Rising Up with the Boss: Bruce Springsteen and the Politics of Meaning

By Bader, Michael J. | Tikkun, November/December 2002 | Go to article overview

Rising Up with the Boss: Bruce Springsteen and the Politics of Meaning


Bader, Michael J., Tikkun


MUSIC REVIEW

* Bruce Springsteen: The Rising. Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. 2002.

Popular music can't make a revolution but it can definitely make us better human beings. It can evoke feelings of pain and joy that we too often numb ourselves from experiencing. It can help comfort us in our suffering and keep hope alive during times of despair. And popular music can give people a common experience, however transient, from which they can challenge what "is" and move toward what is possible. Whether it be the gospel-based songs of the civil rights movement, the folk music stories of working class struggle, or the music that came from and inspired the anti-- war and women's movements, some popular music has always reflected the search for healing and transcendence.

Transcendence in today's political environment requires that we speak to the feelings of isolation and meaninglessness that the selfishness of the marketplace continually evokes. As Tikkun has argued for many years, social change today requires that we have a politics of meaning. Fortunately, there are musical artists whose songs can capture the spirit of such a politics. In my view, Steve Earle is one such songwriter. Michael Franti, Billy Bragg, Lauryn Hill, and Ani DiFranco are some others who come to mind in this regard. But the most profound voice in popular music today inveighing against spiritual alienation and emotional disconnectedness comes from New Jersey. I'm speaking, of course, about Bruce Springsteen.

I am biased. I first heard Bruce Springsteen on the Jersey Shore in 1970 when he played at my high school prom in Rumson, New Jersey. At that time, Springsteen was the lead guitarist, songwriter and singer for a popular band called Steel Mill. What I remember most about that night is not his gifted storytelling or his musical virtuosity (these traits were to develop over time). What I remember is that he had "attitude"-street tough, alienated, angry-and that his songs were about longing, usually sexual longing. In fact, my memory of Springsteen that night is completely intermingled with memories of making out with my girlfriend. For me, Springsteen expressed alienation, rebellion, and sexuality. He angrily rejected authority like I did (although my rejection involved organized radical politics more than Springsteen's) and expressed lust and romantic desire like I was trying my awkward best to do.

Springsteen has always touched me in this way, capturing something real about both the alienation of everyday social life and the struggle against this alienation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his latest album, The Rising.

Although much has been made of the fact that Springsteen wrote most of the songs as a response to the events of September 11, the core themes-- loss, alienation, and the redemptive power of love, empathy, and passion-- are universal.

Invoking the image of rescue workers climbing the stairs of the World Trade Center in "Into the Fire," Springsteen first speaks of the pain of someone left behind: IMAGE FORMULA12

The song, however, inevitably becomes one of collective redemption:

May your strength give us strength

May your faith give us faith

May your hope give us hope

May your love give us love

Springsteen constantly blends the personal and the social, speaking to a private pain or longing while suggesting that healing is a communal experience. One of the most intensely personal songs on The Rising is called "You're Missing." Grief is measured here by the most intimate details IMAGE FORMULA16

And yet this account of private grief is immediately followed by the title track "The Rising" in which individual mourning is transcended through a communal experience: IMAGE FORMULA18IMAGE FORMULA19

Springsteen's live concerts are often likened to revival meetings, and he actively embraces the parallel. …

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