Bruce Springsteen, Tom Joad, and the Politics of Meaning

Article excerpt

Bruce Springsteen sings about connection. His songs tell stories about how people struggle to rise above the social and economic forces that trap them. They do so by reaching out to each other in love, friendship, and hope and by putting relationships above the dangerous and deadening pull of poverty, bureaucracy, and class or racial hatred. A rock and roll musician who has sold more than 10 million records, Springsteen brings to his writing and performing a sensibility that is unique in contemporary popular music-a blend of compassionate, class-conscious liberalism with an intuitive appreciation for the centrality of community and love in the struggle to become more fully human.

Springsteen's personal and creative response to the growing economic and psychological despair in our society points toward a politics of meaning. It is not a politics that he articulates explicitly, but conveys through the spirit of his music and songwriting. These "politics" are at once squarely in the populist tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and yet are also something more. For instance, in a song called "Galveston Bay," from his most recent album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, a redneck Vietnam veteran, Billy, vows to terrorize and kill a Vietnamese immigrant, Le, for competing with local fishermen and for taking what belongs to white "Americans." As we meet the two antagonists, Springsteen subtly emphasizes their similarities--former allies, loving fathers, industrious fisherman. At the last moment, Billy stays his hand, does not attack Le, and rejects racist terrorism. In the end we are led to see, as Billy himself does, that their commonality outweighs their "natural" antagonisms and competition. In "On the Line," an Immigration and Naturalization Service marshall, Carl, spends his days in the quixotic and irrational task of chasing, apprehending, and repatriating Mexicans attempting illegally to cross the border into the United States. Carl is struck by the absurdity of his role in a revolving door driven by economic despair, but is only moved to resist it when he falls in love with a Mexican woman, Louisa, who asks for his help in getting her family across the very border that Carl is hired to protect. Torn between love and his loyalty to the system, Carl risks his life and job and chooses love. He smuggles Louisa across, only to have her leave him and disappear. The song ends with Carl quitting his job and looking for his lost love.

Other songs on The Ghost of Tom Joad, include stories about a homeless man's friendship with a mentor, a man who falls in love and foolishly robs a bank with his lover, and an ex-con torn between his new and old life. These songs are often tragic. They do not chronicle grand acts of political protest; many recount morally ambiguous love stories, sometimes with unhappy endings, and rarely offer explicitly "political" analyses. Springsteen tells stories about real people whose lives contain nuance and struggle, terrible damage and small acts of resistance, repair, and a longing for something more. His characters are not one-dimensional victims; they're not the innocent "oppressed." They make bad choices, take risks, resort to safe and familiar patterns, and reflect on it all.

Like all of us, the people who inhabit Springsteen's songs also secretly blame themselves for their status in life, even while maintaining a sharp awareness of the exploitative nature of the system. In "Youngstown," for instance, Springsteen describes the oppressive effects of the steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio, on the steel workers and their environment. The narrator knows that he is "sinking down" because of the rapacious greed of the mill owners ("once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name"). Still, in the end, the narrator embraces his fate as deserved ("when I die I don't want no part of heaven, I would not do heaven's work well, I pray the devil comes and takes me, to stand in the fiery furnaces of hell"). …