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Bruce Springsteen -- the Pied Piper as populist

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WHEN Bruce Springsteen played Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands of New Jersey last month, 65,000 fans -- including the governor of New Jersey and the mayor of New York City -- came to see him. Flanking the stage were enormous screens on which Springsteen became, as it were, his own music-video. Even for the live audience, the image was the thing. No matter how often we witness it -- and it is, after all, one of the characteristic events of our times -- there's something discomforting about watching a human being turn into an image, especially a solidly muscular man in T-shirt and jeans, singing in a rough voice songs that perspire with working-class sweat.

Bruce Springsteen has become an extraordinary power, and everybody is trying to abstract that power -- that image -- and harness it to his own purposes.

It comes as no surprise that Lee Iacocca should offer a rumored $15 million to set a Chrysler commercial to the tune of ``Born in the USA.'' That's image-borrowing in the old style.

What's new is that the Live Aid concert for Africa and more recently the Farm Aid concert organized by Willie Nelson have proven that musical stars possess powers of endorsement extending beyond the marketplace. Our minstrels cannot only gather us by the droves but rally us to a purpose. They have become a mainstream political force -- none more so than Springsteen, who may qualify as the first popular singer to be recruited by a president of the United States as a character reference.

Well, the Boss had to distance himself a little from the President, even on the subject of patriotism, and who knows what will come up next?

Ironically, it is Springsteen's determination not to be exploited -- not to be turned into an image -- that makes him so exploitable. Nothing sells like integrity.

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