Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Neil Eriksen

Bruce Springsteen: Reading Rock and Roll


First Published: Theoretical Review No. 21, March-April 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Bruce Springsteen is something of a cultural hero in popular music. Through rock and roll he embodies and gives expression to a whole range of contradictory values, ideals and fears held by a large segment of young people in the USA today. Though some listeners are put off by Springsteen’s vivid and often gritty portrayals of life and relaxation, others have seen his work as a persuasive presentation of ordinary people seeking meaning and relaxation in real life situations. His recent world tour and his latest album, The River (Columbia, 1980) give further creative expression to the youthful exuberance, fun and energy of rock and roll music.

But these positive reflections should not blind us to the very real negative elements that are becoming more prevalent in Springsteen’s most recent work. While much of his work over the years has tended to glorify fast cars, individual striving and success, or typical male concerns in love and sexual relationships, The River shows an increased tendency to explore the rock counter-culture as an end in itself, as well as the counter-culture’s obsession with “love.” Though his recent songs often contain interesting touches of irony, and relations such as marriage are presented as both positive and negative, Springsteen has lost much of the intense hopefulness we hear on Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia, 1978). We will return to this assessment of his new album, but first we will explore certain progressive themes that he has previously developed.

Working Class Roots

A very important theme developed by Springsteen, and one that has consistently found expression in his songs, is a love/hate relationship with his working class roots. He repeatedly refers to going to work and trying to make enough money to live.

I get up every morning and go to work each day.–“The Promised Land”

I got a job working construction/for the Johnstown Company.
But lately there ain’t been much work/on account of the economy.–The River

The most thoughtful expression of Springsteen’s understanding of life for working people is the song “Factory” on Darkness on the Edge of Town. The factory takes his father’s hearing, yet it also “gives him life.” His description of the day to day early morning walk through the factory gates, rain or shine, is a sad and honest portrayal of what Bruce was struggling to escape when he dedicated his life to rock and roll.

Dave Marsh, Springsteen’s biographer, asked him about his concert introduction to “Factory” in an interview for Musician magazine. Springsteen replied:

There’s people that get a chance to do the kind of work that changes the world, and make things really different. And then there’s the kind that just keeps the world from falling apart. And that was the kind that my dad always did. ’Cause we were always together as a family, and we grew up in a . . . good situation, where we had what we needed. And there was a lot of sacrifice on his part and my mother’s part for that to happen.[1]

In the past Springsteen’s portrayal of workers’ lives has held dreams of a “promised land.” But he doesn’t present an answer to the daily problems and sacrifices of the masses that looks outside the dominant ideology; rather, he helps people endure the harsh reality of their lives within the system with dignity and self-respect. Though the usual answer to life’s tribulations is to absorb oneself in a love relationship with another person or a car, there are hints throughout Springsteen’s work that imply we should expect more out of life than what the dominant ideology under capitalism presents as the only existence a worker can know (“We’ll keep pushin’ till. . . these badlands start treating us good.”) In his recent work, however, he sees the deterioration of opportunities and a decline in expectations that people experience with the deepening economic crisis, and the intense exuberance and youthful naivete have most often given way to sadness and discouragement. In this Bruce has his finger on the pulse of broad sections of young people, for he mirrors the real feelings and insecurities of the popular mood.

An important parallel must be drawn here to the work of the Clash on London Calling (CBS, 1980). They, too, struggle to reflect the popular mood; but an important theme of the Clash album is expressed in “I’m not down”:

I’ve been beat up. I’ve been thrown out. But I’m not down.

Compare this to Springsteen’s “Jackson Cage”:

. . . there’s nights when I dream of a better world, but I wake up so downhearted. . .

Part of the response of the Clash to the economic crisis through which the English working class has been suffering is an affirmation of surviving, somewhat intact and in good humor. London Calling presents a lighthearted, up-beat mood, especially in the tempo and musical arrangements, in spite of the recognition of the harsh austerity and the angry and brooding response of the “Guns of Brixton.” But with Springsteen we find that as he becomes more aware of the present austerity and deepening problems for US working people, he gives special expression to battered dreams, as with these lines from The River:

Is a dream a lie/if it don’t come true?
Or is it something worse/that sends me down the river?

