15 April 2012

The Patriot

I may have to take a break from Facebook at some point this year. Or even from the internet entirely, at least to the extent that such a thing is possible. Slowly but surely, my feed begins to fill up with straw men, canned talking points, and moral vanities. Yes, folks, it’s an election year. With Rick Santorum having finally given up his zombie candidacy, the general election phase of the campaign has now begun, or so we’re told by the pundits, who also promise with barely concealed glee that this will be the nastiest, ugliest campaign ever. Regardless of whom you plan on voting for, you’d have to be as crazy as this guy to actually enjoy this dysfunctional process.

I've come around to the view that most forms of political partisanship fall under the rubric of mental illness. There are few other forces that so effectively distort the thinking of otherwise intelligent people, provoke strife among otherwise agreeable people, and prevent otherwise rational people from seeing what's right in front of their own noses. This phenomenon has gotten markedly worse in recent years. I could write a book about the reasons for this: the rise of 24-hour cable news, the pseudo-anonymity of the internet, the increased ideological coherence of the two major political parties, etc. For many Americans, political identity now trumps national identity, calling into question the very possibility of a social contract. But that’s not the half of it. I would argue that the real issue is not ideological or even cultural (at least in the sense the word is used by political pundits); rather, what we’re seeing is a wholesale rejection of the social itself.

There’s an interesting book review in The New Yorker this week about the rapidly increasing proportion of single-person households in the United States. The piece as a whole is class-bound and not entirely satisfying, but at one point writer Nathan Heller puts his finger on something vital:

Most people who were brought up in the past half century have been taught to live…by their own rules, building the world they want. That belief—[Eric] Klinenberg calls it “the cult of the individual”—may be the closest thing American culture has to a common ideal.

What Heller doesn’t say is that this attitude—an almost unconscious belief in the primacy of individuality over any kind of social or group identity—arises naturally from the ethic of self-interest that’s central to free-market capitalism. But it’s so pervasive in our society that it rears its head in unexpected places as well. While most of the debate about the role of anarchism in Occupy Wall Street has focused on tactics, there are ideological factors to be considered as well. Anarchist ideology is, in important respects, commensurate with that of laissez-faire capitalism in that both valorize the individual as the ultimate authority. (The cult of Ron Paul splits the difference between these schools of thought.) In my more pessimistic moments, I can’t help wonder if young people today haven’t been so thoroughly indoctrinated in the ideology of American individualism that they can’t even imagine a way out.

This atomized, fragmented America is the setting for Bruce Springsteen’s 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball. Inspired in part by OWS, the new album is being billed as Springsteen’s response to the financial crisis and subsequent economic depression, much as 2002’s The Rising, the album that kicked off what Wikipedia calls the “Return to success” phase of Springsteen’s career, was billed as a response to 9/11. Both characterizations are accurate, but the two albums can also be thought of as pieces of a career-long work about the vanishing American community. And while the reach of The Rising occasionally exceeded its grasp, with Bruce struggling to find his footing in a changed cultural landscape after several years away from the studio, Wrecking Ball sounds fully attuned to the realities of this Lesser Depression. It’s his best album in a quarter-century.

Springsteen’s political views have been the subject of much discussion over the years, but they’re really simple enough. He’s an old-school New Deal liberal who writes songs rooted in a blend of economic populism and social conservatism—not the mean-spirited wedge-issue conservatism of today, but rather a broad-based appeal to old-fashioned values of family, faith, and hard work—that’s largely disappeared from American politics today, although not from American life. It’s a liberalism that predates the cultural battles of the 1960s, which have defined the contours of American politics ever since. During his commercial peak of the 1980s, Springsteen was able to make music that appealed to both Republicans and Democrats. The political bent of the songs on albums like Nebraska (1982) and Born in the U.S.A. (1984) was unmistakable yet subtle—occasionally too subtle, as evidenced by Ronald Reagan’s famous misappropriation of “Born in the U.S.A.” for his re-election campaign. Outside of his music, Springsteen largely kept a low political profile, focusing mostly on nonpartisan issues like veterans’ affairs and homelessness. But by 2004, the time had come to choose a side. And so he did, lending his support to the John Kerry campaign and no doubt pissing off some fans in the process. (He would go on to support Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2008.)

Now, at age 62, he’s made the angriest album of his career. Wrecking Ball makes the case for a return to New Deal liberalism with far more passion than we’ve ever seen from Obama. In the wake of the worst financial crisis in 75 years, the workingmen and women who’ve populated Springsteen’s songs for the past 40 years now find themselves broke and unemployed, staring down middle and old age with savings depleted and prospects dim. And they have a pretty good idea about who’s to blame. As one of the album’s characters puts it: “Gambling man rolls the dice, workingman pays the bills/It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill.” Elsewhere we meet a “Jack of All Trades” whose skill set apparently extends to handiness with the steel, hardly the album’s only intimation of violence. “Sing it hard and sing it well/Send the robber barons straight to hell,” shouts another of Springsteen’s working-class heroes on “Death to My Hometown.”

