Thursday, January 19, 2012

We Take Care of Our Own

A few days ago, an article appeared in the Hollywood Reporter. The headline read, "Bruce Springsteen's New Album Is His 'Angriest' Yet."


Bruce Springsteen is "liberal." When he goes off, self-described "conservatives" go wild. Laura Ingraham wrote a book called Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN are Subverting America. It was a best seller, even. I don't personally know anyone who actually read it, but that doesn't matter: When Bruce speaks out, there's inevitably a chorus of comments across the country: "Shut Up and Sing!"

Sometimes, it goes a bit further. In March, 2011, Springsteen wrote a letter to The Asbury Park Press, commenting on a story that had appeared in the paper 4 days earlier. The letter read, in part, "Thank you for your March 27 front-page story by Michael Symons. 'As poverty rises, cuts target aid.' The article is one of the few that highlights the contradictions between a policy of large tax cuts, on the one hand, and cuts in services to those in the most dire conditions, on the other."

The response didn't take long. The Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, was gracious, though he avoided the substance of Bruce's letter, nevermind the substance of the Asbury Park Press article. The Trentonian blasted Bruce as a limousine liberal. But it didn't stop there. Within days, a Fox News New York report that had been filed a few weeks earlier was regurgitated, repackaged, and splashed in to many publications. It alleged that Bruce Springsteen was a "fake farmer" and a tax dodger.

While the initial report was slanted -- e.g, presenting liberal celebrities before large corporations using the same laws in the same way -- it did, at least, accurately point out that Springsteen's activities were perfectly legal, that he pays an annual 6-figure real estate tax bill, and that he actually does have an organic farm. The regurgitations, such as this one, didn't bother with the feigned fairness.

The Hollywood Reporter article began by quoting an "earwitness" who said, "He gets into economic justice quite a bit... It’s very rock 'n' roll." It didn't take long for the accusations of "hypocrite" and "fake farmer" to begin: Forget the message, attack the messenger!!

This brings me to Springsteen's new single, We Take Care Of Our Own. This song is angry. It is harsh. I think its presentation, its melodic simplicity, and even -- or maybe especially -- its lyrical structure are all reminiscent of Born In The U.S.A..

In the run-up to the release of the single, a friend of mine, perhaps sensing a rehash of some of what happened during the "Born in the U.S.A." era, wrote, "You are going to read and hear a great many distorted representations of this album."

I responded: "I think I'd rephrase that... as follows: 'You are going to read and hear a great many distorted representations of Bruce Springsteen.'... If there is a theme of 'economic justice,' as proposed in the opening of the Hollywood Reporter article, the response will be to portray Bruce Springsteen as a hypocrite and worse. The album itself will not be seriously addressed by those who would do the representing..."

In September, 1984, the conservative columnist George Will, in an op-en piece for The Washington Post turned "Born in the U.S.A." on its head, writing, "... the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: 'Born in the U.S.A.!'"

It didn't take long for history to repeat. Already this morning, a piece in Los Angeles Times was titled, "First take: Bruce Springsteen's patriotic 'We Take Care of Our Own'" According to this misread, the lyrics "offer an affirmation of national glory," and "the title phrase borders on jingoism." Of the chorus, "We take care of our own/Wherever this flag is flown/We take care of our own," the piece concludes, without the barest hint of irony, that it's "about community and pride."

Perhaps "We Take Care of Our Own" really is unclear to some, in the way that "Born in the U.S.A." was a generation earlier. Both songs, ultimately, are a bit about reclaiming the flag.

In 2004 and 2008, Bruce Springsteen actively campaigned for the Democratic Party's nominee for President. Barack Obama campaigned behind the slogan, "Yes We Can." Springsteen debuted Working On A Dream at a campaign appearance for Obama just two days before the election.

When I listen to "We Take Care of Our Own," and I've been listening a lot over the past 24 hours, and I get to, "The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone," I hear an accusation, a cry of betrayal from a former believer. And when the song asks where are the eyes with the will to see and the merciful hearts and the promise of the American Dream to the entire nation, I hear not just an echo of (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding; I hear it scream, No, we didn't.

No simple solutions are offered in "We Take Care of Our Own." For now, the song is one of bitterness, angriness, and is a reminder of who we supposedly were. Not, "We're all on our own"; in the end, it's as true as ever that "nobody wins unless everybody wins."

I love this song. I hope it has some impact. And I can hardly wait for the cries of "Shut up and Sing!" and "Hypocrite." It's about time.

The album, Wrecking Ball, will be released on March 6.


bluerootsradio said...

Clearly this song is a reminder, especially to everyone who stands to cheer at Republican debates for the misfortunes of others.

Marzio "Meanie" Fellini said...

Here's another clueless take on the song as an "ode to conservative values."

My take: Hmm... maybe no stumping for Obama this fall?

"I've been knocking on the door that holds the throne... The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone... There ain't no help, the cavalry's stayed home..."

So, mutual aid? Hell yeah--our species would be extinct without it. But "We take care of our own" also makes a fine threat.

Matt Orel said...

Thank you, Marzio. I had read that review, and found it fascinating. I once wrote a tongue-in-cheek review of "Lucky Town" as an objectivist anthem, with the singer in the role of Howard Roark. "Tonight I got dirt on my hands but I'm building me a new home." Worked perfectly.

Too bad the guy at Heritage had to throw "Thunder Road" in to it, when he had so many better targets, eh?

Mark said...

"the road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone"?

I find it hard to believe that Matt Orel -- THE Matt Orel -- commented on this line without mentioning that it is a terrible...I mean, terrible .... mixed metaphor. Where I come from, dry roads are good things. Wet roads tend to be slick, perhaps icy if it's mid-winter, and forget it if it's black ice.

I assume he didn't say "the river of good intentions has gone dry as a bone" b/c he realized that someone, somewhere, has decided that Bruce used up his quota for using "river" as a metaphor about 2 or 3 albums ago (at least).

This first song from the new album is so terrible that it perversely gives me hope. Radio Nowhere was awful and that album (Magic) turned out to be his best in at least a decade. Hopefully this album follows suit.

Amy said...

Now Obama's staff are trying to appropriate Springsteen's anger: 'We Take Care of Our Own' appears on the Spotify campaign playlist that came out last week.

Matt Orel said...

Mark -- well... I wasn't really focusing on the quality of the metaphors, and really, nobody mixes 'em better than I do, so I'm forgiving on that one. Sure, it'd work better if it were a well instead of a road, but it is what it is. As I'm sure you are well aware, Bruce has used the dry bones metaphor before, most obviously with "Devils & Dust." I *do* think this is a recurrence of the Ezekiel Dry Bones meme that coursed through that song and album, and for similar purpose. I don't think Bruce was advocating for wet or icy roads!

Amy -- is it any surprise? Of course Obama will try to co-opt the song, just as Neil Portnow tried for the RAA Sunday night.