In the end Bruce Springsteen won. On the Mount Rushmore of 1980s stadium-scale stardom, there are musicians more famous (Michael Jackson), more lavishly skilled (Prince) and more adaptable to trends (Madonna). But only one saw where his country and the rich world were going, which is why Born to Run, the memoir he publishes next month and previewed this week, feels — in that coveted accolade of the rock community — “relevant”.
Springsteen’s muse was deindustrialisation and its victims, who turn out to be a force in early 21st century politics. Without them, there is no Donald Trump and no Brexit. The wonder is that he was on to them in the 1970s, a time now fuzzily romanticised as the last proud bow of the working-class before their rout by market forces. Even by 1984, when he wrote of “Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores” — and when President Ronald Reagan misread a hit single about a Vietnam veteran denied work in his home town refinery as chest-beating nativism — wage competition from China had hardly started.
Born to Run will sell to Springsteen’s heaving, fervent fan base and, if they are smart, to politicians trying to understand the flavour and atmospherics of working-class disaffection, not just the employment data that record it. British politicians should be among them. Although Springsteen’s lyrics seldom roam beyond New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other notches on the American rust belt, it is not as if we have our own troubadour of the factory floor to turn to instead.
Britain led the west in losing industry just as it had led the west in gaining it, but few cultural chronicles of that excruciating process do it justice. Too much of it makes saints of the luckless workers, conscripting them to a leftwing creed they have always rejected as dreamy and unpatriotic. This is the music of Billy Bragg and the films of Ken Loach. There is always a hectoringly didactic play about the miners’ strike doing the rounds.
Morrissey came closer but his cynicism allowed for no hope or glamour. It might be our fatal gift for irony. Could British artists sing of a highway “jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive” when they mean the road out of Sunderland?
The book foreword that Springsteen posted online this week shows his enduring knack for dodging both of these traps. It contains no implausible moral giants (“I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud”) and plenty of New World optimism (“don’t . . . quit . . . burning”). Almost all his songs blend an aversion to one’s surroundings with a belief in escape. He loved these communities and hated their stifling monoculture; respected their values and yearned to transcend them. Only Nebraska, maybe the darkest album by a major artist on a major record label, sunk into the abyss, where a laid-off auto worker kills a man and asks to be put to death.
Reagan had it half right. “Born in the USA” was not the credulous hymn to a nation suggested by the chorus but it did imply that material hardship leads to a defiant pride in one’s identity more often than it leads to an interest in socialist doctrine. A British Springsteen would have understood why redundant workers cheered Margaret Thatcher’s defence of the Falklands even as they cursed her neglect of their industries. “Badlands” “Born to Run”, “Thunder Road” — Britain has no answer to these songs and their conflicted sentiments, even though it has more than enough versions of the communities they serenade.
Critics judge how well records have dated by the sound they make. An alternative test is the subjects they touched. He probably fluked his prescience but Springsteen wrote about things that are even more germane now than in their own time. If elections and referendums hinge on towns that rip the bones from your back, this rock memoir may turn out to be the political book of 2016.
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published