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Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll

This intelligent examination of the career of Bruce Springsteen traces the rock icon's ability to balance two disparate identities.

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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.

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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.

Springsteen made it clear he couldn’t support Reagan, but he was unwilling to be drawn into partisan politics; in the “Morning in America” '80’s, Springsteen championed working class issues by singing songs like “Factory,” not by becoming a voice of subversion.

While in his early years he struggled to popularize his working-class vision to a public blinded by the hippie movement, in the '80’s he had to pitch his Woody Guthrie style populism to a country in the middle of a conservative swing. The Reagan '80’s made Springsteen a millionaire, regardless of the gulf between the President’s and the songwriter’s vision of a working-class ethos.

Springsteen became radicalized in the '90’s and went on to record a song protesting the killing of Amadou Diallo, perform concerts for post-Katrina New Orleans, and campaign for Kerry and Obama. His latest release, "Wrecking Ball," is an attack on corporate America straight out of the Occupy Wall Street playbook.

"Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll" is an intelligent fan book written by a sophisticated admirer. Dolan argues that Springsteen’s preoccupation with deindustrialization, poverty, and underemployment – even in times when America enjoyed prosperity – documents  “a problem that never went away."

Springsteen has been the prophet in the wilderness all along.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and journalist living in Santa Fe, N.M.


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