What does it say about a nation or society when a quarter century can go by and the same issues that were front and center then are ones that vex us now? What does it say about us when our standard operating procedure is to avert our eyes to problems that we know must be fixed yesterday? How should we see ourselves if the arguments of our grandparents and parents become our own, especially as we tidy them up for our children and our eventual grandchildren?
If I were Bruce Springsteen (and the E Street Band, for that matter), I might be a bit pessimistic right now. It’s been twenty five years since his groundbreaking single and album made him a household — and not just a New York tri-state area — name. All of his work prior to the summer and fall of ’84 contained threads of social commentary on America’s malaise. But Born In the U.S.A. and “Born In The U.S.A.” raised his level of folksy commentary to a new level, at least for those of us who weren’t listening to Nebraska or who hadn’t heard of the band or Springsteen before.
It was such a simple song. And yet it expressed all of the disappointment, disillusionment and disgust of a generation of folks who grew up seeing America one way. Only to find out that the promise of America the Beautiful and free that they were fed growing up was really somewhere between porridge and gruel. “Born down in a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground” is such a bitter, yet appropriate way to start a song about a Vietnam veteran whose life never worked out the way it was supposed to. Work hard, do the patriotic thing, and expect to have a job and a comfortable life, if not a happy and prosperous one was the expectation of most Americans. Not poverty, debt, welfare, homelessness, drug addiction, undereducation, unemployment and incarceration.
I became a closet Bruce Springsteen fan because of “Born In The U.S.A.” With my mother out of work and on welfare, my father in the middle of his third decade of alcohol abuse, a stepfather with the familial skills of Charles Manson, I could relate to all of the rage and confusion in the song. It was a refreshing change from the coke-induced pop, R&B and rap of the period. The mid-80s were so weird. Between Springsteen and the E Street Band, John Mellencamp and U2, you had Thompson Twins, Doug E. Fresh, Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man,” Prince’s “Purple Rain” and “I Would Die 4 U,” and battles over who was the real Roxanne. At least some artists were awake and aware enough to write something for those of us whose lives weren’t exactly a Benetton commercial.
Here we are, a quarter-century later, and nothing really has changed. The highly educated have at least something to fall back on, while those of us with a high school diploma or less face a permanently uncertain future. The rich, while not getting as rich as they were just two years ago, remain far richer than those of us working hard but not getting anywhere. We are still fighting wars with little long-term purpose and without sufficient benefits to those who are fighting on our government’s behalf. Our government continues to drag its feet on anything that would benefit anyone with an income under $200,000 a year.
It’s no wonder that somewhere between two and three million Americans are in jail or prison, that three out of ten of us never graduate from high school, and that the richest one percent of Americans have a net worth greater than the bottom 80 percent of us. It’s such a shame that it could render all of us helpless. I, for one, may need to consider refugee status in a nation with even a modicum of universal health care and moderately less hypocrisy in its government.
But Bruce Springsteen hasn’t given up, at least in his music. His work continues to speak truth to power, to say things that most in the music world don’t have the courage or the innate wisdom to say. It’s unfortunate that what sells today is the bling of booty and booty, and not the thought-provoking lyrics and feelings of folks like Springsteen, of artists like Chuck D and Tupac, of those who dare to use music as a weapon of social change (although Pink, John Mayer and James Blunt are occasional exceptions).
With the end of a disappointing first decade of the twenty-first century looming though, maybe we can still hold out hope for a more permanent nexus between our wild world of pop culture and our need for a stimulated social consciousness. That kind of hope is what keeps me going.