Bruce Springsteen: Voice of a Decade

What does it mean, Springsteen asked, to be an American?

By MIKAL GILMOREPosted Nov 15, 1990 1:47 PM

In 1982, after the tour ended, Springsteen was poised for the sort of massive breakthrough that people had been predicting for nearly a decade. The River had gone to the top of Billboard's albums chart, and "Hungry Heart" was a Top Ten single; it seemed that Springsteen was finally overcoming much of the popular backlash that had set in several years earlier, after numerous critics hailed him as rock & roll's imminent crown prince. But after the tour, the singer was unsure about what direction he wanted to take in his songwriting. He spent some time driving around the country, brooding, reading, thinking about the realities of his own emotional life and the social conditions around him, and then he settled down and wrote a body of songs about his ruminations. On January 3rd, 1982, Springsteen sat in his home and recorded a four-track demo cassette of the new songs, accompanied for the most part only by his ghostly sounding acoustic guitar. He later presented the songs to Jon Landau and the E Street Band, but neither Landau nor the musicians could find the right way to flesh out the doleful, spare-sounding new material. Finally, at Landau's behest, Springsteen released the original demo versions of the songs as a solo effort, entitled Nebraska. It was unlike any other work in pop-music history: a politically piercing statement that was utterly free of a single instance of didactic sloganeering or ideological proclamation. Rather than preach to or berate his listeners, Springsteen created a vivid cast of characters — people who had been shattered by bad fortune, by limitations, by mounting debts and losses — and then he let those characters tell the stories of how their pain spilled over into despair and, sometimes, violence.

There was a timeless, folkish feel to Nebraska's music, but the themes and events it related were as dangerous and timely as the daily headlines. It was a record about what can occur when normal people are forced to endure what cannot be endured. Springsteen's point was that until we understood how these people arrived at their places of ruin, until we accepted our connection to those who had been hurt or excluded beyond repair, America could not be free of such fates or such crimes. "The idea of America as a family is naive, maybe sentimental or simplistic," he said in a 1987 interview, "but it's a good idea. And if people are sick and hurting and lost, I guess it falls on everybody to address those problems in some fashion. Because injustice, and the price of that injustice, falls on everyone's heads. The economic injustice falls on everybody's head and steals everyone's freedom. Your wife can't walk down the street at night. People keep guns in their homes. They live with a greater sense of apprehension, anxiety and fear than they would in a more just and open society. It's not an accident, and it's not simply that there are 'bad' people out there. It's an inbred part of the way that we are all living: It's a product of what we have accepted, what we have acceded to. And whether we mean it or not, our silence has spoken for us in some fashion."

Nebraska attempted to make a substantial statement about the modern American sensibility in an austere style that demanded close involvement. That is, the songs required that you settle into their doleful textures and racking tales and then apply the hard facts of their meaning to the social reality around you. In contrast to Springsteen's earlier bravado, there was nothing eager or indomitable about Nebraska. Instead, it was a record about people walking the rim of desolation who sometimes transform their despair into the irrevocable action of murder. It was not exulting or uplifting, and for that reason, it was a record that many listeners respected more than they "enjoyed." Certainly, it was not a record by which an artist might expand his audience in the fun-minded world of pop.

But with his next record, Born in the U.S.A., in 1984, Springsteen set out to find what it might mean to bring his message to the largest possible audience. Like Nebraska, Born in the U.S.A. was about people who come to realize that life turns out harder, more hurtful, more closefisted than they might have expected. But in contrast to Nebraska's killers and losers, Born in the USA's characters hold back the night as best they can, whether it's by singing, laughing, dancing, yearning, reminiscing or entering into desperate love affairs. There was something celebratory about how these people face their hardships. It's as if Springsteen were saying that life is made to endure and that we all make peace with private suffering and shared sorrow as best we can.


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