The River, though it exhibits its share of up-beat “rockers,” has an extremely strong emphasis on sad reflections of broken hearts and dreams. Bruce does not see much hope in the “dreams where everything goes wrong” (“The Price you pay”); he now believes in “the end” (“Two Hearts”) rather than the “promised land.” I think the difference in responses has much to do with the lack of a viable progressive alternative providing hope in the face of the intensified suffering here in the USA; whereas in England an alternative is present, exemplified by a shift to the left within the Labour Party and by the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, which have tried to fuse their politics with cultural struggle, as with Rock Against Racism.

The day after the elections, in Phoenix, Arizona, Springsteen introduced his classic rock and roll ballad “Badlands” (Darkness, 1978) by reflecting that Reagan’s election was “scary.” Seldom has a rock and roll song outlined the contradictory social relationships under capitalism so poignantly as “Badlands” does in these words:

Poor man wants to be rich/Rich man wants to be king. And a king ain’t satisfied/till he rules everything.

Capitalism only offers the poor the hope that maybe they’ll be rich some day.

For Springsteen the “American Dream,” or what he calls the “human dream,” is on the one hand, “about people living and working together without steppin’ on each other,” with “voices heard from all places” (especially since “When you’re up against big business and politics, you gotta have some muscle.”)[8] On the other hand, he can say that in life “some are gonna stand, some are gonna fall,” as if the fact that one “tries hard” is sufficient, and that the reward of a better life is unnecessary. Unfortunately, those who have “made it” can easily tell those who have not, that “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose,” when it is not their loss, when those who lose may not have enough to eat, or their children have decent clothes to wear. This acceptance of the way things are is based on Springsteen’s naive view of the existing social order. “There’s too much greed, too much carelessness. I don’t believe that was ever the idea of capitalism.”[19 (Emphasis added.) Nonetheless, while functioning completely within the ideology of capitalism, he can still sing that “It’s a sin, and it ought to be a crime” to be “Held up without a gun” at the “Exxon station down on highway one.” ( Held up without a gun” [which at one minute and 15 seconds is a holdup itself], the B side of the “Hungry Heart” single). Springsteen, here, reflects the dominant ideology embraced by working people. He accepts life for what it is, but within its limits he tries to give it as much meaning and vitality as he possible can as a popular entertainer.

Popular Entertainment

Bruce Springsteen has become famous for his irreverent and rebellious portrayal of “growing up” in New Jersey. Eventually, he raced his car out of town, “born to run” and win. More recently he has taken contemplative backward glances at his family and childhood, especially working to come to terms with his relationship to his father. On The River Springsteen is reaffirming his acceptance of the life of a rock and roll performer and “showman.” As a songwriter and popular artist, he additionally works to thoughtfully explore young people’s lives and deepen his personal introspective searching:

Once I spent my time playing tough guy scenes, But I was living in a world of childish dreams. Someday these childish dreams must end, To become a man and grow up to dream again.–“Two Hearts”

“Growing up” is a common theme for Springsteen, as well as for rock and roll in general. This is because rock and roll is by definition youth music. As a cultural expression rock appeals to youth or to those over 21 who have not lost their desire to relax into some form of youthful excitement. As youth music, most rock songs “reflect adolescent difficulties in dealing with a tangle of emotional and sexual problems. They invoke the need to experience life directly and intensely. They express the drive for security in an uncertain and changeable world.”[2] Bruce produces an authentic rendering of this adolescent mood, which often is at the same time a stylized exaggeration of it.

