By Caryn Rose
The night after Ronald Reagan was elected president in November 1980, Bruce Springsteen was on tour supporting his new album, The River. “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening," he told the crowd in Tempe, Arizona, halfway through that night’s concert. "You guys are young, there’s gonna be a lot of people depending on you coming up, so this is for you.” Then he slammed into “Badlands,” singing, “Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland.”
That moment was Springsteen’s coming-of-age as a public political advocate. He’d already begun moving in that direction in the songs he was writing, especially on The River. That entire album went deep on stories about the folks on the margins — people making hard choices, bad choices, running into dead ends and still managing to find some way to go on. In the fall of 1980, with the American economy just a few months out of a recession, these were highly topical concerns. But his remarks from the stage that night in Arizona went further, making it clear that the characters and situations Springsteen wrote about weren’t random abstractions, and that he was ready to overtly connect the struggles of the people in his songs to current events in national politics.
For the rest of that tour, which rolled through Europe the following spring, Springsteen mostly let the construction of his setlists do the talking for him, crafting songs from The River and 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, along with carefully chosen covers like Woody Guthrie’s progressive anthem “This Land Is Your Land” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s anti-Vietnam hit “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” into narratives that offered a forthright, critical yet hopeful portrait of American life in the early 1980s.
As the tour returned to the U.S. in the summer of 1981, Springsteen’s activism took on a more direct form when he performed a benefit for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in Los Angeles. Unlike his 1979 involvement in the all-star No Nukes concerts, where he had refused to make a public political statement, this was his political show. He opened the evening with a lengthy spoken introduction that made his feelings clear: “It’s like when you feel like you’re walking down a dark street at night and out of the corner of your eye you see somebody getting hurt or somebody getting hit in the dark alley, but you keep walking on because you think it don’t have nothing to do with you, and you just want to get home. ... Well, Vietnam turned this whole country into that dark street, and unless we’re able to walk down those dark alleys and look into the eyes of the men and the women that are down there and the things that happened, we’re never gonna be able to get home.” He opened the show with “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” The whole evening would be a deeply emotional performance.
With all of this in mind, when Springsteen announced late last year that he would be going on the road to support the 35th anniversary of The River, it seemed like a safe bet that he’d have a lot to say about the high stakes and vicious rhetoric of the 2016 election cycle. In the decades since that night in Arizona, Springsteen has both spoken out and taken action, lending his voice and his platform to progressive causes such as human rights, hunger relief, social reform, censorship, small businesses, economic inequity, the death penalty, LGBTQ rights, police brutality, the loss of civil liberties, and the Iraq War. In 2004, he joined the Vote for Change tour supporting John Kerry, and he hit the campaign trail for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
But this year, his silence has been deafening. In 75 dates across 15 countries, from January right through last week, Springsteen did not say anything substantial about any candidate for any party, did not comment on any of the pressing issues of the campaigns, did not address the election in even the most general sense until the last two shows of the tour. Based on everything we know about his political leanings, it seems very, very unlikely that he’s on Team Trump. Even if, for some reason, he didn’t want to endorse a specific candidate (although that hasn’t stopped him in the past), surely he’s been outraged by the rampant racism, hatred, and misogyny on display from one side of this race? And presumably he knows that voicing that outrage to his base — many of whom are older white men who would be immune from much of the impact of a Trump presidency — could have a non-trivial impact. Over the last decade or so especially, Springsteen hasn’t been afraid to address the things that he believes don’t make America great. He’s made it clear that he deeply believes in equality and justice, in fighting prejudice, in giving a voice to the voiceless, that “nobody wins unless everybody wins,” as he used to introduce “Born to Run” back in 1984. So why has he remained so demonstrably silent at a time when there’s a real need for as many strong voices as possible speaking out about these issues?
The closest Springsteen has come this year to making an explicit political statement was back in April, when he canceled an upcoming appearance in North Carolina in protest of Governor Pat McCrory’s dangerously transphobic HB2, aka “the bathroom bill.” In a statement released on his official website, Springsteen explained: “To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress. ... Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them.” It was a powerful gesture that helped bring the discriminatory law to international attention and extended strength to those fighting against it.
The later stretches of 2016’s River tour have included many opportunities for Springsteen to take a political stand. The European leg that began in May was free from the tight format of the U.S. run — where he and the E Street Band played all 20 songs from The River in order — meaning there was more room in the setlist for him to craft a pointed narrative arc, as he had in 1980 and 1981. And he did try something like this a few weeks into the European tour, weaving a dark thread through the middle of a set in Dublin, beginning with “Death to My Hometown,” a song from 2012’s Wrecking Ball about the way corporate interests can decimate local economies. Was that meant as a response to economic trends in Ireland? Was it a bit of backhand commentary on the U.S. election? We can only guess — he didn’t say anything about it from the stage or to the media.
The narrative themes in this section of the set intensified a few nights later in Glasgow, when Springsteen brought “American Skin (41 Shots)” back into rotation. He wrote that song in 2000, in response to the killing of unarmed Bronx man Amadou Diallo by the NYPD; its live debut caused a police group to call for a boycott of his shows at the time, and it’s still a source of misdirected outrage from some parts of his audience. Its appearance on his setlists isn’t rare — in 2013 he dedicated the song to Trayvon Martin, and it has made frequent appearances since then, as headlines about police violence against black people have proliferated. This spring in Glasgow, though, Springsteen added a new element. As he sang “American Skin (41 Shots),” E Street saxophonist Jake Clemons (the late Clarence Clemons’ nephew) stood behind him in the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture that entered protest discourse following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. It was a powerful moment that spoke to the E Street Band’s history as an integrated group that dealt with the realities of touring and performing across America less than a decade after the Civil Rights Act. But it could have had a real impact if Springsteen had taken even the briefest moment to say something from the stage in clear, unambiguous support of Black Lives Matter.
