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Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll

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Springsteen was less literary than Dylan, but there was poetry in his rhythmically driven evocations of the pleasure, wildness, poverty, and desperation  experienced in American factory towns. Springsteen’s "Born to Run" album, recorded with an ethnically diverse back up group eventually known as the E Street band, proved that “song writers didn’t have to go it alone" and that a lyricist  “could still be highly personal with five other musicians backing [him].”

Consider representative Springsteen imagery. A man with a strong sense of family and place faces the loss of dignity and family unity when a factory which used to provide a path for local boys to become men closes down. A kid in a dusty small town realizes that his world is closing in, and comes to a Rubicon he might fail to cross unless he is able to come to terms with his stifling community, his wary girlfriend, and his defeated elders. It’s Elvis and James Dean material, but in Springsteen rebellion isn’t entirely individual, or limited to the anxieties of youth. Springsteen’s narrators know that they are peons in a greater social, economic picture, which has stacked the odds against them. It’s a class-conscious longing for a better community.

Dolan’s book turns Springsteen’s career into a parable for the search for community. Springsteen’s search began with the idealized, biracial world of late '50’s radio. The adult Springsteen became a both popular artist who wants to make classless, open community with his fans and audience by having fun, and a populist with a sense of social obligation.

For the sake of his career in the market-driven world of pop, he has had to balance both identities. The conservative '80’s, when Springsteen achieved his greatest success, also starkly revealed the schisms in his fan base – the way that an “of the people” working class identity can appropriated by both the left and the right. Springsteen's signature hit single “Born in the USA” was originally an acoustic song entitled “Vietnam.” It’s an anthem for veterans who survived the war, though broken and battered. The anti-war sentiment is lost in the up-tempo, radio version which obscures the lyrics. The publicity campaign behind the single downplayed any hint of irony, and the refrain “born in the USA” seemed a jingle pitched to '80’s conformism. Springsteen was praised by President Reagan.

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