Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball: “Nobody’s Free Until Everybody’s Free”

Every Friday throughout the run of From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen, we will publish dedicated content inspired by Bruce Springsteen and the First Amendment. “Freedom of Expression Fridays” will feature unique and original posts by staff writers, musicians, visual artists, and more, with a focus on a range of issues including protest, dissent, and the role of art in politics and political campaigns.

With Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Wrecking Ball Tour due next week in Philadelphia for a sold-out two-night stand, Shawn Poole, contributing writer for Backstreets, the premier Springsteen fan magazine/website, offers his insights in a two-part series on Springsteen’s new Wrecking Ball album. Plus, to coincide with the album and with the National Constitution Center’s feature exhibition, Poole and Backstreets have organized some upcoming local events, including the Bruce Springsteen Memories Roadshow on April 21.

This week, Poole explores the ideals and ideas of Springsteen’s new album. Check back next week for Poole’s track-by-track analysis.

Photo by Danny Clinch

Bruce Springsteen’s new album Wrecking Ball contains some of the most daring and exciting music of his four decades as a recording artist. It successfully incorporates elements of rock, folk, gospel, hip-hop beats/sampling/raps, Celtic, country, New Orleans jazz and even some mariachi. It’s masterfully constructed to engage and challenge on many levels his vast international, multi-generational and still-growing audience.

This new album also contains some of the strongest political statements Springsteen has ever made in his music, which already has more than a few listeners feeling at least a bit wary. That’s understandable, no matter what your own political point of view may be.

Coming from the left end of the political spectrum myself, I know very well what it’s like to have strong political differences with an artist whose work you still enjoy immensely. For me, it’s happened over the years with many musical greats such as Ray Charles, Loretta Lynn, Sam Moore, Willie Nelson and Johnny Ramone. I’m sure it works the same way for politically conservative fans of the left-leaning Springsteen, too. Heck, even as a leftist Springsteen fan, I haven’t always agreed with everything that Bruce has done or said politically. (For one, I disagree strongly with his recent statement that the killing of Osama bin Laden was something for which the Obama administration is to be commended. Sorry, Bruce, but I stand with folks like Noam Chomsky on this one.) Ultimately, each listener will have to decide individually, of course, how much the politics of this album and its creator will affect her or his appraisal of it.

The only argument that truly drives me up a wall, however, is one recently dredged up yet again, this time in the pages of Forbes: that it somehow is “hypocritical” for Springsteen to be addressing issues of economic and social justice, given how rich he has become. Of course, the phrase “how rich he has become” implies that he wasn’t always so wealthy.

For fans living in or visiting the Philadelphia area, a good antidote to this whole “hypocrisy” argument would involve a field trip to the National Constitution Center’s “reboot” of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s exhibition From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen. One of the many things that the exhibit does well is remind visitors that Springsteen came from very humble beginnings indeed. It’s probably the main reason why even throughout a phenomenally successful career in popular music, he frequently can still recall so vividly, both in his art and in his politics, what it means to be a member of the U.S. working poor.

As early as 1978, Springsteen was openly maintaining his ties to the U.S. working-class culture from which he sprang. At that time, he also sang of a burning desire for radical changes to business as usual. His classic ‘78 album Darkness on the Edge of Town opened with “Badlands,” in which Springsteen sang from the perspective of people “workin’ in the fields” and “workin’ ‘neath the wheel.” The protagonist in that song also called for major changes to the game early on, asserting that he no longer cared for “the same old played out scenes” where poor men dream of being rich and a rich man won’t rest “till he rules everything.”

A few years after Darkness… was released, Springsteen explicitly addressed the seemingly contradictory state of a musician with newly acquired wealth continuing to address the concerns of the poor. “I’ve been lucky,” he said in 1981. “I’ve got about as much freedom as money can buy in this country, but there’s a lot of people that are not…and it seems like you’re never truly free until everybody else is.” Consciously or not, Springsteen was echoing the immortal words of the great civil rights activist/leader Fannie Lou Hamer: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” (Springsteen later closed most of his concerts during the Born in the U.S.A. Tour with a similar sentiment: “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.”)

When visiting the Constitution Center, one also should take a look at the other exhibits there and consider the following: Highly influential ideas about freedom, rebellion, liberty, equality, democracy, etc. were raised in colonial-era documents like the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The great contradictions that continue to haunt our society, however, stem from the fact that those documents were written by a group of rich, white male “owners” of land stolen from a native populace and slaves stolen from a distant land and contained elements that continued the systems of oppression and exploitation under which the writers themselves thrived. Nevertheless, those ideas also have helped to fuel the visions of many of our nation’s (and even the world’s) greatest activists for social and economic justice through the years. In the end, ideas should be judged on their merit regardless of who expresses them, how they get expressed or even the socio-economic status of the expresser.

Shawn Poole is a Philadelphia-based contributing writer for Backstreets, the premier Springsteen fan magazine/website. Shawn also works in the city’s public school system.

©2012 Shawn J. Poole, published on Constitution Daily with permission. The opinions expressed above are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of any other individual or organization, including Backstreets and the National Constitution Center.

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