The Common Good
November 2004

The Boss Plays for Change

by Danny Duncan Collum | November 2004

Bruce Springsteen as singer, guitarist - and statesman.

As the fallout from the presidential campaign of the century is crashing around our heads,

As the fallout from the presidential campaign of the century is crashing around our heads, this might be a good time to consider the state of America’s political culture. For my money, one of the most revealing moments of the season came when Bruce Springsteen made his backhanded endorsement of the Democratic ticket and signed on for the Vote for Change concerts. One remarkable thing was simply the fact that a pop singer’s political opinion was announced with a New York Times op-ed piece and treated not as entertainment news but as a mainstream political event.

But the real shocker came a couple of days later when Ronald Brownstein, the Los Angeles Times political columnist, filed a piece speculating hopefully that perhaps Springsteen’s entry into the political fray could raise the tone of campaign debate. Brownstein’s column decried the venomous tone of partisans on both sides - picking on Michael Moore and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth hit squad in particular - and cited Sen. John McCain as a rare voice of sweet reason. Then Brownstein wrote, "If anyone can set the McCain standard for the entertainers, retired generals, business leaders, and assorted other combatants rushing into the campaign trenches, it might be rock icon Bruce Springsteen.... Springsteen...has the capacity to help remind Americans on both sides that the differences between Bush and Kerry are policy disagreements, not moral failings."

Yes, friends and neighbors, the day has come when the nation’s statesmen and stateswomen must look to rock-and-roll singers for their lessons in dignity and civility. They have to borrow their gravitas from a guy who made his name doing somersaults across the stage while his band played "Devil With a Blue Dress On."

For the record, Springsteen wasn’t the only popular artist of the season to show more statesmanship than his political counterparts. Just one artistic tier below The Boss, country singer Travis Tritt, a Bush supporter, enlisted Vote for Change partisan John Mellencamp to record a duet on Tritt’s album My Honky Tonk History. "What Say You" is a plea for folks with differing views to listen to each other with respect. But that was entertainment news. It didn’t make the political page.

IT’S A FACT that Bruce Springsteen is a more respected figure in America than any active politician you can name (the modifier "active" being only to exclude Jimmy Carter). Springsteen has that level of respect because he’s earned it. For 30 years, he’s dug deep into the heart and soul of this country and pulled out its truth and beauty in three-minute chunks.

Springsteen began making social statements with his work in the late 1970s, as he watched de-industrialization destroy the blue-collar communities of his native New Jersey. He was forced to become more overtly political in 1984, when Ronald Reagan tried to paint Springsteen as an archetypal "rags to riches" story and draft his rebel ethic for the cause of free-market individualism. Springsteen called foul, and the president backed down. But even then The Boss did not endorse Reagan’s Democratic opponent. And no one expected him to. Even then it was clear that he was a figure of greater consequence than Walter Mondale. Instead Springsteen set the record straight by devoting himself to raising money and publicity for grassroots community organizations that aim to empower America’s left-out and left-behind. He has continued that path ever since.

Springsteen was deeply affected by the events of 9-11. The people who fell with the Twin Towers were his neighbors and fans. On The Rising, he made music that gave voice to the grief and rage of a wounded nation. He even made statements supporting Bush’s incursion into Afghanistan (a view he still holds). He was, in a word, statesmanlike. But in the years since then, as Bush, in Springsteen’s view, exploited the deaths of 9-11 for his political gain and the profit of his corporate buddies, he’s made one very powerful enemy in the state of New Jersey. Springsteen has always talked about the ties of trust between people—men and women, parents and children, employer and employee, artist and audience. In the years since Sept. 11, The Boss has seen George W. Bush betray our trust, and in Springsteen’s moral calculus that’s about the worst thing you can do.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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