The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Paradox: Bruce Springsteen and Sincerity

Sandra Canosa


The “best song ever written about the promise of America,” according to Bruce Springsteen, a man best known for writing songs about the promises of America, is Woody Guthrie’s seminal “This Land Is Your Land.” The song, as he explains it before performing it himself at many of his live shows, contains “a promise that’s eroding every day for a lot of people.”

To anyone familiar with all of the original verses of the song, Springsteen’s maxim may seem a bit odd. Though it’s been rendered something of a second national anthem today, taught to schoolchildren all across the country with a warm sense of pride and glow in the imagery of golden valleys and endless highways, there’s no mistaking the subtle sedition in the section, usually omitted now, that goes:

                In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
                By the relief office I seen my people;
                As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
                Is this land made for you and me?

But Springsteen is of course no schoolchild, and no stranger to the tradition of the protest song. He openly idolizes Guthrie, and in the early days of his career was often billed as “The New Bob Dylan.” His rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” contains all the original verses, and it’s slow, grisly, and obviously pained. He knows it’s no patriotic celebration song. So what kind of promises are we talking about here? Surely it’s not the promise of a long and well-populated line for the government dole.

The message of “This Land Is Your Land” rests in the land itself. It’s the paradox set between the plenty of the land, the forests and streams of America, and the dearth and destitution of the people that makes Guthrie’s social commentary so biting. And this, I think, is actually what Springsteen has in mind when he talks about promises: promises gone unfulfilled, promises broken. In the Land of Opportunity, the Land of the Free, there is no irony more bitter than the denial of those possibilities when you’re surrounded by the land itself.

It’s no coincidence that Springsteen’s own work revels in these same themes, and, in turn, no surprise that his messages often get misconstrued in the same way that Guthrie’s have. If “This Land Is Your Land” is the most ill-understood and misappropriated song in modern popular music, then Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” probably comes in at a close second.

When the song came out with its same-titled album in 1984, it was an instant hit among a rather diverse crowd. Though the lyrics detail the post-war struggles of a Vietnam vet, most of us can’t help but pump our fists to that famous throbbing chorus. Ronald Reagan notoriously tried to co-opt the song for his re-election campaign the year of its release, and conservative columnist George Will wrote, in a nationally syndicated piece entitled “Yankee Doodle Springsteen,” his own take on what the song really meant: “I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any,” he said, “but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’”

While most liberal Springsteen apologists would laugh at Will’s interpretation, the thing is: he’s not wrong. Everything he says about Springsteen’s concert and performance style is objectively true. Again, it’s about promises – the promises that are supposed to be inherent in our birthright as Americans to life, liberty, etc., etc. So while some might call the “Born in the USA” refrain an ironic juxtaposition, others see it, just as accurately, as a reaffirmation of the possibilities of those promises. They may not be here now, but they’re surely on their way. Springsteen’s meaning, perhaps, depends on whether you believe such promises were ever real in the first place.



Part of the trouble in picking apart Bruce’s “true” intentions with a song like this is that he operates with extreme sincerity in an age that’s dripping with irony itself. As a born blue-collar, Springsteen not only tells us what he knows about growing up with big dreams in a small working-class town through his lyrics, but shows us: his jeans and bandanas are the outfit of a manual laborer; his muscles are the result of his exertion. His focus on community and togetherness is reflected in his relationship with his band, egalitarian as they bow together at the end of a concert (even if Bruce is, ultimately, “the Boss”). This is how he deploys sincerity: he takes great pains to show us, to perform to us, that he is precisely who he claims to be in his songs.

What does it mean, then, when someone who claims to be sincere deliberately employs irony? Irony is typically the direct expression of the opposite of what one means, or an inverse of what is said and what is seen. It has to always be contextual: our understanding of irony depends on our assumptions about the speaker. But with pop stars, all we really have to go on is their public persona: it’s much easier to imagine Madonna singing provocatively about being a virgin, for example, than it is to imagine Bruce Springsteen, poster boy of heartland rock, sneering at America the Beautiful.

If we’re supposed to believe that “Born in the U.S.A.” is intentionally ironic, what does that do to our understanding of the rest of Bruce’s songs? “The Promised Land,” from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, for example, deals with very similar themes to “Born in the U.S.A.”, with a worker hard on his luck who nevertheless believes that one day things will get better, that there is a “promised land” to be had. Same story, different meanings: Can one be ironic, and the other sincere? How are we supposed to tell the difference?

The supposed irony of “Born in the U.S.A.” isn’t just in the song, though; it’s also in the visual presentation. A giant American flag typically presides over its performance, and the stripes feature prominently on the album’s cover. If the song’s lyrics are ironic, and it’s pitted against an ironic visual image, does that make it double-ironic – or do two ironies cancel each other out? What about the irony of the song’s melody and rhythm itself – pulsating, driving: is this supposed to support or thwart meaning – and which ones?



It doesn’t help that, on top of all these complexities, the 1980s are a decidedly ironic era in itself. Thanks in generous part to MTV, contemporary popular music at the time tends to be highly fixated on the fabrication of celebrity, the construction of stardom, and the hypervisuality of performance. Compare Born in the U.S.A. with two of the other best-selling albums of 1984: Prince’s Purple Rain, which doubled as the soundtrack to his feature-length film, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which of course had a monumental music video of its own. Springsteen seems more like he should be an anachronism in this space than a relevant pop star.

But ultimately, the utter sincerity that makes him appear old-fashioned is simultaneously what makes him so postmodern. Sincerity is, by its very definition, a performance: an outward rendering of a supposed inner self. And that’s just what postmodern MTV culture thrived on: destroying the notion that there is – or ever can be – a “true self,” by performing in all kinds of ways. With his own brand of irony, then, Bruce fits right in with the Madonnas, Princes, and MJs of the decade: we can interpret him any way we want. We can make him in our own image. There might be a joke here somewhere, but, as he sings on “Dancing in the Dark,” “the laugh’s on me.”


Author Bio:

Sandra Canosa is Highbrow Magazine’s chief music critic.

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Clearly, Ms. Canosa (like Mr. Will) Knows little about the subject of her article. But first,et me disgress.

Ms. Canosa somehow confuses sincerity with irony. "Sincerity" is a quality or characteristic. "Irony" is simply a method of expression. Sorry author, but the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Springsteen fans of either politcal stripe will laugh at this article as well as Will's piece. The overriding theme in the Boss's music is that America (and its people) is a country with unlimited potential and promise that also has huge flaws and failures. Look, if you're really the "chief music critic", you need to sample more than a few songs. Otherwise, maybe you should become the food critic, so you can get by tasing only a few dishes.


It's an interesting argument here, and one that Sandra has obviously put a lot of thought into. But I think they key to it all comes late in her piece, when she introduces the element of time into the mix. The Springsteen of the "Born in the USA" era was the exception to how he has typically expressed himself. He was under pressure to step up and inherit the mantle of being the biggest rock star in the world by those around him, so it's fair to expect as a result the introduction of irony into his message at the time. The album version of "Born in the USA" was bombastic, which put it at odds with the story told by the words (and confused the George Wills and Ronald Reagans of the world). The irony originated with Bruce being asked to be who he really wasn't. Subsequent performances of the song in concert by Bruce have been stark and blues-tinged, showing his real feelings about what the song means. "Born in the USA" was the exception to a career where songs like "The Promised Land" reflected his true voice. He's a straightforward kind of guy who believes in America's promise but simultaneously recognizes how that promise has failed so many people. It's in the space between those two phrases where you find Bruce's true, unadulterated heart.


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