Memo to Rich Conservatives -- Bruce Springsteen Doesn't Love You Back
What is it about Bruce Springsteen that causes conservatives to so spectacularly miss the point? Politicians like Chris Christie and pundits like the Heritage Foundation's Mike Brownfield persist in trying to claim Springsteen for themselves, to read some hidden support for their own politics in his lyrics.
Witness the recent case of David Brooks, in a recent New York Times column. Brooks' first sentence couldn't be more out of touch, more anti-Springsteen if it tried: “They say you’ve never really seen a Bruce Springsteen concert until you’ve seen one in Europe, so some friends and I threw financial sanity to the winds and went to follow him around Spain and France.“
Not only does he take the quintessential American artist and place him in Europe, but he's throwing “financial sanity to the winds” at a time when the Boss (no pauper himself, to be sure) is singing about the unemployed, the desperate, and most importantly, those who take care of their neighbors. You know, at home.
He snarkily contrasts the Iberian peninsula with “some other exotic locale on the Jersey Shore” and then devolves (if that was even possible) into some bizarre analysis of how people singing along with Bruce to “Born in the USA” while in Europe is evidence of their deep need for “a passionate and highly localized moral landscape,” whatever that means. And the lesson is that young people still like Springsteen even if a few paragraphs up Brooks was arguing that mostly Springsteen fans are in their “AARP years” (and that crowds in Europe are loud?) and maybe it's because he stayed true to his roots. And didn't embrace pluralism and sample different styles– or something -- or ever take on different characters or sing about places that weren't New Jersey. Oh, wait.
It's funny, really: in trying to praise Springsteen, who seemingly effortlessly gets the kind of “real America” that right-wingers love to fetishize, Brooks manages to come off like a right-wing stereotype of an effete coastal liberal.
In contrast to an overpaid, clueless Times pundit, Bruce is the ultimate populist artist. If there is one common thread that spans the decades of his career it's his ability to make great, even heroic art out of the everyday struggles of working people. The girls he falls in love with aren't the most beautiful but they're his; the deep tragedies he writes of are the loss of a job, tension with a father or brother, the tiny but overwhelming crises most of us deal with every day.
Brooks is the furthest thing from a populist—as Roy Edroso noted back in 2009, the first time Brooks' editors saw fit to let him gush about Springsteen, is there anything less like a Springsteen song than a David Brooks column? While Springsteen steps into the shoes of mechanics, small-town cops, farmers, immigrants, sex workers, and so many more in his songs, Brooks, Edroso points out, couldn't be more detached from the rest of the world if he tried.
It's the connection with real people, people who come from widely disparate backgrounds, not some convoluted “pious advice” about staying true to one's “own tradition”, is really the lesson for politicians from Springsteen. But Brooks, the embodiment of the kind of social distance from most of America that Chris Hayes writes of in his new book, Twilight of the Elites, will never get it.
But, as Alex Pareene reminds us in his own glorious takedown of Brooks' column, BoBo, as he's known in the blogosphere, is far from the only conservative with a Springsteen fetish. New Jersey's own Governor Chris Christie is a frustrated Bruce fan as well, it seems. “Christie, a loudmouth bully whose most successful political maneuver is shouting rudely at lesser people for the benefit of cameras, went to a Springsteen show with, good god, Atlantic humorist Jeffrey Goldberg, and while he repeatedly declares himself a huge fan of the man, he also calls him a 'limousine liberal' and mocks his political beliefs,” Pareene writes.
The Atlantic's tagline for the story calls it a tale of “unrequited love,” and that's cute but Christie's “love” for Springsteen is somewhere between a high school boy's “love” for the head cheerleader who's never spoken to him and that of a stalker. He keeps showing up at shows, making public and private pleas for attention from the artist, who's made it pretty clear where he stands. “No, we got nothing back from them,” he admits to Goldberg, “not even a ‘Fuck you.’”
And yet we are supposed to believe that his love for Springsteen is evidence of some sort of deep and emotional connection on his part? That's a dubious proposition.
Christie's very need to have the Boss like him back is just another demonstration of his spectacular sense of entitlement—we are talking about the man who was driven 100 yards from his helicopter to his seat at a Little League game. Goldberg gushes about the size of the luxury box at the Prudential Center where he dances with Christie, before apparently conducting an interview during the show. Yes, during the show. Which, as Caryn Rose notes, is yet another sign of entitlement: “[I]t is a symptom of ‘I spent my money on this ticket and I will do whatever I want,’ and it is absolutely ruining concertgoing, especially at Bruce Springsteen shows.”
I suppose, as Edroso writes, we should be glad that Christie and Brooks can enjoy a Springsteen show without having to agree with the man on every political issue; that puts them a bit above those, like Glenn Beck, who when he finally got around to listening to Bruce's lyrics, immediately dubbed the man “un-American.” I wrote at the time of “the tendency of McCarthy-wannabes to spend less time paying attention to what their targets actually have to say, and more time policing their image. Scruffy, blue-jean-clad (white) Bruce, with choruses that are often bitterly ironic but are easy to sing along to, passes muster as long as you don’t look too hard.”
At least Christie knows that he and Springsteen are on opposite sides (even if he does make a ludicrous argument that private sector union workers are Bruce's real audience and also his, Christie's, base). Unlike Brooks, Christie is an example of a certain kind of right-wing populism, all bluster and swagger but paying lots of lip service to that bipartisan obsession, the American Dream, and promising tax cuts to working people that, barring any alternative plan from Democrats, sound pretty good. (That income and property tax cuts are going to help the wealthy more is obviously left out of Christie stump speeches.)
And as even Politico pointed out this week, Democrats have almost entirely abandoned populism in favor of courting rich donors. Jamison Foser argues that they too should give up their right to Bruce: “There are few people who should feel more chastised by a song like We Take Care Of Our Own than Democratic politicians who embrace -- or at least fail to resist -- an austerity agenda that ensures that we don’t, and who stand by as organized labor is gutted on behalf of corporations.”
It's hard to argue with that. And it would be nice if within these Springsteen-obsessed articles and columns, just one of these middle-aged powerful white men acknowledged some sort of duty to or connection with the people about whom Bruce sings.