One Shot of Springsteen Is More Than Enough

It may have been divine intervention that occurred when a single shot of tequila left Bruce Springsteen in a stupor and made his fascist “unity” All-American Jeep super bowl commercial a victim of cancel culture. It will take a lot more to cancel Bruce’s new podcast project with Barack Obama. As Paul Street documented Obama was completely absent during the fascist Trump years. Now that we are once again in “peacetime”, Mr. Obama is poking out his head. Peace time for this country means business as usual for the rest of the world, which means war.

Many people may think of Bruce Springsteen as anti-war because his hit song “Born in the USA” was sympathetic to American veterans who fought in Vietnam. But there’s a reason no one understood that song. It was because the chorus and sound is patriotic and it is in this way Springsteen still hides his content behind his form. There’s a difference between a Springsteen who is reflecting on the state of American soldiers after the fact and a figure like Noam Chomsky who opposed the war at the time and was willing to go to jail for it. More on Chomsky soon, who is far more charismatic than either Springsteen or Obama.

The reason politicians consistently played “Born In The USA” at their rallies was because it sounded like a pro-American, pro-war song. Bruce’s music was the part of the subject of a University of Minnesota study: “Students were told they were taking part in a study of how funds should be distributed in college – and offered a range of ethnic-based groups to share money between. After listening to Bruce Springsteen and the White Stripes, the students handed most of the money to white people.” Anyone who has listened to Springsteen gets this, in one way or another.

The goal of Springsteen, like the goal of Obama, is to redeem America. For Springsteen, this redemption lies within a romanization of the American heartland but what’s fascinating about Bruce is that this is not his demographic as evidenced by the very expensive and hugely popular Springsteen on Broadway of late. How is Springsteen’s link to subconscious racism within a scientific study linked to his popularity on Broadway? Actually, both have to do with this false aesthetic of the white working class. Rich white people give themselves permission to be racist through playing the role of “working class”. Goes to show how much these people hold the poor in contempt.

I think the aesthetic of Bruce may be particularly fascist but let’s zoom out a little bit. And no, I’m not trying to cancel Bruce. I am just begging him, by his own consent, to cancel his own catalog. I doubt he’ll come to the conclusion that this is the best way to “heal the divide”.

Thankfully, we don’t need Springsteen to be canceled. What’s fascinating about Springsteen and Obama both is how forgotten each one of them is, already. Popular music of today in no way influenced by Bruce. Springsteen has a long road of music but it is in no way evolving. It’s quickly fallen behind the likes of today’s centrists like Taylor Swift and Drake who rather than appropriate a working-class aesthetic, push the boundary of genre.

If anything characterizes the rise of Taylor Swift it is this queering of genre, taking the authentic country music storytelling in Fearless and moving it into the liberal modern city in 1989 before dismantling the bigness of pop through a woodsy album called Folklore. Springsteen remained stuck within his act and the world passed him by.

The same thing is happening to Barack Obama. His way of seeing the world feels lightyears away. He perhaps stayed silent during the Trump years because he had nothing to say, no way to relate to the reorganization of power. Obama can still get up for big events like sabotaging socialist Bernie Sanders or lecturing Black Lives Matter just as Bruce can get up for tediously long concerts reminding failed middle-class men they matter, but neither can speak to the moment.

It’s not so much a lack of energy for either men, but a lack of vision. They mainly are asking questions about a failed American spirit which in some ways connect to a broad feeling of emptiness but neither can access the dream they market because their utopia is anti-Marxist. Really? Wait so we really need Marx to intervene into Obama-Springsteen? Who else could?

Noam Chomsky explains how communism was crushed in Vietnam: “And so, not only were they not conducting any terrorism, but in fact, they were not even responding to the violence against them. It reached the point whereby 1959 the Vietminh leadership — the communist party leadership — was being decimated. Cadres were being murdered extensively. Finally, in May of 1959 there was an authorization to use violence in self-defense, after years of murder, with thousands of people killed in this campaign organized by the United States. As soon as they began to use violence in self-defense, the whole Saigon government apparatus fell apart at once because it was an apparatus based on nothing but a monopoly of violence. And once it lost that monopoly of violence it was finished. And that’s what led the United States to move in. There were no North Vietnamese around.”

