05/30/2012 06:30 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

Don't Believe the Hype: Springsteen's Politics

Written by Wilson Towne

Call Bruce Springsteen whatever you want, but make sure to call him a professional. Early in our class we had a conversation on whether or not he was as erudite as we were making him out to be. There were plausible arguments on either side. In interviews he claimed not to have read much, but he also lifted most of The Grapes of Wrath. For me I don't think it matters too much, because he actively tries to be both. Springsteen is no fool, and he plays up his country or working-class image in spite of being ridiculously informed on music, as exhibited by his most excellent keynote address at the SCSW music conference.

The best argument we heard was that before the academic study of Springsteen he was just raw, unbridled musician, but once people were able to respond to his music, and put names to the concepts he was wailing about, he in turn could define his music. In other words Bruce Springsteen's musical career is just a big ball of Call and Response: An individual voice calls out in a way that asks for a response, and the response can be verbal, musical, physical -- anything that communicates with the leader or the rest of the response.

Wrecking Ball, if anything is the response to the global financial crisis and the resulting deficit of communal values. "We Take Care of Our Own," is a play on words that both demands community, and recognizes the dust bowl ideology of looking out for your own people before the beleaguered stranger. Springsteen seems to be demanding representation from the establishment, and I think much of the songs on Wrecking Ball are an invitation to the American people to demand to be heard from both parties. After his endorsement of President Obama and Sen. Kerry, I think Springsteen has been waiting for the response of whether or not the mainstream Democrats can fulfill Springsteen's demands of community.

"Death to My Hometown," seems to be an indictment of the financial community and its reckless gambling backed with the pensions and mortgages of the American middle-class, but more so is the American wet-dream of the middle and working class envisioned by Horatio Algers, where purity, luck, and racial determinism are the reasons for success.

Alger's fantasy is meant to keep the people in their place by assuring them that if they adhere to the slave mentality of the middle class, and so long as they spend as much time on the plow as possible, they can (eventually) earn success and fame and wealth through their pure representation of the American spirit represented by their individualism (to keep them from unionizing) and their godliness (to keep them from seeing beyond their status).

Instead of the capitalist fantasy created by Horatio Alger, Springsteen offers a more communitarian ideal of success, where the goal is not fabulous individual glory or wealth, but a more communitarian ideal where togetherness, love, and understanding are more important than gilded coins and neon billboards. Springsteen is paradoxical in this manner because even though he has come to superstardom with his name, the E-street band is not as well-known, despite contributing to the fame of Bruce Springsteen just as much as the man himself.

Springsteen's job is to bring up these questions to society, and I think he wants to be the one to do so. The working class and Occupy movement certainly aren't taken seriously, but maybe Springsteen can be our King Lear's fool: nothing more than a musician, but a musician that is allowed to be truthful without fear of backlash. A good friend of mine claims, "Springsteen is just the poor man's Bob Dylan." There's merit in that because Springsteen is the most recent person on a chain of musicians leading back to Woody Guthrie, a dusty Okie who challenged California and its division of wealth, to Bob Dylan, who challenged race roles and the containment culture of the '60s and '70s. Springsteen seems to be content to change the world with song and guitar (and a little bit of showbiz magic), and I can't wait to see what happens next.

Wilson Towne recently completed his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is studying History and Philosophy.