The Common Good
June 2012

The Boss's Musical Indictment

by Danny Duncan Collum | June 2012

Springsteen sings what politicians won't say: We were robbed and the thieves have escaped justice.

IN THE GREAT gospel and blues tradition of affirming in the negative, Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, is simultaneously a ferocious roar of righteous anger at what the captains of Wall Street did to America in 2008 and a riotous celebration of American roots. That could make it the perfect soundtrack for a spring and summer resurgence of the Occupy Wall Street campaign.

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At this point a new album from Bruce Springsteen is no longer an earth-shaking event, even in the world of rock and roll. After all, the guy is 62. In the past few years, two core members of his band (organist Danny Federici and sax man Clarence Clemons) have died, not from rock-star excesses but from the old-guy ailments of skin cancer and stroke, respectively. And The Boss’ last album of new material, the 2009 Working on a Dream, was definitely subpar.

But with Wrecking Ball, Spring-steen has, for the second time within a decade, stepped forward to assume the role of a Telecaster-toting poet laureate and produced a stirring work of popular art that speaks to the depths of the national condition. The first time was with The Rising, his 2002 meditation on mortality and loss in response to 9/11. The songs in this new collection plainly declare about our ongoing economic crisis what no mainstream national political leader has been willing to say: We were robbed, and the thieves have escaped justice.

Each of Wrecking Ball’s first five tracks explicitly calls out the titans of finance for crimes against democracy and humanity. In “Jack of All Trades,” the song’s narrator even suggests that it might be a good idea to “hunt the bastards down and shoot ’em on sight.” And the sixth track is called “This Depression” with a double meaning, both economic and emotional.

What Springsteen is doing here with his sound is at least as interesting as the message he brings. Many of the tracks fuse the drum-loop experiments of The Rising with the great big, wide-open American roots sound he made with The Seeger Sessions Band. The result is a sonic Rainbow Coalition that ranges from an Irish marching tune (“Death to My Hometown”) to gospel and hip-hop (“Rocky Ground”).

While “Jack of All Trades” toys with the notion of firearms as a tool for financial reform, “Death to My Hometown” puts forward a less dramatic but ultimately more practical suggestion: “get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done ... sing it hard and sing it well, and send the robber barons straight to hell.”

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Springsteen seems to still believe, like Woody Guthrie, that songs can inspire action—and maybe even that guitars can “kill” fascists.

In the spring and summer of 2012, the time will be right for marching in the streets and maybe dancing, too. Wrecking Ball hit the charts (pushing Adele out of the number one spot) just as stories began to appear about Occupy Wall Street’s spring offensive to retake not just certain public spaces, but the American economy itself, including plans for a day of action on May 1 and moves to disrupt the Bank of America’s May 9 shareholder meeting at corporate headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina.

And, in the most hopeful note I’ve seen in a long time, Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, recently told the Associated Press that his union will train at least 2,000 members to practice the nonviolent resistance techniques of Cesar Chavez and Mohandas Gandhi. That’s the kind of wrecking ball that might make Wall Street sit up and take notice.

Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. His latest book is a novel, White Boy.

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