure Dewey Burton's Wixom assembly operation in 2006, the factory had already lost two shifts and several models from its assembly lines -- this despite having been named the most efficient of all of Ford's plants and the third best auto plant in both North and South America by J.D. Power and Associates (a title that included beating all of the Toyota transplants). Odes to efficiency and hard work rang hollow when even the jewel of the system did not survive. Not surprisingly, given the culture such logic engenders, Richard Sennettt's follow up to the 1970s analysis The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972) was called the The Corrosion of Character (1998). By the time the next generation of Detroit residents looked for work, there was little hope of finding the kind of security and remuneration that Dewey Burton finally settled into at Ford after the restlessness of a restless decade. When the shutdown finally came, one of Dewey's fellow skilled tradesmen sent him a DVD disc memorializing the plant and the modest protests to keep it open. It was labeled "Glory Days," and Springsteen's pop hit was its bootlegged soundtrack.

For all of the melodrama of de-industrialization, however, the decline of major industrial manufacturing should not be conflated with the decline of the working class. Making industrial workers synonymous with the working class not only smacks of nostalgia ("Glory Days") but eclipses the possibility of a more expansive notion of working class identity. Those steel mills and their surrounding communities may be gone, but the workers are still out there -- part of the new Wal-Mart working class. Women, immigrants, minorities, and, yes, white guys, all make up the "new working class" that succeeded that of basic industry, but there is no discursive, political place for them comparable to the classic concept of the industrial working class.

Absent a meaningful framework in civic life, fear and anger can quickly take the place of the pride and honor of work. The issues defining working class life, argues Lillian Rubin, are "unnamed, therefore invisible" even to working people themselves. "It is after all, hard to believe in the particularity of the class experience if there's no social category into which it fits." The decline of industry went fist-in-glove with the siege of working-class institutions, an assault that took its most literal form when eleven thousand members of PATCO went on strike in the summer of 1981. In one of the boldest acts of his administration, President Ronald Reagan responded in no uncertain terms by firing the strikers wholesale and banning them from future federal employment. Their union leaders were taken away in chains and jailed. Well before the release of "Born in the U.S.A.," the workers turned to military assault metaphors. "I'm really surprised at how bloodthirsty they've been," exclaimed Frank Massa, a controller from Long Island.

"It's such overkill -- they brought in the howitzers to kill an ant," explained controller Jon Maziel. "It's like, 'Don't sit down and talk to people like human beings, just bring in the howitzers and wipe them out.' There's no reason for this situation to be like this, and I feel scared of a system of government that turns me off as a human being and says, 'O.K., if you don't play the game our way, you're a nonentity.' "

The PATCO disaster revealed the confusion of enemy and ally at the heart of Springsteen's guerrilla combat metonym. During his 1980 campaign, candidate Reagan declared his sympathy with the "deplorable state of our nation's air traffic control system." He claimed that if elected, he would act in a "spirit of cooperation" and "take what ever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety." Given Carter's failures on the labor and economic fronts, PATCO even endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980. When the controllers finally walked off the job in the summer of 1981, Reagan, like his hero Calvin Coolidge in the 1919 Boston police strike, attacked them for engaging in an illegal strike "against the public good." Yet it was the size and drama of Reagan's response that shocked even the most jaded labor commentator: the administration's firing the striking workers, smashing the entire organization designed to represent both employees' interest and public safety, and, ultimately, giving the nod to business to declare open season on organized labor. The otherwise bureaucratically calm new AFLCIO president, Lane Kirkland, recognized war when he saw it, describing the federal response as having the "massive, vindictive, brutal quality of the carpet bombing."

After the PATCO defeat, the national strike rate plummeted, and Eddie Sadlowski's nightmare of an economically disarmed working class became a reality. At the beginning of the seventies, about 2.5 million workers across the country were engaged in large strikes -- strikes of over one thousand workers. By the 1980s, that same statistic was a tiny fraction of the earlier rate, hovering between one and three hundred thousand workers total out in major strikes. The number of large walkouts fell from around four hundred at the early years of the story to only about fifty by the mid1980s.

The most famous private sector strikes and lockouts that did take place in the 1980s truly smacked of isolated guerrilla battles in hostile economic terrain. These disputes were mostly an attempt to preserve some semblance of the status quo among the copper miners in Clifton-Morenci, Arizona; the meat packers in Austin, Minnesota; and the cannery workers in Watsonville, California. Their heroic stories unfolded along remarkably similar lines. First, various industries, emboldened by Reagan's move against PATCO, demanded concessions from their employees. One of the communities in the pattern bargaining settlement inevitably fought back -- standing up for standards that rose above the pattern settlement. Those communities then found themselves fighting against the company but also against the very uncertain ally of the international union, which was still trying to keep wages and working conditions even across the nation. By the end of their heartbreaking community-based struggles, all three movements ended in more or less the same place: a broken strike, with striking workers facing "permanent replacement" by nonunion workers, a demoralized community, and an inferior (or non ex is tent) contract that drained all the gold out of the golden age of collective bargaining. One of the theme songs of the Austin meatpackers' struggle was Springsteen's "No Retreat, No Surrender," though the workers ended up doing both. As Jonathan Rosenblum concludes his detailed analysis of the 1983 Clifton-Morenci dispute in Arizona, the copper miners' defeat marked "the decline of two vital achievements of the American labor movement: solidarity and right to strike."

