"American Skin," a catchy pop ballad that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band debuted in concert five days ago, has with remarkable speed transformed the rocker from a beloved American icon to an enemy of the people or at least that's the way two major New York police organizations see it.
"He's turned into some type of f---ing dirtbag," Bob Lucente, president of the New York state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police organization, said on Friday (June 9). "He goes on the boycott list."
Patrick Lynch, president of the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Organization, echoed Lucente's anger in a letter to city policemen, calling on them not to work security at the rocker's upcoming concerts at Madison Square Garden, which begin Monday.
The explanation for law enforcement's newfound fury at Springsteen can be found in his new song's subtitle: "41 Shots," a phrase that also serves as its memorable, melodic refrain.
"American Skin," at least in part, addresses the February 1999 death of Guinea native Amadou Diallo, who was shot at 41 times by New York police officers as he stood unarmed in the doorway of his Bronx apartment building. Nineteen of the shots hit him. The officers, who were acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges, said they mistook Diallo's wallet for a gun.
Springsteen Speaks Out
"Is it a gun?/ Is it a knife?/ Is it a wallet?/ This is your life ... you can get killed just for living in your American skin," sings Springsteen, who has written songs sympathetic to police officers and not long ago co-headlined a Red Bank, N.J., benefit concert for the family of an officer slain in the line of duty.
He also sings of a mother giving advice to her son: "Promise me if an officer stops you'll always be polite/ Never run away, and promise Mama you'll keep your hands in sight."
The song's melody and keyboard-and-bass-driven arrangement evoke the sound of such Born in the U.S.A. pop hits as "My Hometown" (RealAudio excerpt) and "I'm on Fire," judging from a bootlegged tape circulating of Springsteen's sole performance of it so far, in a show Sunday in Atlanta.
But the rocker's new critics aren't interested in the song's commercial potential in fact, they haven't even heard it. They're basing their criticisms on the song's title and transcriptions of its lyrics.
"I consider it an outrage that [Springsteen] would be trying to fatten his wallet by reopening the wounds of this tragic case at a time when police officers and community members are in a healing period," Lynch said in his letter.
Lucente went even further. "He has all these good songs and everything, American flag songs and all that stuff, and now he's a floating fag. You can quote me on that."
A spokesperson for Springsteen was unavailable for comment Friday afternoon.
Memorial Through Music Appreciated
But Diallo's father, Saikou Diallo, and his mother, Kadiatou Diallo, told New York journalists Thursday that they were grateful that the rocker penned "American Skin."
"I appreciate ... anything people do to keep his memory alive," his father was quoted as saying in the New York Daily News.
And Todd Draper, a 27-year-old fan who attended the Atlanta concert, called police attacks on the song ludicrous.
"There's a long history of Bruce's songs and other people's songs being totally misunderstood," he said.
Springsteen's angry 1984 anthem "Born in the U.S.A." (RealAudio excerpt), for instance, has been frequently misinterpreted as a proclamation of jingoistic pride.
" 'American Skin' is clearly not anti-cop; it's anti-tragedy," Draper said.
Springsteen is not the first to address the Diallo shooting in song. Public Enemy rapped last year about the incident in their song "41:19" on There's a Poison Goin' On. More recently, rappers Mos Def, Rah Digga, Kool G Rap and Pharoahe Monch were among the rappers who appeared on the all-star EP Hip-Hop for Respect, which mourns Diallo's death on the single "One Four Love."