Their anger is rooted in a deep sense of betrayal. The opening “We Take Care of Our Own,” with its rousing chorus “Wherever this flag’s flown/We take care of our own,” scans as a patriotic anthem. But you don’t have to dig too deeply to find the tattered ruins of the social contract, as the lyrics recount how the American government—Bruce’s government, our government—has failed its people over and over again (“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/We yelled ‘help’ but the cavalry stayed home”). The “we” of the song’s title doesn’t extend to the Washington-Wall Street axis that runs the country. We’re on our own. (I read somewhere that Obama included “We Take Care of Our Own” on a campaign playlist, or some such thing, leading me to wonder if he understood the song any better than Reagan did “Born in the U.S.A.” Or if he’d even listened to it at all.)

Springsteen may have grown up on Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan, but the major American artist he resembles most closely is the film director John Ford. Both share a grounding in Catholic values, a taste for Americana culture, and a penchant for sentimentality that occasionally gets the better of them. But more important, Springsteen and Ford share a generous patriotism, one rooted in a communitarian ideal of America. Ford’s greatest films were westerns set in a rugged environment where people had to help each other out to ensure their mutual survival. This is the America of “We Take Care of Our Own,” a place where “nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone,” as Springsteen put it on 2007’s “Long Walk Home.” It’s an ideal defined by the immigrant experience—Ford was the son of Irish parents; Springsteen’s mother is a first-generation Italian American. The 2005 Devils and Dust closed with the moving “Matamoros Banks,” about a man leaving his family behind in Mexico for better prospects across the river. The rollicking “American Land,” one of two bonus tracks on the “deluxe edition” of Wrecking Ball, is more pointed: “The hands that built the country we’re always trying to keep out.”

The melting-pot ethic extends to the music. The previous Springsteen work that Wrecking Ball most resembles is We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a collection of folk covers released in 2006. Like much of that album, several tracks here, notably the mock funeral march of “Death to My Hometown,” reference Irish folk music. Springsteen has never been an experimentalist, and his few previous attempts to stray outside the boundaries of classic rock have mostly fallen flat. But the musical stew of Wrecking Ball complements the classic E Street sound of “We Take Care of Our Own” and the glorious title track with elements of folk, gospel, and even a 16-bar rap, which fits seamlessly into the mix. Traditional rock instrumentation is generously supplemented with violins, banjos, and all manner of horns, among many other instruments.

The ascendant gospel influence marks the full blooming of the religiosity that has crept into Springsteen’s late work. Before becoming the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome” began its life as a gospel song, written by the Methodist minister Charles Tindley. In covering it, Springsteen recalled a day when the intersection of religion and politics in America meant something very different than it does now. Early on, “Shackled and Drawn” evokes the spirit of an old-time revival, with a sampled female voice exhorting, “I want everyone to stand up and be counted tonight!” (Wrecking Ball must contain more samples than the rest of Springsteen’s catalog put together, many taken from Alan Lomax field recordings of the 1940s.) But it’s on the last three songs that the album’s spiritual undercurrents rise to the surface. “Rocky Ground” is an outright gospel song, mixing imagery from testaments old and new:

Forty days and nights of rain washed this land
Jesus said the moneychangers in this temple will not stand
Find your flock, get them to higher ground
The floodwater’s rising, we’re Canaan bound.

Times are hard, but the promised land is still in sight and right will triumph in the end. This sense of Messianic expectation extends into the following song, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which has been kicking around for more than a decade (Springsteen and the E Street Band performed it when I saw them in 1999). Alluding to Curtis Mayfield’s epochal “People Get Ready,” Springsteen sings of the great train headed for the promised land, carrying saints and sinners, whores and gamblers, losers—and even winners. All you gotta do is get on board.

The final track, “We Are Alive,” evokes nothing less than the resurrection of the dead. Riding the riff from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Springsteen recounts his own people’s history of the United States, a roll call of workers, activists, immigrants, and all those who died trying to turn their American dreams into reality:

A voice cried, ‘I was killed in Maryland in 1877
When the railroad workers made their stand.’
‘I was killed in 1963,
One Sunday morning in Birmingham.’
‘I died last year crossing the southern desert,
My children left behind in San Pablo.’
Well they left our bodies here to rot
Oh please let them know

Their bodies may have been left to rot, but their souls will rise. In the last verse, the singer imagines himself among their number, and it’s hard not to think about the late E Streeter Clarence Clemons, the subject of a moving tribute in the album’s liner notes, whose saxophone shows up on two Wrecking Ball tracks. Hope springs eternal, even in the face of death. As the past few years have reminded us, faith and hope are not sufficient to produce social change—but you’re sure not going to get very far without them.

In that spirit, Wrecking Ball’s most crucial track might be the title song. Apparently inspired by the demolition of Giants Stadium in New Jersey, “Wrecking Ball” is a sweeping rock anthem in the style of “Born to Run,” although the song it most reminds me of (and this is going to be a weird reference even for me) is The Cure’s I’m-so-suicidal-I’m-happy “Doing the Unstuck.” Like that song, “Wrecking Ball” invokes the power of creative destruction in a spiritual sense, the necessity of taking a wrecking ball to the hopelessness and negativity that turn good hearts to stone. Like the OWS protesters, Springsteen doesn’t have all the answers, but to complain that emotion trumps political analysis here is to miss the point entirely. “Hold on to your anger,” he repeats, “and don’t fall to your fears.” I can’t think of a political song by Springsteen that’s less rooted in specificity—nor one more in tune with the spirit of the times.