Bruce Springsteen -- the Pied Piper as populist

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.

Sensing that the moment has come when the former disturbers of our peace are being inducted, willy-nilly, into the establishment, the New York Times has cautiously noted that Bruce Springsteen is growing into ``something more than a rock icon, something more than an entertainer.'' In the Village Voice, Jack Newfield has put it more bluntly, under the headline: ``Can Springsteen Ignite Political Passion?''

Observing that Springsteen songs are directed to hunger, unemployment, and apartheid, Newfield suggests that ``Springsteen is singing against the whole national drift toward Reaganism, materialism, narcissism, union-baiting, rat-race careerism'' -- you name it.

Nobody would dispute that Bruce Springsteen is bandanna-head and working man's-shoulders above most rock stars. At a time when porn-rock has become a political issue, he sings of real political issues. He gives money to causes. He is patriotic -- if not quite in the way the President has tried to claim him. He abstains from drugs. Even parents like him. But is he the nation's redeemer? -- a term that more than one commentator has desperately used. This is image-projection on a very large screen.

The inclination to turn to popular music for political leadership, not to mention philosophical guidance and moral regeneration, must horrify Bruce Springsteen, a thoughtful but unpretentious man himself. Rock culture is not that kind of rock, and if we thrust upon it the responsibility of supplying our public and private wisdom, we come close to declaring our bankruptcy.

Settling, in an age of apathy, for energy where he can find it, Newfield concludes: ``Maybe a guitar can do it better than . . . a book.''

Maybe. But this is a confession with chilling implications.

Do we really want to become the first generation to check out our values by reading bumper stickers and watching MTV?

Somebody -- not necessarily Bruce -- ought to write a protest song about that.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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