Number 17 / October 1984:
DANCE WITH THE DEVIL....Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus write: It was inevitable that Ronald Reagan would make an imperial endorsement of Bruce Springsteen's music, as he did in his speech at Hammontown, N.J. on Sept. 19. "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts," Reagan proclaimed. "It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."
Both the speech and the endorsement were based on unsound premises. Reagan was in the process of proclaiming his administration a victory for prosperity and pax Americana at a time when unemployment and destitution are rife and hundreds of soldiers have been killed in battle as a direct result of his policies. And the "message of hope" that he--or his speechwriters--found in the music is anything but undiluted, as anyone who has heard Springsteen's last four albums must be aware. But bizarre as it was, Reagan's fiat wasn't out of context. The rightist movement he represents means to appropriate everything and anything that uses any kind of American patriotic symbolism in its quest for a return to "moral purity" and the worst values of the 19th century.
Not that one would know any of this, or have a proper impression of what Springsteen is really singing about from reading mainstream press accounts. Springsteen has now reached a peak of media celebrity. The context for Reagan's foray into Bossmania was established in a four-minute report by Bernard Goldberg on the Sept. 12 CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. Goldberg's piece was well put together and generally kept the story straight until it reached its final line: "His shows are like old-time revival meetings, with the same old-time message: If they [i.e. his fans] work hard enough and long enough, like Springsteen himself, they also can make it to the Promised Land." Since Goldberg was talking about a performance that included "Johnny 99," "The River," "My Hometown," and "Born in the U.S.A.," he seemed to be engaging in a willful misreading of the show's content.
The next day, George Will, who also saw Springsteen at the Capitol Center, checked in with his nationally syndicated column. Will had attended the show at the invitation of Max Weinberg and his wife Becky, who had mysteriously found him amusing on ABC-TV's This Week with David Brinkley. (They also invited Sam Donaldson, who didn't show; so much for liberalism in broadcast journalism.) In the course of a clumsy encomium, Will managed to contort the experience beyond recognition, ending in a burst of free market bluster: "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 thinking about protectionism." In other words, if you find slapping bumpers onto compact cars less fulfilling than singing rock and roll songs in front of adoring masses, fuck off. Will's column did not note that he had left the concert one song into the second set, though not before he finally unknotted his ugly yellow bowtie.
It was Will's column that led directly to the Reagan speech, no surprise since Will has been a Reagan stooge since the 1980 campaign. (He was up to his neck in Debategate, before his colleagues declared that a nonissue.) Within 24 hours, the White House had contacted Springsteen's agent, Barry Bell, to ask if the singer would appear with Reagan at the Hammontown rally! They were politely told that Springsteen was busy touring. Apparently, the Reagan campaign staff then decided that if they could not have an endorsement-in-fact, they'd simply swipe an endorsement-by-default, allowing Reagan to declare an affinity between his works and Springsteen's. Thus did Reagan move from being the Teflon President to the Fly Paper President, a man incredibly difficult to shake off.
Springsteen often closes his show by saying, "Let freedom ring--but remember, you gotta fight for it." But his battle is only beginning, for the display of patriotic symbols on his LP cover and at his shows (all those waving flags) offers Reagan and other rightists an easy opportunity to practice the distortion in which they specialize. Reagan's speech put him on the spot, and it didn't take Springsteen long to make his move. Twenty minutes into his first show afterwards, in Pittsburgh on Sept. 21, he stopped to say, "The president was mentioning my name the other day and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don't think it was the Nebraska album. I don't think he's been listening to this one." Then he went into "Johnny 99," his song about an auto worker whom unemployment drives to murder. Later, Springsteen spoke of walking the Capitol Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, concluding, "It's a long walk from a government that's supposed to represent all of the people to where we are today. It seems like something's wrong out there where there's a lotta stuff being taken away from a lotta people that shouldn't have it taken away from [them]. And sometimes it's hard to remember that this place belongs to us--that this is our hometown."
Springsteen no more lives in a Promised Land than the rest of us; his words acknowledge this. It's sad, in a way, that he had to make what was already obvious completely explicit, but that's part of the price we pay for having a government that twists and distorts facts so badly and "news" media which accept these distortions at face value. The only other public statement of recent weeks that has depicted the full derangement of our situation--the only other that dared to challenge the unspoken presumption that everything in American is not only all right but improving--came from another rocker, Elvis Costello. Costello appeared on the Tonight Show September. 17, and before the biggest audience of his career, on a program that has been a virtual nonstop Reaganite party both on the stage and in the audience for the past two years, sang his anti-Reagan song, "Peace in Our Time." But he did it with an amended line: "There's already one spaceman in the White House," he spat, giving the lyric the full ferocity of which he is capable. "What you want the same one there again for?" The venom of Costello's singing blasted apart the illusion of perfect harmony; needless to say, it was met with dead silence. It's hard to imagine a greater tribute.
This is the day of the Big Lie, not just about the meaning of the music but about the situation in Latin America, the Middle East, and in the heart of America itself. The ability to speak not just loudly but clearly (which Elvis Costello has done ever since "Less Than Zero") is utterly essential. And Bruce Springsteen didn't leave this ugly incident behind in Pittsburgh, because he can't. Reagan is truly the Fly Paper President in his ability to ignore all refutations of his mendacity, and the next time he visits New Jersey, he's likely to try the same campaign gimmick. Or will it be John Cougar in Indiana, Bob Seger in Detroit, or someone in your hometown?
What's up for grabs right now isn't just an election, much less the meaning of rock & roll songs. It's the meaning of America itself that's at stake. What we can't repeat is the awful error of the sixties, ceding all images of patriotism to the opposition. And rock stars can't fight this war alone, not if there's any chance of winning. It's up to the rest of us to also find ways of thinking and speaking clearly and of acting effectively together in order to reclaim our country and our future.
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