Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition

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Moving beyond the biographical and journalistic approaches of most writing on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. was the first major work of cultural criticism to situate Springsteen’s work in the broader sweep of American history—the heir of Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Springsteen is an influential chronicler of our society, says Jim Cullen, a “good conservative” who preserves the traditional values of hard work, inclusive families, and genuine concern for the less fortunate. In the new edition to this landmark work, Cullen also discusses new currents in Springsteen’s music since 9/11, notably his 2002 album The Rising. This Wesleyan edition includes a new foreword, introduction, and afterword. Must reading for any serious fan—or anyone who has ever been curious about what all the fuss has been about.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Jim Cullen writes with authority and empathy about the blue-collar roots that shaped Bruce Springsteen and gave rise to his music of rebellion. This is a provocative look at one of America’s cultural icons.” —Eleanor Clift, Newsweek

“… offers illumination and thoughtful, discriminating observations about its myriad subjects. And it has aged almost as well as ‘Nebraska.’”—Eric Alterman, The Nation

“This is a well-written, painstakingly researched, and surprisingly unpretentious book.”—Asbury Park Press

Kirkus Reviews
Cullen's study of Bruce Springsteen is a full-fledged cultural critique, examining how "the Boss's" music has been influenced by the society around him. The author covers a lot of ground but rarely spreads himself thin.

Harvard historian Cullen's perspective is initially historic, using Reagan's evocation of the song of the title during his 1984 reelection bid. While Springsteen is no Republican, Cullen maintains that he is a "republican" in the Jeffersonian and Lincolnian sense of believing in the ideals of representative democracy. Widening his focus, Cullen follows the well-traveled link between American government and the works of Emerson, Twain, and Steinbeck to suggest Springsteen as the heir to this tradition. A close reading of the lyrics of "Thunder Road" serves as an example. Cullen treats Springsteen's relationship with the Vietnam War and its veterans (having lost a friend in the war, Springsteen deprived himself of sleep to earn a 4-F classification but has since worked extensively with veterans). More sociological sections of the book look at Springsteen's preoccupation with working-class values and his own strong work ethic, demonstrated by his legendary four- to five-hour live shows. The book's final sections look at Springsteen's development from a "boy culture" singer of male bonding to a mature husband and father—these latter roles brilliantly mined on his album Tunnel of Love—and the lapsed Catholicism of this self-described "failed altar boy." Cullen quotes Jesuit novelist and sociologist Rev. Andrew Greeley, who claims that Tunnel of Love may be more significant from a Catholic perspective than a papal visit to the US.

Cullen is perhaps overly idealistic in his historical depictions (Lincoln was certainly less of an egalitarian than Cullen would seem to believe), but his parting words, "When I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I remember how to be an American," finally ring true.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780819567611
  • Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
  • Publication date: 6/14/2005
  • Series: Music Culture
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 290
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

JIM CULLEN teaches history at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His articles and reviews have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the American Historical Review, and he has published seven books, including The American Dream (2003). DANIEL CAVICCHI is author of Tramps Like Us (1998).
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Read an Excerpt

