By Clarence Yu Contributor OCTOBER 27, 1975: Bruce Springsteen, 25, appears simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek and is heralded as “The future of Rock and Roll.” Around this time, a young man named Barack “Barry” Obama, 14, is attending High School in Hawaii’s Punahou School, destined to be the future President of the United States. October to November, 2008: Bruce Springsteen, 59, now known as “The Boss” worldwide, critically acclaimed and one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, speaks and plays at several rallies for Senator Barack Obama, 47, who is now the President-elect of the United States. I used to believe in what Keith Richards used to say about rock n’ roll and politics not being a good mix, that rock n’ roll should not be used as a tool to further anyone’s political agenda. After all, rock n’ roll has always been about good times. However, as an ardent Springsteen fan for many years now, I believe that the Boss is an exceptional exception to this rule, or at least Richard’s rules. So when comments over the Internet started to insinuate that Springsteen was “cashing in” on Obama’s celebrity, I got furious. In his four decade-long career, Springsteen has always been the embodiment of what America is supposed to stand for, even though many, including myself, don’t necessarily agree with his politics and his endorsements. The irony here is that casual fans who love him don’t really understand him. And this is also partially Springsteen’s fault. A good starting point to make is Springsteen’s greatest hit: “Born In The USA.” Released in 1984 at the height of Republican Reaganism, many saw it as a patriotic, fist-pumping anthem extolling the virtues of America and all the opportunities of being an American. Republicans and scores of politicians, including the Gipper (President Reagan) himself, took the song as their own in expressing their values and policies to the world. But a closer examination of the first two stanzas of the song reveals a deeper undertone to the sugar-coated music:
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 'Til you spend half your life just covering up I got in a little hometown jam And so they put a rifle in my hands Sent me off to Vietnam To go and kill the yellow manThe song is apparently about a disgruntled Vietnam War veteran who could not even find a job in his own country after fighting this war. On its 2000 released, “18 Tracks,” which is a Springsteen CD of outtakes and jams, the song appears in its original, acoustic ballad form that highlights a haunting counterpoint to the re-recorded version that we all know today. Over the years, Springsteen has devoted his musical output to both commercial and personal projects in alternating fashion. At a point where he could have followed up his 1975 hit record “Born To Run,” which is the album that put him on the covers of Time and Newsweek, he instead opted to record “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” partly out of a record company dispute. But Darkness turned out to be what some critics hail as his magnum opus. From then on, the commercial-personal cycle has been on-going, keeping Springsteen in touch with his fan base and with the issues he so actively believes in. “USA” was followed by “Tunnel of Love,” my personal favorite, an album that talks about relationships and its failures (“Brilliant Disguise” is said to be about his doomed marriage to model Julianne Philips). “Streets of Philadelphia,” the theme song to the movie “Philadelphia,” won him an Oscar award for best song in a film. And 2002’s “The Rising,” an album which was entirely devoted to the September 11 NYC attacks, garnered him a Grammy for Best Rock Album. Other underrated but critically acclaimed albums by Springsteen include 1996’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” an examination of poverty across the American landscape and 2005’s “Devils and Dust,” an album devoted to the story of an American soldier stationed in Iraq. In my mind, Springsteen has been the only consistent artist to have spoken for the working class, the racial, social and economic divide and the “other side” of the American Dream. He has consistently refused offers from big name corporations to use his songs as themes and has tirelessly devoted much of his celebrity status to chosen causes. One of his more recent songs, “American Skin (41 shots),” off 2000’s “Live in New York City” CD was inspired by the death of an African American shot 41 times by a group of New York Police Officers. Though the song was never meant to be anti-police, it caused a controversy, leading to calls from the New York Police Department to ban Springsteen concerts. The song has a repeated chant of “41 shots” and is a haunting masterpiece and tribute to the power and emotion of rock music. So when Springsteen speaks, I listen. I don’t necessarily agree. But he has far more credibility than most politicos I know. President-elect Obama may have made a wise choice in Springsteen as his endorser. However, for Springsteen, it has been the culmination of his life’s work. Now, it is rumored that Springsteen’s latest album will be released on January 20, 2009 to coincide with Obama’s inauguration. For an artist who has so unselfishly given his talents and energy, he deserves this celebration as much as the new President does. Let’s just hope that the Boss does not fade away. As fellow rocker-folkie Neil Young once said, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Young should know: he wrote a song about Obama in 2006.