Bruce Springsteen’s latest single is called “We Take Care of Our Own”. The first single from his forthcoming album Wrecking Ball (due out March 6), it’s been out for about a month now, but it got a boost earlier this week when Springsteen and the E Street Band opened the Grammy Awards broadcast with a rousing performance of it – I believe (could be wrong here), the first televised appearance by the band since the death of saxophonist (and spiritual leader) Clarence Clemons last spring. Their performance was loud and triumphant, and the song itself harkens back to the band’s anthemic stadium rockers of the 80s – songs like “Hungry Heart” and “Glory Days” and, of course, “Born in the U.S.A.”
I’ve always been more a reluctant Springsteen fan than a true believer. As much as I loved hearing those songs from the Born in the U.S.A. album on the radio, I never actually bought the album – which, having generated no fewer than seven Top 10 singles, was virtually a greatest hits comp – until much later. Even when I did, I rarely listened to it.I have a theory about this. Springsteen has certainly put out some intimate, personal, quiet records, but his most popular ones – specifically Born in the U.S.A. – almost require a communal experience in order to work. You can’t – well, I know I can’t – plop Born in the U.S.A. on the turntable and sit down by myself and just listen. It’s a sound that needs some kind of public space and some kind of crowd to really get across and be heard properly, whether that space is a packed arena and a fist-pumping audience, or the virtual space of a broadcast for a crowd of TV viewers or rush hour commuters, preferably with the volume turned up and the windows rolled down. (I just checked, and it appears that at some point, I got rid of my Born in the U.S.A. CD. I’ve never missed it. After all, its songs still get play on the radio.)
This might also explain why a politician might gravitate to Springsteen’s songs. They sound great at rallies! They’re the audio equivalent of blue jeans and rolled up sleeves. It’s music that brings the people – both bourgeoisie and rebel – together. Hearing the E Street Band, still recovering from their own personal loss, playing “We Take Care of Our Own” to a crowd still reeling from the sudden death of an industry icon; listening to the song’s determined stomp, its optimistic chimes, and its purposeful titular declaration, a thought occurred to me: how long before a Republican presidential candidate uses “We Take Care of Our Own” at a campaign event, totally missing the irony?
Like many of Bruce Springsteen’s most popular songs, “We Take Care of Our Own” is like a Southern Baptist sermon delivered in Arabic
It wouldn’t be the first time this year. Mitt Romney’s already run afoul of rapper K’Naan by using the song “Wavin’ Flag” during his Florida primary victory speech. (K’Naan, a Canadian Muslim who was born in wartorn Mogadishu, Somalia, was understandably upset to hear the message of his song co-opted by an overprivileged white American corporatist who proudly claimed to be not concerned with the very poor.) Nor would it really be the first time conservatives have embraced Springsteen. Born in the U.S.A. was released right into the ’84 election season (y’know, the one that brought us the 49-state landslide victory for St. Ronald), and Reagan and his backers boldly appropriated the patriotic sound of Bruce’s message while missing the message itself entirely.
One could almost have forgiven them their cluelessness back in the 80s. The sound of Born in the U.S.A. is Republican catnip. and whatever political implications one might have drawn from his songs, Springsteen himself largely kept out of politics (until 2004, when he joined John Kerry at some campaign events – in 2008, he publicly endorsed Barack Obama). Like Southern Baptist sermons preached in Arabic, his songs expressed liberal (particularly unionist) sentiments using conservatives’ language: they are crowd songs, they have a patriotic, anthemic feeling; you can wave the American flag to them; you can sing along with them the first time you hear them. His latest is just one more example of that. As triumphant (and triumphalist) as it may sound, “We Take Care of Our Own” is not a song about how we as a country actually “take care our own.” It’s about how we’ve failed to.
So, note to Ron Paul: when you’re giving that victory speech in Maine this weekend to those die-hard supporters who admire the purist libertarian stance you champion: step away from the Springsteen. Try some Kelly Clarkson instead. Her songs also sound pretty good in crowds, and (bonus!) she knows a thing or two about winning votes.