There are a great many paradoxes at play when it comes to Bruce Springsteen. For one, he is among the most misunderstood artists of all time and yet very little of him lingers in obfuscated obscurity. A lot of this surface misconception from many people seems to come from the fact that they misjudge his blue-collar all-American ways as blind patriotism, when he is, in fact, one of the most politically unflinching artists that North America has ever produced.
As a boy, he was stirred up by his foremost forebearer Bob Dylan. The virtues that Dylan was beautifully extolling in the 1960s lured Springsteen into the bohemian world of socially conscious music. As he recalls in his autobiography: “Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived.”
This uncompromising view of America exhibited the same token that James Baldwin spoke of when he announced: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Inspired by his bold heroes, this is something that Springsteen has reflected continually in his own work. As he poetically posits when it comes to Dylan: “The darkness and light were all there, the veil of illusion and deception ripped aside. He put his boot on the stultifying politeness and daily routine that covered corruption and decay.”
He continues to eulogise Dylan’s exacting encapsulation of society, adding: “The world he described was all on view, in my little town, and spread out over the television that beamed into our isolated homes, but it went uncommented on and silently tolerated. He inspired me and gave me hope. He asked the questions everyone else was too frightened to ask, especially to a fifteen-year-old: ‘How does it feel… to be on your own?’”
The veil lifting brilliance of Bob Dylan was something that stirred Springsteen into song. Initially, his style was one that bore a kinship bordering on imitation of the trailblazing troubadour. “I became self-conscious about the Dylan comparison, so I moved away from [that style of songwriting] quickly,” Springsteen muses. “Looking back, I kind of had my own Dylan-esque style. And I kind of wish I had never moved away from it so quickly.”
Springsteen’s debut album was even presented to the world with the PR tagline of ‘the next Dylan’. The issue was that Dylan had hardly gone anywhere. This failed attempt to sell the record’s all-American heart through comparison to others rather than championing the LP’s originality led to a poor chart position. It peaked at a moderate 60 in the US and failed to travel well overseas, but the likes of David Bowie heard it, and thanks to that, The Boss didn’t stay quiet for long. The album might not capture as many headlines as Born to Run and others, but it is certainly one of his best.
However, in order to escape the shackles of this first flop, he had to forage out his own niche. Aside from folky introspective songwriting on his side and a finger to the pulse of America, what Springsteen also had was spades of performative bravura. ‘The Boss’ had a stage swagger and fist-pumping style capable of capturing stadiums and bringing societal reflection to the masses. Thus, tender folk songs were amplified to something viscerally befitting of stadiums and his anthemic era was born.
This move produced some of Springsteen greatest songs, but they came with an inherent Achilles heel — the gaudy glare of the mainstream combined with sleeveless gingham and biceps ushered cynical contrarians towards the all too easy conclusion of camp nationalism. The flip side was that it also worked both ways and conservatives began championing him just as blindly. However, Springsteen didn’t care for things that were out of his control and ploughed on with his thunderous worldview all the same.
The epic ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ is the perfect paradigm of this. Catch the chorus and the rousing riff alone and you think it is a Red, White and Blue war cry like some nationalist incarnation of ‘I Am What I Am’. However, if you give the lyrics a modicum of attention then the irony of the staunchly disdainful tale soon becomes clear. This in itself is Dylan-esque. As Paul Simon said: “One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere. I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. With Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun at the same time.”
The difference was that Dylan was espousing ‘Voice of a Generation’ ideals with the unmistakable beat aesthetic of a liberal, whereas Springsteen could’ve been line-backer of the U.S.A. national team at the Olympics, so his irony was lost and the same people who championed him were the ones who would’ve condemned Dylan as a commie a decade or so earlier.
Springsteen’s rousing epic not only points a finger, but it is a paragon of storytelling songwriting of which he remains a king. His musical tales endure to this day, as up-and-coming Newcastle songsmith Sam Fender has declared: “My favourite writers are always great storytellers, like Bruce Springsteen; I adore Bruce Springsteen. I feel like he doesn’t beat around the bush, and he doesn’t overcomplicate things. He puts things into layman’s terms and tells stories that anyone can understand.”
And yet, the lingering legacy of misconception remains to this day. In fact, in a worrying show of misunderstanding, Donald Trump actually used the song that went against all of the tenets of his presidency on his campaign trail. Naturally, this buffoonery infuriated ‘The Boss’ who continually finds ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ to be America’s most celebrated condemnation. The reason perhaps being that aside from his introspection, storytelling and performative ways, he is also the crafter of pure guttural euphoria, and in the paradox of all paradoxes that blind exultation he delivers is itself a triumph worthy of an instinctive cheer.