Workin’ in the fields til’ you get your back burned
Workin’ ‘neath the wheel, til’ you get your facts learned
Baby, I got my facts, learned real good right now
Poor man want to be rich, Rich man want to be king
And a king ain’t satisfied til’ he rules everything
Lately, I’ve found a lot of new appreciation for late 90s/early 2000s political critiques. Too often, and I’m guiltier of this than most, we become enamored by deconstructions of post-9/11 American domestic life and foreign policy and forget that there was plenty of division, strife, and protest in our “contemporary” society before the Bush Doctrine ramped it all up to 11. 9/11 was such a glaring and brutal bullet point on the American timeline that it’s easy to forget that a lot of the issues we still argue about were actually worth arguing about before we were shocked into the “modern American” mindset. A few of the things I’ve been thinking of are:
Christopher Priest’s fantastic 1998-2003 run on Black Panther, which serves as a stark critique of Clinton-era foreign policy.
A realization that the Star Wars prequels are secretly good and have a lot of very prescient things to say about America’s soon to start wars in the middle east.
And Bruce Springsteen’s late-90s output, specifically the live record documenting the final leg of his 1999 reunion tour with the East Street Band, Live In New York City.
When I started this column, I did a lot of soul searching on if I should include albums that weren’t just standard studio albums. Compilations don’t quite capture the moment in time and emotional thru-line that I try to focus on. Live albums have a similar problem, in that a set list might be pulling from songs that aren’t relevant to now or songs that are still popular and people want to hear. But in a live setting, older songs can be re-framed, in a new narrative, and given a new context to help us appreciate what they were trying to say all along.
Bruce is someone who I’ve never really listened to and I think it’s a great disservice to what he stands for that I took so long to really listen to his lyrics and realize what he was trying to say. I always knew he was a “blue collar” songwriter but I somehow missed just how much he spoke about so many of the economic issues we constantly talk about in modern political discourse.
From the Monongahela valley to the Mesabi iron range
To the coal mines of Appalachia, the story’s always the same
Seven hundred tons of metal a day, now sir you tell me the world’s changed
Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name
I mean come on, this is basically the script to an ad about the divide in the Democratic Party about trade deals in the Trump era. But with a bit more… realism and bite.
When I die I don’t want no part of heaven, I would not do heaven’s work well
I pray the devil comes and takes me, to stand in the fiery furnaces of hell
And that kind of aggressive populism, raging against the rich who look down on all of us is present throughout the entire show. Even when they’re dressed up in folksy Americana.
But that’s not why I’m writing about this specific record. I was originally going to write about Born In The U.S.A.
Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up
Born In The U.S.A. was the first Springsteen album I really loved. I put it off because I absolutely can’t stand that every nationalistic xenophobe since Reagan has played it at rallies. But then when I really listened to it, I realized the obvious. That it’s not some beautiful anthem on American exceptionalism
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
It’s a harsh critique of our imperialism at the expense of not only the people we go over to kill, but at the young men and women who are forced to enforce America’s will abroad only to be shunned by the people who sent them over there in the first place. The pro-war hawks are almost always slashing funding, limiting health care, and destroying the VA so they can hold it up as an example of how “government doesn’t work.”
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son, don’t you understand”
I had a brother at Khe Sanh fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone
The version of “Born In The U.S.A.” we hear here is a somber one, stripped down to a 12-string acoustic guitar, reflecting the severity of the issue we were about to ramp up to 11. Just two years later, we started sending troops to fight the two longest wars in American history, with an economic recession just behind the corner, waiting for the lucky ones to come home to.
The hypocrisy of those in power really brought me to what may be the most powerful song for this whole show, the only song that was new for this tour. In the weeks leading up to this run at Madison Square Garden, Bruce and the E Street Band debuted a new song, “American Skin” in Atlanta and the lyrics leaked online. This song was in response to the Amadou Diallo shooting in the Bronx earlier that year. Springsteen had written political songs throughout his career, clearly, but this one sparked a bit more outrage, especially from the NYPD.
41 shots, and we’ll take that ride
Across this bloody river to the other side
41 shots, they cut through the night
You’re kneeling over his body in the vestibule
Praying for his life
I spend a lot of time thinking about protest and the most effective way to do it. I struggle with it a lot, especially since my life is pretty privileged and most of the things I’ve protested haven’t directly affected me. I constantly hear criticism from the right about how you’re supposed to protest. Our country was founded on protest, but so many people who support the status quo keep themselves distanced enough so they don’t have to confront that they would clearly be loyalists to the British during the American Revolution. Protesting is great and American, but you shouldn’t destroy property. The Boston Tea Party. They wouldn’t have gotten killed if they just listened to the police. The Boston Massacre began as the follow up to a British customs officer when he shot and killed an 11 year old boy during a patriot protest. A week and a half later, a protest turned violent when a British officer stabbed a protester with his bayonet. The rest is history.
41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says, “On these streets, Charles. You’ve got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama, you’ll keep your hands in sight”
My point is not to weigh in on specific cases of brutality or not, as I haven’t done the due diligence to discuss this case at length. My point is that if people have and they’re pissed off about it, that’s ok. I’ve seen so many people go so far out of their way to make sure they have no acceptable way to voice that disbelief. Street protests just get in the way of people trying to go to work. Public displays are inappropriate, and god forbid anyone kneels during the anthem. (As an aside, the Department of Defense spent millions of taxpayers dollars making the NFL more “patriotic” and players didn’t stand on the field for the national anthem until 2009). Celebrities are supposed to stay in their lane and entertain us, mindlessly, with no regard for or mention of their personal beliefs. One of the greats, Bruce Springsteen, has a huge reunion tour and comes out with a statement that he thinks is important. And he gets called a “floating fag” by the police and told to go back to singing “American flag songs and all that stuff.” If artists can’t protest through their art, how the fuck are people supposed to protest? If someone with a platform as large as Springsteen is called a dirtbag and told to shut the fuck up, how are regular folk supposed to stand up to an unjust system? That’s the trick, they aren’t. They’re supposed to just sit there and hope that the status quo deigns the downtrodden worthy to receive a blessing from above. If only everyone could be so lucky.