What other recourse did working-class Americans have in the face of lost wars, rusting factories, wilting union strength, and embattled hometowns? One answer was to accept the New Right's retooled discourse of what it meant to be born in the U.S.A.: populist nationalism, protection of family, and traditional morality. This retooling often utilized terms first drafted by segregationist George Wallace, then refined by Richard Nixon, and ultimately perfected by Ronald Reagan, a framework designed to provide symbolic sanctuary for a white working class that felt itself embattled. This discourse tapped into the material as well as the social and moral concerns of its targets but actively and strategically reformulated the terms of resentment away from the economics of class and almost soley onto social issues. While "politics and identity" were being pulled "free from the gravity of class," the screaming chant of "Born in the U.S.A." allowed national mythology to drown out the realities of lived working-class experience. As George Lipsitz argues, the " 'new patriotism' often seems strangely defensive, embattled and insecure" based as it was on "powerlessness, humiliation, and social disintegration."

At a time when the traditional working class politically, the Democratic Party, proved capable of precious little material comfort, the New Right offered soothing tonic for the injured pride and diminished material hopes of America's workingmen. Yet it was just that: tonic that promised to sooth cultural queasiness, rather than cure collective economic illnesses.

"Born in the U.S.A." ends with a hidden eulogy to an interracial republic, the promise of which drew to a close at the end of the decade along with the potential for an honest, multiracial rendition of working-class identity. As the song draws to a close, the narrator finds himself "ten years burning down the road / Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go." The reference to Martha and the Vandellas' Motown hit, "Nowhere to Run" makes explicit the theme of being adrift. He then quickly turns to the other tributary of American pop, by invoking the great country and western chronicler of loneliness and alienation, Hank Williams. As "Born in the U.S.A." trails off , its narrator cites the title of a Williams tune when he declares, "I'm a long gone Daddy." In setting up Motown and Nashville as the poles of working-class identity, Springsteen unites black and white experiences -- not in triumph or social unity, but in their shared but separate experiences of rootlessness within American culture. Springsteen, who never indulged in the white racial victimization common in the seventies, suggests that politics -- just like rock 'n' roll -- work best when integrated.

However, the next line uneasily transforms his lament for the dream of unity. He sings, "I'm a cool rocking daddy in the U.S.A." "Long gone" in social, economic, political, and even human senses, the narrator here clings to the "cool" -- a bit of defensive and elusive cultural flotsam left over from the glory days of postwar triumph. The collapse of meaningful, shared, and vernacular social patriotism is driven home as the narrator wails, seems to take punches, and becomes lost as the relentless rhythm of the song finally breaks down -- only to be reconstituted, oblivious to the narrator's story.

Despite a complex revival of labor issues that resonated from Detroit to Hollywood to Washington, by the end of the decade, workers -- qua workers -- had eerily been shaken out of the national scene. The aging labor intellectual J.B.S. Hardman, reflecting on his involvement in organized labor since the beginning of the century, predicted such a fate when he declared that labor stood "at the Rubicon" at the start of the decade. The crossing, he cautioned, would be fraught with treacherous obstacles, but he believed that, win or lose, the decade would represent a watershed in the fortunes of workers.

It did. The seventies whimpered to a close as the labor movement had failed in its major initiatives; de-industrialization decimated the power of the old industrial heartland; market orthodoxy eclipsed all alternatives; and promising organizing drives proved limited. The redefinition of "the working class" beyond its high modern, New Deal, form failed, leaving out the "new" working class of women and minorities -- as well as almost all of the service sector. Workers occasionally reappeared in public discourse as "Reagan Democrats" -- later as "NASCAR Dads" or the victims of another plant shutdown or as irrational protectionists and protestors of free trade, but rarely did they appear as workers. "The era of the forgotten worker," in the words of one journalist, had begun.

Andrew Levison, who had contributed to the revival of working-class studies in the seventies with The Working Class Majority (1974) and The Full Employment Alternative (1980), asked in 2001, "Who Lost the Working Class?" It was too big and complex a question for a single answer. He cited simply the sociological "perfect storm" of post-sixties working-class politics. Indeed, there are points in history in which the confluence of events suggests a transformation that is beyond a single causal explanation, but that requires a multi-layered narrative to capture the complexity. The American working class, a fragmentary but untamed force before the Great Depression, empowered and contained by the New Deal collective bargaining system, ideologically assimilated to the middle class in the fifties, and objectified as an enemy of social change in the 1960s, had always been a vulnerable and malleable thing in American history. Perhaps one of the primary interpretive problems of working-class history was that the baseline of comparison had too often been the extraordinary postwar period. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote of the decline of the golden age:

it was not until the great boom was over, in the disturbed seventies, waiting for the traumatic eighties, that observers -- mainly to begin with, economists-began to realize that the world, particularly the world of developed capitalism, had passed through an altogether exceptional phase of its history; perhaps a unique one…. The gold glowed more brightly against the dull or dark background of the subsequent decades of crisis.

With the failure of union insurgencies and the intransigence of labor leaders of the seventies, the sirens of the Nixon administration, the political divisions and blinders that created the McGovern fiasco, and the dissolution of work in popular culture, the post-New Deal working class never regained its footing. After the seventies, labor's officialdom promised transformations-through the promises of Solidarity Day, John Sweeney's New Voice slate, and the breakaway coalition known as Change to Win -- but these were largely intra-palace machinations. The promise had already passed by the time labor got serious. Talk of labor law reforms under Clinton and Obama raised further, unfulfilled, hopes. Roseanne Barr, Michael Moore, and Homer Simpson all tried to remind us of the void in popular culture, but the jokes really played off of what we as a society had already agreed to forget. "First we stopped noticing members of the working class," wrote one critic, "and now we're convinced they don't exist."

Copyright © 2010 by Jefferson Cowie.  This excerpt originally appeared in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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