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The Boss of the Working Class


by Sam Zahn


    Many people think of life as a fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after. In America, this has been a fixture of our belief system since the founding of our country. The American Dream; a phrase that drove and continues to drive an enormous number of immigrants into America. A phrase that has motivated Americans to work all their lives to get to the top of the economic ladder. However, this phrase has also been a broken promise time and time again. For working class Americans this has held true for many generations. Bruce Springsteen found a way to embody the working classes struggles in his music and truly bring America’s internal issues to the forefront of society’s attention.

    Bruce Springsteen was born in 1949 in New Jersey. He grew up in a working class family with both of his parents struggling to find reliable jobs. Springsteen himself grew up to be a world famous musician and songwriter earning himself the nickname “The Boss”. However, his roots never left him as he is most well known for his songs revolving around working class struggles. Springsteen’s work is popular for its storytelling style. Springsteen manages to connect with his audiences through fictitious stories based on real life hardships. His focus on realism led to a loyal fanbase and an influential career. He not only managed to create timeless music, but he managed to affect American politics and public opinion. Springsteen’s working class commentary focuses primarily on the average man, times of war, the female life in a working class society, and modern struggles.

    Springsteen begins his analysis of the blue collar lifestyle by drawing upon the experiences of the average laborer. Due to his background, Springsteen is able to tell his stories in astounding detail by drawing from personal experience. In Springsteen’s music the American Dream does not come to fruition for many of his characters and they are left anguished by the failure. In his article “Whitman, Springsteen, and the American Working Class” Greg Smith describes Springsteen’s effect as “ Springsteen's songs are frequently centered around the ironic discrepancy between what the American Dream offers in theory and what actual working people often get in reality.” In his music, Springsteen comments on American society as a society that lies to its people. He denotes the American Dream as a fable. He discusses how the average working class American rarely fulfills this pipe dream. Springsteen’s album “Born to Run” is famous for this commentary and in the title track Springsteen writes:

In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American Dream
And at night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.(1-2)
Springsteen conveys a working class that toils for no reward as a fleeting American Dream entices them to continue working. He then iterates the irony as these laborers later drive through neighborhoods where they see this wealth that they so desperately desire, but cannot grasp the “runaway American Dream.” Furthermore, Springsteen is able to use personal pronouns to connect with his audience. This makes his storytelling more captivating as the readers begin to see themselves in Springsteen’s characters. In another one of his early works “Thunder Road”, Springsteen describes the desire to escape this blue collar lifestyle. Springsteen demonstrates this desire when stating in the final line of “Thunder Road”, “So, Mary, climb in; it's a town of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win.”(42-43). This storyline seems to end on an optimistic note. The couplet used at the end works to emphasize the primary message that there is an unrelenting desire to leave these dead-end towns. However, this story is seemingly continued in Springsteen’s song “The River” where he states:
Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse.(30-32).
It seems the story concludes with the main character failing to escape his town and therefore forever being haunted by his past joy. This leads him to ask the rhetorical question about the effects of a failed dream. This story is an allegory for all working class children as it shows a child with aspirations of escaping the stagnant life of his town and pursuing the American dream, only to fall short and be haunted by his inability for the remainder of his life. Springsteen is unique because he does not provide an abstract or emotional depiction of American life, rather he elaborates on the stress of this society as it is in real life. Springsteen’s manifestation of working class struggles does not end in their unsuccessful pursuit of the American Dream.

    Springsteen continues his analysis of American irony with his commentary regarding war. Specifically, Springsteen examines the Vietnam War and its effect on the American people. In his commonly misinterpreted song “Born in the U.S.A.”, he starts by singing:

Born down in a dead man's town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that's been beat too much, till you spend half your life just covering up.
(1-2)
Again, Springsteen describes a classic working class upbringing much like his own. Throughout some of works he describes a blue collar town as a “dead man’s town” implying that everyone in the society is stuck and their destinies as laborers are predetermined. Moreover, he begins to characterize this laborer as unemployed and desperate. Later in the song, the young man is forced to go to war in Vietnam for a cause he does not understand. After returning from the horrors of the war Springsteen chronicles his character’s miserable life as a veteran when writing:
Down in the shadows of the penitentiary, out by the gas fires of the refinery,
I'm ten years burning down the road, nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go.(11-12)
Now, Springsteen begins to depict his character as a man without a purpose after coming home from war. Because it was a controversial war, many Vietnam veterans were not given a hero’s welcome, but rather spurned in most of American society. As a result, Springsteen’s character find himself lost with “nowhere to go.” Furthermore, Springsteen’s repetition of the phrase “Born in the U.S.A” throughout the song is used to inspire irony in the text. The irony is found as the young man has his life ruined by his country, yet still finds pride in his nationality. Here, Springsteen comments on the blind nationalism of many working class Americans as they fought in Vietnam without truly understanding what they were fighting for. Despite the clear meaning of this text, it is repeatedly misused and misinterpreted as a patriotic song when it is entirely the opposite. Overall, Springsteen is able to focus on a specific issue within the American class system as it relates to wartime. He explores the struggles of the working class as they are abused by the rest of American society.

