American Grandstand: What's Really Shocking About Springsteen's 'American Skin'

Controversy over police-protest song points to greater unsolved problems.

[Editor's Note: "American Grandstand" is a monthly column about music and politics by Grammy-winning writer Dave Marsh. He is the editor of the monthly newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential and has written about music since 1969, when he co-founded Creem Magazine. For Marsh, politics means how music intersects with the real world — in ways that are not always as predictable as they seem at first glance.]

Contributing Editor Dave Marsh writes:

Four things shocked me about the reaction to

COLOR="#003163">Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin."

None of them was the announcement by cops and New York Mayor Rudolph

Giuliani that Springsteen had no right to sing a song critical of them.

My first amazement was reserved for the fact that people were actually

surprised by this, as if the cops and their political candidates had not been censoring such criticism for years.

In fact, the cops' assault on "American Skin" and the Springsteen they

thought they knew pales in comparison to other such acts of police

thuggery. In 1989, when N.W.A

released "Fuck tha Police" (

HREF="">RealAudio excerpt), their record label, Priority, received a threatening

letter from the FBI The next summer, N.W.A did an entire national

tour without once performing "Fuck tha Police." On the last night of the

tour in Detroit, they started to play the song and Motor City cops

bumrushed the stage, taking the group and some of their crew back to

their hotel and holding them hostage for several hours until

COLOR="#003163">Ice Cube, Dr.

Dre and Co. agreed to get out of Dodge.

In 1992, "Cop Killer," by Ice-T's

metal band, Body Count, sent cops

across the country into a frenzy, resulting in Ice-T being dropped from

Warner Bros. and losing his deal for an HBO show. And just a year ago,

when Rage Against the Machine played

a benefit for condemned (and possibly framed) "cop killer" Mumia

Abu-Jamal's defense fund at New Jersey's Continental Airlines Arena,

cops and politicians took turns making belligerent threats before

somebody remembered that the First Amendment had not yet been repealed.

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and the legislature arranged to give the

rental fee paid to the arena, a state-owned building, to a fund for the

widows of murdered policemen (or some such).

It's worth noting that within a few months of N.W.A releasing "Fuck tha

Police," there was not an epidemic of murdered cops, but rather the

revelations of the LAPD beating Rodney King half to death. Ice-T's

revenge fantasy was about a police force that now admits that its

ramparts division, at least, railroaded dozens of blacks and Latinos

into prison. Gov. Whitman presides over a state police force that has

been federally indicted for conducting racial profiling arrests on the

New Jersey Turnpike and, in at least one case, shooting four unarmed

black student athletes who never should have been pulled over in the

first place.

Press, Public Stands Silent

Maybe what we were supposed to be surprised about was that the cops were

attacking a respectable white rocker. That's a way of saying that, far

from the reality being "we're all on the same side" (as Def Jam's

Russell Simmons claimed in a USA Today op-ed piece), good white

folks are supposed to go along with whatever crimes the police commit

against black people.

The second thing that surprised me was that so few people got to the

real issue. Of the articles I read, only Jimmy Breslin's column in

Newsday nailed it, condemning the "Pekinese of the Press" for

"having allowed a disgraceful and highly dangerous condition to go on

with little more than a timid whisper of criticism through shooting

after shooting, false arrests after false arrests, under a mayor,

Giuliani, who knew no bounds."

Springsteen's "crime" was breaking the blackout on that condition, not

"implying, viciously, that the police killed Amadou Diallo because he

was black" (as a truly loony New York Times op-ed by Lt. George

Molé put it). As Breslin wrote, "The case was fixed in the Bronx

so that it would be taken away from a black judge and moved to Albany,

where a preposterous judge sat like a precinct captain and all but

ordered the jury to acquit." That's what Mayor Giuliani and his cops

omit when they bleat that the four shooters were acquitted.

The third surprise was the presumption that Springsteen said nothing

about the controversy, but instead just played his show with "American

Skin" part of it. I don't know what could be clearer than another new

song, "Code of Silence," which opened the show that Diallo's parents

attended: "There's a list of grievances 100 miles long/ There's a code

of silence and it can't go on." Springsteen never speaks so eloquently

as in his songs, and those lyrics were easy to obtain.

Ignoring "Code of Silence" — which only Jon Pareles of The New

York Times grasped in his review — is just another way of

slamming the lid on the discussion about cops and violence our society

really needs to have. That discussion isn't about why everybody picks on

the police; it's about why they don't.

Such complicit silence invites big trouble. In "Civilities and Civil

Rights," his great study of the Greensboro, N.C., sit-in movement,

historian William Chafe writes of the segregationists' "pervasive

commitment to civility as the value that should govern all relationships

between people ... a way of dealing with people and problems that made

good manners more important than substantial action. ... As victims of

civility, blacks had long been forced to operate within an etiquette of

race relationships that offered almost no room for collective

self-assertion and independence. White people dictated the ground rules,

and the benefits went only to those who played the game."

One measure of the greatness of Bruce Springsteen as a person is that,

despite every opportunity, he has never played the game. I don't share

his sentimental attachment to the police — to me, contributing to a

fund to buy them bulletproof vests just fuels their confidence for the

next unwarranted shooting — but I do share his sense of what we are

all in together. It isn't just some dreary mess about a bunch of cops

who "mistook a wallet for a gun," but something far more vile and


The final surprise is that what "American Skin" actually says about cops

has not yet been discussed. The song mentions the cops only once. Its

first verse portrays one of them "kneeling over his body in the

vestibule/ Praying for his life." I presume the ambiguity is deliberate:

Was the cop praying for his victim's life, or his own? That's the

question this society needs to answer, and no matter what, it does not

have a comfortable answer. That's why the cops and politicians like

Giuliani try to silence it.