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Bruce, Language, Freedom

03/22/2012 10:38 am ET | Updated May 22, 2012
  • Craig Werner Professor of Afro-American Studies, English and Integrated Liberal Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Written by Brian Moran

In his introduction, Craig wrote about how most of us hardly knew any Springsteen other than "Born to Run" and "Born in the USA" before taking this class. And I have to admit that I was no different. For whatever reason, my musical escapades simply hadn't led me to The Boss. But though I didn't know much about Bruce and his music before, I was certainly aware of music's general ability not only to transcend boundaries, but also to offer insights into our history and values in ways that traditional rational analysis simply cannot do.

Last semester, I took another class with Craig called "The Vietnam Era." The main idea of the class was to listen to songs like Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" and to use them to understand the changing tide of American culture and values throughout the mayhem of the 60's, with a particular focus on this experience through the eyes of Vietnam veterans. And I've gotta tell ya -- listening to songs like Michael Martin and Tim Holiday's "Time to Lay it Down" burned the pain experienced by returning Vets into my consciousness 100 times more effectively than any textbook with the phrase "returning Vietnam Veterans were treated poorly" could ever hope to.

When we speak a language, the words in themselves aren't the truth we're trying to convey. Language is simply the transmission of ideas. I realize something, and I want you to realize the same thing, so I use a set of vocal sounds with a culturally agreed upon meaning to help you do so. But sometimes, finding the right words isn't so easy, and thus transmitting ideas through spoken language can be a pain. But what I've realized over time is that music has an ability to skip all that; it allows ideas to be transmitted between individuals without the need for all the complications that arise from communication through spoken language. That's why Rev. Al Sharpton said that when he heard James Brown holler into a microphone, well, that was it. All the anger Sharpton and many other African Americans felt about black economic and social inequality in America could be captured so quickly and effectively through that one howl.

Enough of my philosophic-linguistic ramblings; what's important is that music is one of the best vehicles we have of understanding ourselves and others. So when I heard that Craig was teaching the "Springsteen's America" class this semester, I cancelled any interfering plans and signed on up. I knew that it would be the perfect compliment to the "Vietnam" class, basically starting where it let off.

What I soon found was that Bruce's music offered insights into the complications of the American Dream, one of the big themes of the "Springsteen's America" class. A lot of us have looked around at the economic inequality and corruption drowning the country and have concluded that the idea that "anyone can make it" is just a lie. And thus we've viewed the American Dream with hostility -- as a fabrication designed to keep those in power in power, and to keep those out of power out of the way.

Bruce himself certainly had similar thoughts about our economic structure. We can see that in songs like "Mansion on the Hill," "Badlands," and of course by simply looking at his economic life growing up. But when he cries "Born in the USA" with such passion, is there not a hint of love within the cynicism? What I've come to conclude through listening to his music is that, through escapist songs like "Born to Run," Bruce establishes what I've called the "New American Dream." And I call it that, but it's really just as old as the "old" American Dream. What the American Dream at its most fundamental state is really about is freedom. And our economic system had once promised an opportunity of freedom for all, but by Bruce's time, it had become corrupted. He'd seen so many people lose their souls and freedom to the system, that he at first decided to just reject that system entirely -- to run away and find his own American Dream. And through songs like "Born to Run" we can see that freedom forming and being expressed.

But the purely escapist freedom didn't last. His lawsuit with Mike Appel forced Bruce to realize that, like it or not, he was part of the world of the "old" dream. So from Darkness on the Edge of Town onward, bringing his freedom into the world of the "old" dream (and the frustrations that followed from trying to do so) became a prominent theme in his music. For no matter how corrupted the world may be, he realized that we can't completely reject "The Ties That Bind" us to it.

So for me, this connected perfectly to my current life situation. On top of a 17 credit course load, I currently work about 23 hours a week at a nearby grocery store. Sometimes people look at my schedule and say, "How do you cope?" But the truth is that that question has never really crossed my mind. In fact, I consider myself right now just as free as I've been during any summer vacation. And the reason is that I'm slowly learning to find peace and freedom whilst within the system, just like Bruce struggled to do. Sometimes all it takes is lying in the grass for five minutes before going to work. Sometimes all it takes is stopping what I'm doing for 30 seconds just to mindfully watch my breath flow.

Anyway, that's how Bruce's music applies to me: it speaks of how to find the real American Dream -- freedom -- within a "runaway" one abound with war, poverty, mindless media, you name it. It's not easy, but there's a freedom within it all, and it's within us.

Brian Moran is a freshman at UW Madison majoring in philosophy. He grew up on the south side of Chicago, where he played football and rugby in high school, and worked at a family owned grocery store for a couple of years.

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