    Unlike many other male rock and roll artists of his day, Springsteen was surprisingly willing and able to describe the trials and tribulations of females in the 20th century working class society. Many women in this society were mistreated and abused. An example is found in Springsteen’s character in his song “Spare Parts” in which he writes:

Bobby said he'd pull out, Bobby stayed in; Janey had a baby, it wasn't any sin
They were set to marry on a summer day, but Bobby got scared and he ran away.(1-2)
In this text, Janey is symbolic of many working class women who were left behind by their cowardly partners. In the rest of the poem, Janey moves in with her mother and contemplates killing her baby and taking the easy way out. Instead, Janey rises from this depression to begin to make tough decisions in support of her and her child. Springsteen uses colloquial language in this text to connect the storyline to that of real life women. He masterfully works in colloquial phrases such as “Went straight down to the pawn shop, man, and walked out with some good cold cash”(22) in order to enforce his message. Moreover, Springsteen’s depiction of women stands out as he conveys women as powerful and independent. Many male artists did not share these sentiments at this time making Springsteen’s commentary even more unique. Martha Neel Smith summarizes the message clearly when she states “Janey sells the symbols of romantic promises so she can deal competently with the material facts of life.”(844). Springsteen’s writing in this text is an empowerment of women as their ability to face real life is demonstrated.

    Most of Springsteen’s work deals with life in the mid-19th century, however he continues to comment on American values and issues in his later work. In 1995, Springsteen released a new album, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, which overlayed the message that America had improved, but had by no means solved the issues troubling the working class. In his song “The Ghost of Tom Joad” Springsteen points out the some profound flaws in American society:

Now Tom said, "Mom, wherever there's a cop beating a guy,
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries,
Where there's a fight against the blood and hatred in the air,
Look for me, Mom, I'll be there.
Wherever there's somebody fighting for a place to stand,
Or a decent job or a helping hand
Wherever somebody's struggling to be free,
Look in their eyes, Mom, you'll see me.”(26-34)
While this passage is conveyed in a helpful, positive light, it still works to indicate massive issues still left in American society. His rhyme scheme in the song places emphasis upon the issues, while adding rhythm to the work. Recently, Springsteen’s commentary has expanded. For example, after the tragedy of 9/11, he wrote an album for the event. The album still dealt with struggles, but now those of the people who suffered during this great tragedy. In his song “You’re Missing”, Springsteen states "Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair / Papers on the doorstep, but you're not there."(6-7). This heart-wrenching line depicts the struggles of loss many family members and friends had to deal with after losing their loved ones. In his article “Rock and Redemption”, Todd Hoffman describes Springsteen’s influence when saying “Springsteen makes the magnitude of what's happened palpable in all the small details of domesticity.” Hoffman perfectly embodies Springsteen’s innate ability to describe one’s struggles through a minor story or detail. Although not entirely dealing with working class Zahn 7 struggles, Springsteen’s recent work still does a marvelous job of telling a story that connects the reader to an event or hardship.

    Bruce Springsteen is universally thought of as a talented musician, however, when one claims he is a talented poet many opposers arise. Nevertheless, it is obvious when reading Springsteen's lyrics that he is not writing just for pleasure, he is truly trying to get a message across and have an influence. His commentary on working class struggles such as the trials of the average man, the struggles of war, the hardships of women, and the tribulations of modern day clearly show his prowess for relaying a message in his music.

Works Cited

Hoffman, Tod. "Rock and redemption." Queen's Quarterly, vol. 109, no. 3, 2002, p. 397+.Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA94346091& it=r&asid=ba1ccc53bfc6046b5d6835830fa44586. Accessed 6 Dec. 2016.
SMITH, GREG. "Whitman, Springsteen, and the American Working Class." The Midwest Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 3, 2000, p. 302. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA62496 735&it=r&asid=c66a58f8ec11cfe182a79513f727ee32. Accessed 6 Dec. 2016.
"Bruce Springsteen." AZ Lyrics. N.p., n.d. Web.
"Bruce Springsteen." Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center,go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE%7C H1000093967&it=r&asid=7ebb66b4a0e69e636d85ae7f82f51e6a. Accessed 6 Dec. 2016.

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