In addition, Bruce Springsteen offers a refreshingly creative understanding and acceptance of the roots and “classic” expressions of his chosen profession. Indeed he is one of the very few rock stars who has managed to preserve a vitality and creativity that success and stardom so quickly drain from most rock stars. “What is more, he has done this not in defiance of the system but working within it.”[3]

Springsteen has worked for years within a musician’s milieu of bars, fast living and fast cars. He has sung about these things; but now he also sings about marriage and lasting love relationships. The booze and hard drugs of the rock and roll counter-culture have killed many truly creative popular artists. Further, the lavish sensuality and luxurious materialistic outlook of most rock musicians (“rollin’ in my Rolls”) is more a part of the existence of the ruling class rather than the popular classes. An important aspect of Springsteen’s life and music has been an uncommon ascetic outlook. Bruce has seldom sung or talked about drugs, and his sexual references are generally either obscure or subtle. There has also been an emphasis on being a loner, somewhat untouchable–aloof and detached from his relationships with women. Springsteen has avoided preoccupations with groupies, drinking and drugs in his personal life, as well as his music.

However, while he generally avoids the elitism and destructiveness that surround him in the rock and roll counter-culture, in doing so he often gets caught up in a heavy reliance on women as supports and objects for male gratification. Also, whereas in the past he generally abstained from exploring intimate relationships with women; on The River he begins to undertake such explorations, but in a very traditional manner. In exploring realistic relationships he develops quite conventional themes (i.e., “I got Mary pregnant, and, man, that was all she wrote. For my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.” and “I want to marry you.”). Reaching beyond his past eschewal of intimacy, he now presents his avoidance of promiscuity in very traditional expressions. He, thus, falls into a reproduction of the dominant ideology where men are most often the dominant “subject” acting on such diverse “objects” as women and cars.

On the other hand, important gains have been made in recent rock music which do not simply reproduce traditional social patterns, but rather expose social ills and explore concrete relationships in their complexity, such as with The Clash, the Gang of Four and John Hiatt. Yet alongside this kind of music there has been music that affirms certain positive existing relations and conventions, while offering a celebration of life and energy. The best of popular music has done both of these, as with The Clash, Tom Robinson and Stevie Wonder. This is what the best of Springsteen’s music does. His work covers a wide range of topics and emotions, and he has created some of the most memorable music of rock and roll.

Much has been written about Bruce’s sense of “good” rock and roll, his ability to capture the essential vitality of the music and give it creative expression. But this is not a result of some mystical or abstract “artistic genius” which cannot be understood. Rather, these expressions of his music are a product of unique abilities which resulted from a complex combination of material factors. The specific circumstances and environment that produced Springsteen’s sensibilities generated specific responses to social relations, including an acute eye for, and an understanding of social contradictions which touches a certain chord in audiences, a definite poetic and rhythmic sense, as well as a deep sense of obligation to his audience.

In his music he emphasizes what he feels to be valuable in life. Through often conventional stories, Bruce reveals to us his own values and ideals. As we have seen, he has a deep attachment to specific traditional patterns of living and relaxing, and maintains certain loyalties to popular music as such. It is because of the authenticity of these feelings and the intensity with which they are expressed, that we are entitled to call his work poetic. In his honest desire to express real emotions without manipulation or deception, we see that he respects himself and his work, the work of others (especially early contributors to rock and roll), and above all else, he respects his audience.

But we must go beyond these recognitions of the conscious desires of an artist to understand how they are affected by certain elements of rock and roll that reflect the dominant ideology and which set limits on specific lyrical and musical expressions.

The Search for Identity and the Reproduction of Backward Ideas

There are certain specific elements that tend to structure the lyrics and sounds of rock and roll. Obviously the use of electric guitars and drums shapes the sound, as do the intonations of language in reflecting shouts of protest or celebration. Aimed at a young audience where the development of a sexual identity is an important concern, the dominant element in most rock and roll is certainly an obsession with love and sex. This is primarily because “rock, as an ideological and cultural form, has a crucial role to play in the process by which its users constitute their sexuality... . Rock operates as both a form of sexual expression and as a form of sexual control.”[4] These expressions and controls can be both progressive and backward. Further, the search for general social identity is a dominant element of rock and roll which can have progressive or backward expressions. We have seen that this search for identity includes a search for stability and security. Since the current social conjuncture is one of transition and upheaval, given the changing work and leisure relations and changing relations between women and men, we generally have witnessed that “both in its presentation and in its use, rock has confirmed traditional definitions of what constitutes masculinity and femininity, and reinforces their expression in leisure pursuits.”[5] (Emphasis added.) Since there is no generally accepted new pattern of relations, it is “easiest” for most people to look to old answers to new questions. But this sets certain limits on the ideas and themes that are explored, and can even dictate a degree of reliance on specific words and expressions which, in general, predominantly convey sexist meanings.