The Good Conservative
On the Trail of Springsteen and Reagan

September 19, 1984, was a typical day on the campaign trail for Ronald Reagan. The president spent the morning in the Democratic stronghold of Waterbury, Connecticut. There, as elsewhere, he read prepared remarks, but added some local color—in this case, invoking the spirit of John F. Kennedy, who had visited Waterbury in 1960. "Even though it was the fall, it seemed like springtime, those days. I see our country today and I think it is springtime for America once again," he told the crowd. "And I think John Kennedy would be proud of you and the things you believe in." Reagan, of course, had supported Richard Nixon in that election.
The president then proceeded to the affluent suburban town of Hammonton, New Jersey, in the southern part of the state. There, he praised Italian-American voters. "You are what America is all about," he told them. "You didn't come here seeking streets paved with gold. You didn't come here asking for welfare or special treatment." And as in Waterbury, Reagan also cited a local favorite. "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope so many young people admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."
Actually, the Reagan camp had hoped to have Springsteen by the President's side in Hammonton. Though attempts to recruit rock stars Billy Joel and John Cougar Mellencamp failed, Michael Jackson had recently appeared with Reagan at the White House in an anti-drunk-driving campaign. And six days earlier, after attending a Springsteen concert,conservative columnist George Will had written a glowing review that echoed dominant Republican campaign themes. "I have not got a clue about Springsteen's politics, if any," Will wrote, "but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful, affirmation: 'Born in the U.S.A.!'"
The office of presidential handler Michael Deaver contacted Springsteen's promoter, who relayed the request to appear with Reagan. Springsteen's agent declined on behalf of his client, saying he was unavailable for any outside appearances during his tour. Springsteen's people thought that was the end of the matter—until Reagan invoked Springsteen anyway. The President's press aide could not immediately tell reporters what Reagan's favorite Springsteen song was, although the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner reported an aide as saying that Reagan listened to Springsteen's records all the time.
It's not hard to see why Reagan's campaign regarded Springsteen as a useful political asset. Since 1972, when he released his first album, Springsteen had built a steadily growing audience that peaked with the release of Born in the U.S.A. in June of 1984. The album sold 20 million copies in the United States and 10 million more abroad, making him a superstar. But much of Springsteen's appeal stemmed from a refusal to act like one. His legendary concerts, for example, were extraordinary in their length and in Springsteen's desire to give his fans more than mere money could buy. Such generosity was also evident in his songs, which depicted the hopes and fears of the ethnic working class from which he emerged with a clarity and empathy that had appealingly moral overtones.
This ethnic working-class constituency was the keystone of Reagan's electoral coalition, the bloc that turned the Republicans into the nation's governing party in the 1980s. So the attempt to appropriate Springsteen's appeal was more than routine political window dressing; it reflected a broader strategy that had precipitated a major political realignment. Among other tactics, this strategy involved stoking the resentments of working-class whites uneasy about black gains since the Civil Rights movement, and capitalizing on the ill will generated by white liberals who had regarded the working class with suspicion, if not outright hostility, since the sixties. This strategy also involved championing religious and patriotic causes the American left had largely abandoned in the wake of the Vietnam War.
Springsteen's good-guy image and unabashed patriotism, then, seemed to make him a perfect fit for the Reaganites. Indeed, given the extent to which the Republican Party had appropriated God and Country by 1984, it seemed possible to fit some of the best ideas and traditions of American history under a GOP banner (George Will's column on Springsteen is a case study of this process in action). As far as they were concerned, Springsteen was a conservative Republican that fall.
Many people, even those with only a passing familiarity with Springsteen's music, regarded this effort to capture Springsteeen as, at best, misguided. More committed fans reacted with outrage. Springsteen's biographer Dave Marsh later wrote that Will's column "was such a perversion of what Springsteen was trying to communicate that it constituted an obscenity." Few in the years since would have reason to disagree.
In a very real way, however, both Will and Reagan were right: Springsteen really was, and is, a conservative as well as a republican. But he's not a conservative republican (lowercase "c" and "r") in the Reagan sense of the term. Rather, he's the conservator of an older, more resonant republicanism that shaped and built a nation.

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Table of Contents

Foreword – Daniel Cavicchi
Introduction: A Big Country
The Good Conservative: On the Trail of Springsteen and Reagan
Republican Character: Springsteen and the American Artistic Tradition
Visions of Kings: Springsteen and the American Dream
Borne in the U.S.A.: Springsteen and the Burden of Vietnam
The Good Life: Springsteen’s Play Ethic
Model Man: Springsteen’s Masculinity
Inherited Imagination: Springsteen and American Catholicism
Conclusion: Better Angels
Afterword to the 2005 Edition
Sources and Notes
Selected Discography
A Springsteen Chronology
Copyright Acknowledgements
Photography Credits
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