As the European River tour continued, the political arc of Springsteen’s setlists expanded and contracted. But the ongoing presence of these themes gave fans hope that Springsteen would, eventually, say something out loud about what’s going on in America. In June there was be a minor, over-publicized moment in Munich, when Springsteen accepted a fan’s “Fuck Trump, We Want to Dance With the Boss” sign during “Dancing in the Dark” — but that was a joke at best, not serious commentary.
At Springsteen’s first show back in the U.S., on August 23 at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, he slipped in a line of songs that made his intent even clearer — for those who knew how to read the signals. After “Death to My Hometown,” he introduced “Jack of All Trades” — a song from Wrecking Ball that narrates the desperation of the long-term unemployed — by saying, “I just got so angry about a handful of people pulling down so much, people losing all their life savings and losing their house.” He went on to perform Nebraska’s “Mansion on the Hill,” Born in the USA’s “My Hometown” (about the impact of Reaganomics on small towns), “American Skin (41 Shots),” and “The Promised Land.” Together, this formed a vivid song cycle of America in crisis. As in Europe, Springsteen was sending out a message to his loyal fans — but it was a subtle one, and the problem with subtlety is that it’s so easy to ignore or misinterpret. Springsteen knows all about this: It happened with Ronald Reagan in 1984, when the president unsuccessfully tried to claim both Bruce and “Born in the USA” for the Republicans.
Last week, on the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Springsteen appeared in Pittsburgh, where he offered a deliberate, specific tribute to New York City with a run of songs from 2002’s The Rising. That record focused more on the personal aftermath of the tragedy than the political one — it’s an album about loss and healing. At the encore break, though, Springsteen got more political than he had in months: He returned to the stage without the band and held up a piece of paper, saying, “Somebody gave me a copy of the Constitution of the United States.” There was a respectable cheer in response. “It does say ‘Fuck Trump’ on the front of it.” At that, the cheers were loud and sustained. Springsteen finished: “And this was his request,” then launched into “Long Walk Home” from 2007’s Magic, a song about holding on to America’s core values even in trying times. Springsteen performed it solo acoustic, as though he wanted to make sure that his message wouldn’t get lost:
...that flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t
In the arena, those lines got a cheer almost as loud as the epithet against the Republican nominee. But in September, with 58 days to the election, the impact of the statement fell short. After a brief discussion of his “Fuck Trump” moment, the important part of what Springsteen was saying — that the bigotry, cruelty, and outright hatred symbolized by Trump’s candidacy are fundamentally opposed to American ideals, and to the America Springsteen has written about for decades — got lost in the noise.
So why hasn’t Springsteen said more about this election? Is he worried at this point in his career about alienating longtime fans who don’t share his political views, many of whom made their displeasure known in 2004 when he voiced his support of John Kerry? Is he deeply unhappy with the entire campaign cycle and just wants to stay far away from it? Does he feel that none of his previous efforts resulted in the kind of change he had hoped to see? Or could he be concerned that anything he says about the presidential race would dominate the press, overshadowing the well-deserved stories about his record-breaking shows, his musical legacy, and the excitement and interest around his upcoming autobiography? He told Vanity Fair that “an artist has only so many ‘bullets,' credibility-wise, to shoot.” But he added, “When the times have felt very drastic, I feel like, ‘Well, I gotta put my two cents in.’ So we’ll see what happens.” That interview took place in Europe at the end of June. Since then, the Republican nominee for president has called for the execution and imprisonment of the Democratic nominee, has smeared entire ethnic and religious groups wholesale, has encouraged violence against protesters, has lied about his years-long insinuations that the current sitting president is not an American, and has also not put forward any substantive policies of note — among a whole litany of other horrible words and actions that go against everything Bruce Springsteen has believed in and stood for for more than 40 years. There are few artists who have more carefully guarded their credibility than Springsteen; his reputation would have easily withstood one more important, well-thought-out statement, and it’s hard to believe he doesn’t know this. At best, his apparent silence is a dodge; at worst, it’s a cop-out.
Springsteen closed out the U.S. leg of the tour last Wednesday at a football stadium in Massachusetts. At the end of the encore, after a lengthy thank you to the fans, he said, “So along with all of you, I’ve had to live through the election campaign, and I gotta say, it’s gotta be one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen. And there was just a lot of speaking to our worst angels. You let those things out of the bottle, all that ugliness — the genie doesn’t go back in the bottle so simple...” He followed these comments with an acoustic “Long Walk Home,” but it still felt like a lost opportunity to remind his audience that the misdeeds of a Republican president were the reason he wrote that song in the first place, and that the current Republican nominee for president was the reason he was playing it right now. Or to specifically offer his views regarding the election, along the lines of that key phrase from “Long Walk Home”: “Who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t.” Or even to state unequivocally that if people don’t vote for Hillary Clinton, we will be facing our worst angels daily, for years to come, and will be dealing with decades of the ugliness he referenced.
Springsteen is one of a few artists of his generation whose fans look both to him and up to him. They know that he will help them make sense of the unthinkable, that he will speak out for those who can’t do it themselves, that he will inspire them, remind them of their faith in themselves, and show them how to find a reason to believe (as he wrote in 1982) — as well as giving them a reason to dance and shake their asses. In the days after 9/11, Springsteen was driving around the Jersey Shore when a fan called out to him: “We need you!” As he told Jon Pareles in the New York Times, “That’s part of my job. It’s an honor to find that place in the audience's life.”
In 2016, as we head into an election with potentially historic consequences, Springsteen’s voice could be even more important. How about it, Boss?