Such structures of backward ideology in rock and roll can be quite subtle. However, there is a strong current that is becoming increasingly blatant in its obsession with immediate male sexual gratification and the degradation of women. The plethora of sexist rock and roll includes everything from the crude and vulgar sexual innuendoes that Rod Stewart has recently perfected, to the Knack’s “Good Girls Don’t,” ad nauseum(!). Some mainstream rock has even crossed over the line into glorifying rape. But simply calling a lover “baby” or “girl,” quite common in popular rock and roll and especially on The River, though intended as an expression of intimate endearment, in fact functions to reproduce notions of women as immature and childlike.

It is these sexist elements that the British socialist rock band the Gang of Four have challenged in their attempts to break free from all reactionary structures in rock and roll. Their recent four song EP (Warner Bros.) entitled simply Gang of Four contains “It’s Her Factory,” which is an excellent indictment of many common myths about housewives:

Paternalist, Journalist He gives them sympathy, Because they’re not men. Scrubbing floors, they’re close to the earth. In a man’s world, they’re not men.

As we have seen, Springsteen wholeheartedly embraces the medium of rock and roll. In doing so he functions within its structures and takes up both its positive and many negative features. Emphasizing a resolute search for identity in a world that is irrational and oppressive, Springsteen not only holds dreams of the future, but also clearly idealizes courage, loyalty, dedication and gentleness. Helping constitute a concrete identity for young people searching to find themselves, he emphasizes a responsible position toward women and to work. Up until his most recent work this has been done by posing ideal types–the “ideal man.” But there are times when positive elements give way to negative ones, with specific sex stereotypes for women and men becoming quite prominent. Then his respect for physical courage and aggressive action can degenerate into male bravado and even overt sexism. With The River the emphasis seems to be on a dissolving or lost identity, as in “Hungry Heart,” “The River” and in “Stolen Car.”

But though there is an increasing obsession with broken dreams, and though he tacitly accepts (and at times even boldly asserts) the prevalent sexism and male domination of rock expression, he usually does not exhibit the callous disrespect that someone like Mick Jagger does, nor does he revel in his backwardness. Rather, he attempts to temper it with gentleness and a respect for the women he knows and loves, attitudes that have clearly touched the hearts of millions, but are all too rare in rock and roll.

Springsteen, His Audience and the Music Industry

It is important for us to see that a dedication to the counter-culture of rock and roll such as Bruce Springsteen’s sets specific limits on one’s discourse. Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel discussed this in their book, The Popular Arts, as well as how this dedication is mediated by both the audience and the music industry:

[The rock star] is usually a teenager, springing from the familiar adolescent world, and sharing a whole set of common feeling with his[/her] audience. But once he is successful, he is transformed into a commercial entertainer by the pop-music business. Yet in style, presentation and the material he performs, he must maintain his close involvement with the teenage world, or he will lose his popularity. . . . The audience will buy his records if they like his performances,... but they will also regard the pop singer as a kind of model, an idealized image of success, a glamorized version of themselves.[6]

As a cultural hero Springsteen fuses the common everyday teenage reality to the dream of success. It is a tribute to his sincerity and respect for his own past that he continues to provide a model for youth that instills a dignity and self-respect for themselves as working people. Springsteen has taken his role as teenage hero/model seriously, and has attempted to do so responsibly, with varying degrees of success.

It is his dedication to rock and roll and the motto that “things could be better if you’d just go out and take a chance,”[7] that exposes. Bruce’s contradictory acceptance of the “American Dream.” As a successful rock star, he is the embodiment of the “poor boy makes good” mythology, which has just enough basis in isolated fact to seemingly justify narrow individualism and to act as a brake on the realization of collective goals.

