Boss Bait: Springsteen’s Up To His Old Tricks

Bruce Springsteen has to be baiting conservatives, doesn’t he? He has to be purposefully trying to lure them into a trap this time, right?

Bruce Springsteen’s new single, “We Take Care Of Our Own,” couches seemingly patriotic lyrics with anthemic, surging music — and unsurprisingly, people from both sides of the American political spectrum are co-opting the song and its message as their own.

Sound familiar?

Upon release of 1984’s blockbuster album Born in the U.S.A., Republicans from Ronald Reagan to George Will seized on the title track as a pro-America, pro-conservative song. They apparently only listened to the pounding drumbeat and the chorus, completely ignoring the lyrics in the verses.

Nearly 30 years later, in an election year, Springsteen has unleashed “We Take Care Of Our Own,” which Randall Roberts of the Los Angeles Times’ Pop & Hiss blog has already called “an affirmation of national glory.” Jim Farber at the Daily News writes that the song is “a simple statement of fact — an assertion of self-reliance, a key quality of the national character.” Even more so than with “Born in the U.S.A.,” it’s easy to understand why people — particularly people with an agenda — might mistake “Own” as a rousing call for a return to all-American values.

The music is as rocking as Springsteen seems to get on record these days (in concert is obviously a different story), and there’s nothing overtly menacing or dissonant about the backing music — just listen to the piano breaks in the verses.

And at first glance, the lyrics seem pretty rah-rah America fuck yeah.

I’ve been knockin’ on the door that holds a throne
I’ve been lookin’ for the map that leads me home
I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone
Those good intentions have gone dry as bone
We take care of our own
We take care of our own
Wherever this flag’s flown
We take care of our own

Of course, such a reading requires the listener to willfully ignore Springsteen’s entire discography and personal history, from his Woody Guthrie obsession to playing on the Vote for Change Tour in support of John Kerry in 2004. With that knowledge, it becomes apparent that the couplet “Wherever this flag’s flown/We take care of our own” isn’t a testament to American community, it’s an angrily spat gauntlet imitation of the empty rhetoric and violent xenophobia that have overrun this country.

As Backstreets’ Christopher Phillips points out, the key to the song is in the second verse:

From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We needed help but the cavalry stayed home,
There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown

Again, via Phillips, Springsteen almost certainly wrote these lines about a 2009 article in the The Nation, which described a Chicago resident’s experience in a white militia post-Katrina, whose members shot African-Americans seemingly on sight. One of the Chicago man’s cohorts told a reporter:

“He understands the N-word now.” In this neighborhood, she continues, “we take care of our own.”

It would be far too big a coincidence for Springsteen not to be making direct reference to that incident in a song that uses the exact phrase as its title, and namechecks Chicago and New Orleans.

But the question remains: after his experiences with “Born in the U.S.A.,” why would Springsteen risk being misinterpreted again? Why would he risk having to send a cease-and-desist letter to the Romney campaign after they’ve blared the song at rallies? It’s fair to assume that Bruce Springsteen is not a stupid man, and would have learned from history.

Which leads me to this conclusion: Springsteen is not risking misinterpretation. He’s expecting it. He’s daring people to claim this song is about how wonderful, strong and tough America is. He wants it to become an issue in 2012. He’s baiting them.

So which Republican presidential candidate will be first to get his leg caught in the Springsteen trap? The smart money’s on an increasingly desperate Newt Gingrich.

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2 Comments

Filed under Music Has AIDS, The Dilemma

2 responses to “Boss Bait: Springsteen’s Up To His Old Tricks

  1. Pingback: Chris Christie Really Gets Bruce Springsteen | Pop Culture Has AIDS

  2. Pingback: Five Best Springsteen Covers « montague st.

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