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Springsteen's Nebraska and the American Dream

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Written by Spencer Jarrold

I've been hearing Bruce Springsteen's music since my childhood. It wasn't until recently that I investigated the complexity of his work and the consequent effect that attempting to understand how his ideas have had an impact on my own views, without my recognizing it. My first experiences with Springsteen are pretty universal I think: my memories are mostly of the song "Born in the U.S.A.," and the only words I remember from the song are those very words.

Springsteen investigates in detail, through his music, the idea of, one could say, "the American Dream." To be more precise, though, Springsteen looks hard at the idea of socioeconomic mobility, oft associated with the American Dream.

In Springsteen's early works, he comments on what he views to be the hindrances on socioeconomic mobility in this country. Speaking at the time of The River and referring to the American Dream, he said, "...that dream is only true for a very, very, very few people. It seems if you weren't born in the right place or if you didn't come from the right town, or if you believed in something that was different from the next person..." Likely a result of his "working-class" background, Springsteen is disillusioned by the notion that that sort of mobility is possible, let alone likely.

Initially, Springsteen explored the deterrents to socioeconomic freedom through a romantic lens, with the occasionally airy, frequently upbeat melodies associated by many with the elicitation of hope. Lyrically, Springsteen was detached, aloof, communicating through the stories of characters, with an underlying, hopeful, escapism.

As Springsteen's career went on, we see an artist deep in thought, and perhaps through some episode of introspection, Springsteen's tone on the idea of freedom became distinctly more cynical, marked by realism, especially on albums after The River. In the song "The River," Springsteen poses a question for the listener, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?" Before the listener has the chance to respond, Springsteen answers with a new investigation of freedom, the lonely, dark and brooding album that is Nebraska.

It seems to me that with the new cynicism and despondency of Springsteen's music on Nebraska, he could very well be looking at the fallacy of freedom, not in its literal application, socioeconomically, but as an abstract and human-created idea.

Answering his self-imposed question from "The River," Springsteen's Nebraska investigates the paradoxical nature of freedom. Freedom, I'm expanding from Springsteen, is an idea that man has made, and like all ideas man has made, is entirely dependent on individual perceptions, but paradoxically, dependent on a certain ubiquity of understanding to a certain extent; it's the fundamental flaw of human communication, a manifestation of the fallibility of the mind and its remarkable malleability as it interacts with its environment. Springsteen now, whether deliberately or not, seems to be pointing out that with this being the nature of freedom, the socioeconomic fixedness of many in the United States is an inevitability, akin to and possibly a result of the country's founding on the principle of freedom, paradoxically facilitated by the encroachment of the freedom the Native Americans.

Springsteen's initial dejection as a result of the idea ironically proves his point: environmentally formed ideas inhibit the freedom; perception is so influenced by a human's surroundings, that the mind becomes fixated on environmentally created ideas and societal tendencies. In this example, the despondency of the working-class through inability in socioeconomic mobility reflects the tendency of society to value "success" in monetary terms.

Ultimately, these implications and inferences from Springsteen's music were the impetus for my current state of philosophical pondering. Rather than the return to a balance of hopeful tones and critical lyricism, which Springsteen makes in Born in the U.S.A., my thoughts have become increasingly nihilistic. Analyzing years of Springsteen's thinking through his music in the microcosm of the class emphasizes, to me, the paradox of ideas that he points out. At the same time, I'm fixated by the idea of societal mediation that he points out. Through introspection, I've tried to determine the roots of my own implicit behaviors, which are infinitely tied to my environment; yet as Springsteen's music points out, the nature of the ideas on which the surrounding society is created is fundamentally flawed. It's a frightening abyss of thoughts that can never be proven, but it's hard for me to escape what I see as their legitimacy.

So far, it seems the largest effect of Springsteen's music on me has come through its complexity. As a result of the complex ideas that Springsteen explores, I too explore the same ideas, but diverging and expanding from Springsteen, realizing the ubiquity of subjectivity and life in, to quote Talib Kweli, a "paradox we call reality."

Spencer Jarrold is a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, currently considering English and Political Science as prospective majors. His hobbies are playing sports and listening to and playing music.