20 June 2012
A while back, I started a blog called The Oval Office Tapes. The concept is that I look at a particular US president through the lens of the music that existed while he was in office. After all, presidents have more far cultural impact than is contained within the confines of policy discourse and legislative action, and I figure that pop music is a good way of discerning the zeitgeist of a time. I'm not saying you learn more about the presidency of George H.W. Bush by examining NWA rather than the Iraq War, just that you learn different things by shifting your focus to the cultural sphere.
And, honestly, it's a pretty nerdy project, one not really suited for this blog. So if it sounds interesting to you, you can check it out here. But since this blog is about American politics and American culture, I thought I'd post one of my entries here to give you a taste. This is on Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."
Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.” (Born in the U.S.A., 1984)
On September 19, 1984, when Ronald Reagan was campaigning for a re-election that would eventually come easily, he told a crowd in Hammonton, New Jersey, that “America’s future rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen.”
Reagan’s campaign team had been piping Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” through the sound systems at the President’s public events, and to the sort of people who voted for his opponent, Walter Mondale, it was an indicative example of Reagan’s ignorance and remove. Springsteen’s song was a bitter diatribe cloaked in patriotism; the chorus acclaimed the red, white, and blue, but the verses spoke in the disillusioned voice of a man who gave all in service of his country and had received little in return: “Come back home to the refinery; hiring man said, ‘Son, if it was up to me…’.”
When Reagan dropped Springsteen’s name at that speech, the unemployment rate was a high 7.3 per cent — though it had fallen substantially since its peak of 10.8 per cent in November and December of 1982. The recovery was strong enough that Reagan was able to proclaim, through an iconic commercial, that it was “morning again in America”: “Under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder, and stronger, and better.”
Following the wrenching years after it had lost the Vietnam War and seen a president turn the Oval Office into the locus of a criminal conspiracy, after watching its economy ravaged by stagflation and 52 of its citizens held hostage in an Iranian embassy for 444 days, America had found in Reagan a president who could make the country feel good about itself again.
But while Reagan made America feel good, conditions on the ground weren’t as positive. The unemployment rate had returned to a level almost indistinguishable from where it was when Reagan took office. Under the President’s watch, the industrial sector was declining, and Reagan was actively busting unions — most famously that of the air traffic controllers. He had escalated the Cold War, leaving the world in a state of nuclear paranoia — this was the time of Red Dawn and “99 Luftballons” — and was supporting unsavory regimes in Latin America. It was morning in America, but the sun rose over a land in a more sickly state than the President’s stump speeches supposed.
“Born in the U.S.A.” was the perfect song for the Reagan era, in a way. After all, things were on the up. Workers were getting hired and people were feeling better about themselves. And Reagan and his supporters weren’t wrong to hear that in Springsteen’s song. Whatever other messages the singer might have intended, the most prominent were Roy Bittan’s brilliant synth blasts and Springsteen’s uplifting bellow: “BORN! IN — THE — U.S.A.!”
After attending one of Springsteen’s concerts in the summer of 1984, the conservative Washington Post columnist George F. Will wrote:
I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation, of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand and cheerful affirmation: “Born in the U.S.A.!”
There was nothing wrong with Will’s ear, and there was a reason why Springsteen’s native New Jersey, like 48 other states, voted to give Reagan a second term. “Born in the U.S.A.” is, in sound at least, a vibrant and optimistic song. The title character’s list of tribulations — if you can makes them out from Springsteen’s garbled hiccuping — are always interrupted by that recurrent chant. An author can intend what he wants; dramatic irony doesn’t work if its audience doesn’t care to hear it.
“There is not a smidgen of androgyny in Springsteen,” wrote Will approving, declaring his tunes, “rock for the United Steelworkers.” Will recognized that Springsteen fans were Reagan Democrats, even if he failed to realize that the singer himself wasn’t one. Will saw Springsteen’s values as American and American values as inherently conservative:
Me: What do you like about him?
Male fan: He sings about faith and traditional values.
Male fan’s female friend, dryly: And cars and girls.
Male fan: “No, no, it’s about community and roots and perseverance and family.”
She: And cars and girls.
Let’s not quibble. Cars and girls are American values…
There’s no indication as to how Will decided that the young man he interviewed at the show was a fan and the woman a hanger-on, but there’s also no indication as to why values of “community and roots and perseverance and family” are inherently conservative, or why they weren’t shared by blue collar workers out of a job or the members of the air traffic controllers union. But nonetheless, yes: point taken. Cars and girls are American values. Perhaps that’s why Old Glory appeared on the cover of Springsteen’s then most-recent album.
Will also transmuted the American value of pursuing happiness into an insistence that labor only had value when it drained a worker entirely:
But, then, consider Max Weinberg’s bandaged fingers. The rigors of drumming have led to five tendonitis operations. He soaks his hands in hot water before a concert, in ice afterward, and sleeps with tight gloves on. Yes, of course, the whole E Street Band is making enough money to ease the pain. But they are not charging as much as they could, and the customers are happy. How many American businesses can say that?
If all Americans — in labor and management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles — made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be considering protectionism.
You don’t need to disdain free trade to wonder at a proponent who decides the way to make such a system work is for factory workers to behave like rock stars — yet, presumably be compensated far, far less.
But Reagan’s America was a time when every man was a rock star, and most were compensated far less. But even a poor rock star was still a rock star, and Born in the U.S.A. was a song and an album for those people. Where Springsteen had originally been a ragged wannabe street poet who dreamed of bigger things and was “pulling out” of his small town “to win,” he was now a slick star selling out stadiums and writing slickly produced mass appeal anthems. This was Ronald Reagan music for Ronald Reagan times.
Which didn’t mean it didn’t portray the downside of Reaganism. “The times are tough now,” sang Springsteen on “Cover Me.” “Just getting tougher.” “Workin’ on the Highway” had a man “fresh out of work.” “Downbound Train” was a fatalistic song about a man who got laid off from a lumber yard and resigned himself to a more modest station. “Glory Days” was a sunny tune about how the best years and brightest hopes of one’s life have been confined to the receding past.
But Born in the U.S.A. never discarded its beaming optimism. It was not Nebraska, the Springsteen record that, when he heard the President was using his music to campaign, Bruce supposed Reagan must never have listened to. Ronald Reagan made America feel young and optimistic, regardless of the problems confronting its population. “Born in the U.S.A.” was poured from the same mold.
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