During a career that has spanned five decades, American signer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen has released over 20 studio albums. His work combined a mainstream rock sound with poetic and socially conscious lyrics, leading to his status as one of the originators of the “heartland” style of American rock. His music has always spoken for the downtrodden and the voiceless. So, it is unsurprising that Springsteen regarded his music as a tool by which he could dismantle the status quo.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, that status quo said that AIDS was a punishment from God. The headlines at that time used the term “AIDS” and “Panic” as though they were synonymous, creating a stigma around the illness that lasts to this day. People with AIDS and, especially young gay men, were treated like lepers. Today we know that the illness is very treatable, but back in the ’80s, information about the nature of AIDS was so sparse that nurses would leave the meals of patients outside their doors. These patients were forced to isolate due to fears that the illness might be spread through air molecules, and many died alone in their hospital beds.
The hysteria surrounding AIDS was so prevalent that for any public figure to come out in support of people living with AIDS was monumental. Princess Diana made headlines across the world when she embraced a seven-year-old child suffering from the illness, a decision which is now regarded as marking a watershed moment in the public’s perception of AIDS. But this gradual shift in perception was never to be the work of one person. Instead, it would be the work of an entire generation.
With his 1994 hit ‘The Streets of Philidelphia’, Bruce Springsteen played a key part in changing the public’s perception of AIDS. This is largely due to the song’s association with the 1994 film Philidelphia. Starring Tom hanks, the film was one of the first to use HIV/AIDS as its subject matter. And, In doing so, it opened up the discussion surrounding the illnesses.
The director, Jonathon Demme, used ‘Streets of Phulidesphia’ to open his movie. Demme had originally cut the opening sequence to ‘Southern Man’ by Neil Young and asked Young to write something similar. Young gave him ‘Philidelphia’, which was used to close the film, but Demme still needed an opening track. Having met Springsteen during the production of his ‘Sun City’ music video, Demme went to Springsteen and asked him to write a rock song for the movie, something which would amp up the audience.
Springsteen began writing the song immediately, using some unfinished lyrics from a song he’d started writing about the death of a friend. But the song didn’t work over a traditional rock beat, and Springsteen handed it to Demme, expecting he’d dismiss it outright. However, the opposite happened. Demme loved the track, just as it was, and felt it suited the film’s closing sequence perfectly.
Demme wanted his film to reach people who were not familiar with AIDS. The director’s choice to employ Springsteen acted as a way for Demme to cash in on the songwriter’s immense public influence. By utilising Springsteen, Demme felt that the film would attract audiences from America’s heartland, people who either hadn’t heard of AIDS or who had been misinformed.
Springsteen’s song certainly succeeded in that way. ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ shot to the top of the charts, not just in America, but in the UK, Europe, and Canada as well. “I wanted it to play in the mall”, Springsteen said of the song. And it did too. The song’s sheer ubiquity, alongside the success of Philidelphia, bought the conversation surrounding AIDS into the everyday lives of normal people. It forced people to confront the issue and asked them to interrogate their prejudices.
With ‘The Streets of Philadelphia’, Bruce Springsteen showed his support for victims of an illness which, in the mid-’90s was still regarded with a huge amount of anxiety. Demme’s decision to place Springsteen’s song in a film embedded the piece in the minds of the public and allowed it to gently shift the public’s perspective. Not only did the track shape the history of rock n’ roll, but it also shaped the attitudes of an entire demographic. Thus, is the power of a great song.