For Chomsky, the communists were quite popular, and quite willing to follow the rule of law established through the Geneva Accords, which assured North and South Vietnam could be left to form a resolution. Of course the United States, in the name of advocating for independence, was the one undermining national unity through violence. This nationalist movement in Vietnam was explicitly communist.

So wait a second. Is Springsteen, in his Jeep, advocating for the same unity that North and South Vietnam aimed for? What national unity can an Empire achieve; and to what ends? Springsteen’s illusions of grandeur is a nostalgic plea for help in a country falling apart, losing its identity, but also its physical makeup, its middle class, its pristine natural landscape.

What is Springsteen except for the organization of alienation itself? What is Obama except for the organization of lost hopes and dreams? What is America except for a group of individuals in a collective state of loneliness?

Americans look to Springsteen to heal their soul, to remind them of what it means to be an American. Springsteen tries to remind us while it may be a sad and pointless journey it is at least a noble and shared one. But uniting around our sorrow, our failure to achieve the American Dream, in all its glory, only makes us “alone together”; the paradoxical slogan of the pandemic.

What would make us actually united? It would be the abolition of class relations. The abolition of private ownership, property and production. Many people say the Obama presidency inspired a right-wing “blowback” and that this is a warning against hallow identity politics, so to speak. But to the contrary, the reason for the blowback to Obama was because he wasn’t actually the communist or the radical he was framed as.

Obama was supposed to bring us into the post-race era but because we didn’t enter the post-class era, he only inspired racial blowback. The argument used against reparations is that it would cause an even bigger blowback but this would only be if the reparations were moderate. A real abolition of class would also abolish the power of the ruling class, which would make any blowback on their part foolish and fruitless.

Instead, America wants to universalize the American capitalist alienation by imposing it on the world through force. The great fear with Vietnam was the so-called domino effect; if one country went communist, they all would. Think about the implication of this. Communism would be so liberating that once some people got it, everyone would inevitably seize it soon enough.

It turns out that there were real things to fear, such as millions being exposed to Agent Orange. It would be hard for even Springsteen to romanticize that. Indeed, that’s the paradoxical thing about Springsteen songs is that the sadness in the songs is a nostalgia for something already sad: the American Empire and the ability to build it. The fall of America then is both a moral and material fall from Grace. It is not only that the jobs are drying up but the coherent moral image of the country is crumbling. Which one Bruce misses is clear.

The strategy of Agent Orange was to freeze out the rural peasant class, depriving them of food by decimating their environment and moving them into the very same cities that Bruce pines for. This process was referred to as forced-draft urbanization. In reading the language used by propagandists at the time one can see how urbanization, even when it means decimating the entire landscape of a country, is a step into modernity.

Additionally, a new class of people was being established amongst the Vietnamese. Chomsky concludes that while for the poor the chemicals mean death, disease and refugee camps, the modernization also works in reverse for the middle class of Vietnam. He quotes from a study: “When students at Saigon’s teacher training college were asked to list 15 occupations in an English examination, almost every student included launderer, car washer, bar-girl, shoeshine boy, soldier, interpreter, and journalist. Almost none of the students thought to write down doctor, engineer, industrial administrator, farm manager, or even their own chosen profession, teacher. The economy has become oriented toward services catering to the foreign soldiers.”

In a way this devastation of the environment and the loss of middle-class life is coming home, but the scale is not proportionate, and the history remains confused in identification with the ruling class. Nonviolent unity by the working class would be met with violence by the ruling class. Are Bruce and Obama wrong to ask us to join hands in times like these?

Joining hands to beat the left is all they are advocating. Their call for unity is not to stop the fascists. Their call for unity is to stop the left. They fear that if alienation becomes too acute, unity between the working class will be inevitable. They want a unity of alienation, they want to unite around an idea of America, not unite around a political, economic or even national goal.

Understanding the history of America and its war on communism informs us that there has been histories of successful class-based national unity and that this is not only an admirable goal but a liberating one. The ruthless violence embodied in the creation of American civilization makes us ask if the disunity of the American project is a necessary first step towards a class-based conception of the American identity. Despite his rhetoric, Springsteen is in no way a patriotic American, in no ways does he embody the best of America. There is a united idealistic American working class, but it is the future, and Obama and Springsteen were barely in their own times, let alone ours.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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