The American Dream is an idea that’s tossed around like a football in the political arena, usually for momentary gain. Mercifully, art is the place where overtired and fraught ideas like the American dream are more thoughtfully considered and their complexities can bubble to the surface above all the stale rhetoric.
That’s why when people try to appropriate art for political gain, I get a little annoyed. Take David Brooks’ most recent column, “The Power of the Particular.” I should have known from the first sentence what I was in store for: “They say you’ve never really seen a Bruce Springsteen concert until you’ve seen one in Europe, so some friends and I threw financial sanity to the winds and went to follow him around Spain and France.”
I don’t know who the “they” that Brooks is referring to is; I’m a born-and-raised Jersey girl, and I’ve never heard anyone ever say such a thing. Even just a cursory familiarity with Springsteen’s repertoire makes this sentence laughable. The image of Brooks spending thousands of dollars to hear Bruce sing about his down-and-out, working-class heroes is a more perfect metaphor for Brooks' tone-deafness than I could ever conjure.
Brooks went on to make a larger point about how particularity and specificity in someone’s identity makes them more authentic and, in the end, universal; in other words, the fact that Springsteen positions himself so firmly in an identity like the blue-collar boy and in a place like the post-industrial Jersey shore gives him a sense of authenticity and credibility that appeals to everybody.
I take this point, but Brooks misses the larger one. Springsteen’s music is by default an agglomeration of many different musical traditions: folk, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country, just to name a few. His genius is in synthesizing these many traditions and carving his own space within them.
Brooks seems rapt with the way Europeans connect to what he sees as patriotic anthems of Springsteen’s, particularly “Born in the U.S.A.” This is so strongly reminiscent of when Reagan tried to appropriate this legendary song for his 1984 campaign, unaware of the its anti-war, anti-authority message, as well as seeming ruefully unaware of Springsteen’s political views in general.
Many of his songs tell tragic stories about America, but what salvages the subjects of Springsteen’s songs is their unwavering faith in each other, and their ability to get up in the morning and try again. It’s something we can all connect to, whether or not we’ve ever gotten arrested for sleeping on the beach, or lived in a city falling in on itself like Asbury Park in the '80s, or lost our job because the factory moved to South America. It’s a message that is nearly synonymous with what Herman Melville’s Ishmael called “democratic dignity”; perhaps America is careening towards disaster, but the ability of the workers on board to pull together in conviviality is what will redeem it. Bruce is our Ishmael, showing us the ways our country has made its American Dream impossible, constraining the people it is meant to aid, while also offering a menu of antidotes.
Another Bruce fan who somehow seems to understand where he’s coming from is Chris Christie. The tense and stony relationship between Springsteen and New Jersey’s Republican governor was outlined recently in a piece in the Atlantic, and at the end of it, I felt closer to Christie. I even liked him (Brooks’ column had no such effect on me). Christie really gets Springsteen; he’s been to 129 of his concerts and knows the words to every song. However, despite many overtures from the governor, Springsteen has declined all opportunities to meet or even interact with him. Over the years, Springsteen has come out strongly in support of worker’s unions, gay rights, and generous social services, all of which Christie has taken numerous steps to stagnate.
Christie sees Springsteen as the embodiment of the American Dream: broke kid from Freehold makes it in the big leagues and reaps his material rewards. But the reality is that Springsteen hardly ever grants interviews, continues to tour exhaustively when he clearly does not need the money or publicity, and has made symbolic business decisions like turning down several million dollars for “Born in the U.S.A.” to be featured in a Chrysler ad. He’s never been in it for the fame or money, and that’s more true today than ever.
So what is it about Springsteen that captures the imaginations of guys like Christie and Brooks? Bruce possesses an authenticity and sense of dignity that is all too scarce in today’s world, political or otherwise. He subverts our assumptions about the American dream and laments the scattered dreams of those who believe in it, but, in the end, his songs are hauntingly elegiac, euphoric, and everything in between. They are redemptive.
Springsteen taps into a different American Dream, one that has nothing to do with wealth and fame, and one that idolizers like Brooks would do well to listen to. It’s a dream about constantly striving and finding salvation, no matter how fleeting, in the fraternity of others.