Thus, while recognizing the respect Springsteen has for his audience, and his honest attempts to make his music for young people, we must also recognize that his relationship to the audience and to the real life dramas of working people is strongly mediated. A distance from social concerns tends to develop for rock stars which most often becomes a gap filled with an increasing exploration of personal relationships. Since entertainers function within a counter-cultural milieu, the distance that develops generally increases as the performers become more and more successful, and as the years accumulate between the present and their youthful past. The music industry takes a large role in this developing distance as it surrounds performers with its own people and stimulates a particular life-style. This helps the industry control its commodities and production workers.

In this respect we must ask if Bruce’s relations to his past and his audience have been so mediated by music industry pressure as to cause an isolation that diverts his class specific lyrics about young working people and generates expressions that speak in more general terms to a broader audience.

The distance from the audience varies in degree and in specifics for each artist, and cannot be seen as a linear progression. But as this mediation intensifies, the store of experiences on which writers and performers base their work generally becomes limited to an obsession with the life experiences of the performer. What was once based on a generally broader social realm, including even social critiques of the immediate relations and hardships of everyday life, most often becomes more and more just the relations to friends, lovers and family, agents and other stars. Though it is not yet totally dominant, we can see this intensified mediation in Springsteen’s The River compared to Darkness on the Edge of Town (though this album, too, had these tendencies).

The pressures on artists in capitalist society are such that their creativity is channeled in directions that they and their managers and producers “think” will please the audience. Without many other barometers than sales of records and concert tickets, and to a limited extent the writings of rock journalists and critics, the link between artist and audience is tenuous at best. Most rock musicians are unconcerned with maintaining a positive link with their past and their audiences; in this Springsteen stands out as a progressive musician who tries to build links to his audience and wants to give back to us some of what he receives as a star.


Finally, I would like to explain why I think The River is not a totally satisfying and positive addition to Springsteen’s work, inspite of its truly creative aspects and his sincere approach. Considering his strengths and limitations we must recognize that Springsteen has always operated completely within the context of the ideology of rock and roll dominated by capitalism. But within this context, his previous work signified that he was stretching the given “problematic” and imagery. Before The River he stretched the skin of rock and roll to the maximum[10] and emphasized vitality, hope, gentleness and strength–all that is positive in the outlook, consciousness and lives of American working people (admittedly in a contradictory manner). Darkness on the Edge of Town represented the peak of this affirmation and the stretching of existing structures. Now, with the change in the social conjuncture to one of austerity for the masses, and with Springsteen’s assumption of star status, he has retreated from a position where he acted objectively as a “vanguard” in certain areas of social consciousness.

The River is an important reflection of social consciousness and the popular mood, and is a vital and creative expression of rock and roll; but it is not an unqualified step forward for Bruce Springsteen. The primary value of his work currently lies in his conscious respect for working people and his ability to creatively entertain us. And while Springsteen’s present work is highly contradictory, we hope that his genuine achievements as a cultural hero of rock and roll will not be lost in the past, but will take root and further blossom in the future.


[1] Dave Marsh, “Bruce Springsteen: The Interview,” Musician: Player and Listener, no. 30, February, 1981, p. 64. Also see Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, Doubleday/Dolphin, 1979.

[2] Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel, The Popular Arts: A Critical Guide to the Mass Media, Beacon Press, Boston, 1964, p. 280.

[3] Hall and Whannel, “John Ford,” in The Popular Arts, 1964, p. 106.

[4] Angela McRobbie and Simon Frith, “Rock and Sexuality,” Screen Education, no. 29, Winter, 1978-79, pp. 4-5.

[5] McRobbie and Frith, pp. 17-18.

[6] Hall and Whannel, 1964, p. 276.

[7] Pam Parrish, “Springsteen, his philosophy comes through,” Arizona Daily Star, November 7, 1980.

[8] Fred Schruers, “Bruce Springsteen and the Secret of the World,” Rolling Stone, no. 336, February 5, 1981, p. 23.

[9] Schruers, 1981, p. 23.

[10] Here, as well as in many other areas, I am indebted to Paul Costello, who cites Leonard Cohen as the inspiration for this metaphor.