Populism is the broadly vague definition of appeal to “the people” in society against powers, notions, and established values which can either amplify or silence conflict. In music, artists sometimes bring forth the current themes into their musical artistry whether that be in lyrics, style, instrumentation, or even appearance. Even though the ideas of populism can be seen as dangerous to unifying society by enhancing tensions, it can play a role in an artist’s music as a hidden voice to make a stand for representation in times of need. One artist in particular has been well-known for successfully expressing populist ideologies throughout the majority of his musical career and that is the “boss” himself, Bruce Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen is one of the most popular musical artists in the United States because of his incorporation of populism throughout the entirety of his career.
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Bruce Springsteen has been composing and performing songs about those in the working class focusing on the “ordinary” that are struggling through life on the hard side of the American dream. These populist ideologies in Springsteen’s music have originated with his upbringings in the tumultuous sixties. Springsteen grew up a Catholic alongside racial riots, the demoralization of the Vietnam War, and the overall collapse of the northeastern industrialism (McDonnell, Village Voice, 137). With these hardships encompassing his early life that affected his community, neighbors, friends, and even family, Springsteen began to sympathize with those who still counted on that American dream that was present in the 1950s (McDonnell, Village Voice, 137). With his spiritual views from being a Catholic combined with the radical era of the 1960s, Springsteen began to write songs with populist views about these times in a more personal stance.
The 1970s continued to see struggle for the working class with divergence profound in terms of age, race, education, class, and even opinions about the Vietnam War (Pratt, Oxford Music Online, 1). As a response to this era, Bruce Springsteen reached a phenomenal breakthrough in 1975 with his hit song “Born to Run” that has rock ‘n roll and American folk influences from the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, and others (Pratt, Oxford Music Online, 1). The song itself has a lot of energy and instrumentation packed into it by utilizing fast vocal singing, driving drums, and interesting changes. Much like Springsteen’s vocals, the sax solo is audacious and brisk with numerous runs and riffs following suit to the theme of being on the “run.” There was a lot of adding and subtracting of the instrumentation as 1975 saw the beginning of a 24 track tape era (SOURCE). On top of the musical elements, the lyrics themselves depict the story of…relating to the culture of the 1970s. Springsteen made a statement with the release of “Born to Run” by incorporating musical elements to convey a pwerful stance to the current hardships. His populist lyrics created a huge following for him that was evident throughout the rest of the 1970s.
In 1984, Bruce Springsteen and released an album entitled Born in the USA, that sold more than twice as much as Born to Run at over seven million copies (NEW YORK TIMES 2). During the time of developing the album, Ronald Reagan was running for re-election and Springsteen believed that his presidency was one of the worst things to happen to the working middle class in years (Dawidoff, New York Times Magazine, 28). Withholding from interference with politics and interviews, Springsteen wrote songs for people to listen to grasp a new perspective by having them put themselves in someone else’s shoes for a moment. In the song “Born in the U.S.A,” the subject describes a Vietnam War veteran who returns home to desperate times and limited options. This is clearly described in the lyrics, “Come back home to the refinery hiring man says son if it was up to me went down to see my V.A. man he said son don’t you understand now.” The musical elements in the beginning with a synthesizer clarion sets the immediate tone for a preview of the powerful, iconic chorus. The percussion sounds as if the drummer was taking a ferocious whack at the snare which resonates with Springsteen’s shouting vocals upon the melody. This loud statement in music can be viewed as a triumphant upbringing, but really the lyrics are conveying the desperation and hope from American citizens who are more deserving than the current times. The rest of the album continues to describe the uncertainty from the working class through powerful melodies and bold sounds. This album created a huge following to Springsteen not only because of the musicality of his songs, but the populist messages he was presenting for the middle class.
Fast forward to 2002, Bruce Springsteen chose to make a new album based on the heartbreaking events that occurred on September 11th, 2001, focusing on the voices of the working class themselves as they recover (Foster, Argumentation and Advocacy, 62). In multiple interviews, Springsteen spoke how the work of this album was first inspired by a fan who shouted at him out of a car window in New Jersey saying, “Hey, Bruce, we need you” (Melnick, Oxford Music Online, 1). This shows that his populist music has spoken to many people and for which he has become an icon and role model in society that people need. The album serves as a memorial of remembrance that takes away the focus of the fear and anger resulting from those devastating events, and emotionally expresses a poetic rebirth to be apparently apolitical (Melnick, Oxford Music Online, 1). He does this by incorporating many blends of musical genres with more of a Phil Spector-like “wall of sound” tone to tell a story while staying true to a typical Springsteen sound. In the album song, “Nothing Man,” Springsteen combines minor keys with simple acoustic guitars and rhythms to add a sense of struggle and tension differing from his characteristic American folk and rock ‘n roll sounds. In “Lonesome Day”, the song conveys a sense of future hope through the repetition of the refrain “It’s alright” and the main riff highlighted from the organ, keyboard, and guitar. Unlike “Lonesome Day,” the soulful “My City in Ruins” takes on a slow melody with mellow lyrics utilizing a choir for a sense of remembrance and allowing for those to grief. Some genres during this time, such as rap took on more rebellious and bolder theme with their music showing off the anger as a result of the events (Gundersen, Academic Search Premier, 1). Bruce Springsteen did something touching by utilizing many styles of music to bring back a stronger society from the events to remember in the ways to bring people together. Critics praised Springsteen for not only an album with great music, but for making a captivating and touching statement to those events and providing a therapeutic populist voice that the United States needed at that time.
Bruce Springsteen’s latest success and populist story comes from his time in New York City on the Great White Way. In 2017, Bruce Springsteen opened a live show on Broadway that encompassed his entire career. In times where current populism is seen as detrimental to the American identity with political tensions at its highest and radical movements becoming more powerful than ever, progressive notions are believed to be separating Americans rather than unifying them. Bruce Springsteen responds to this in his Broadway show saying, “I’ve seen things…on American streets that I thought were resigned to other, uglier times – things I never thought I’d ever see again in my lifetime” sympathizing with the current characterization, but conservatively responding through a storytelling of his career (Meyer, ABA Journal, 1). His show reminded those in attendance that the United States has seen hard times before and rose past those obstacles together.
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Bruce Springsteen is the populist “boss” that society has always needed. His music and lyrics continue to speak when in times of change to provide that silent voice of representation. When asked in a short interview, featured in the New York Times Magazine, how it feels to be a populist singer, Bruce Springsteen responded, “There’s something about that direct connection between what you’re singing and what’s happening. It’s no longer abstract. It steps out from being an idea or an esthetic and becomes physical. That’s an exciting transformation” (SOURCE). Springsteen is the prime example of a musician who successfully incorporated populism into music that was made specifically for “the people.”
- Dawidoff, Nicholas. “The Pop Populist.” New York Times Magazine, 26 Jan. 1997, pp. 27–72. Music Periodicals Database.
- Foster, Lisa. “Populist Argumentation in Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising.” Argumentation and Advocacy, vol. 48, no. 2, 2011, pp. 61–80. MLA International Bibliography.
- Gundersen, Edna. “Springsteen’s ‘Rising’ Strikes the Right Post-9/11 Note.” USA Today, 30 July 2002. Academic Search Premier.
- McDonnell, Evelyn. “The Ghost of Bruce Springsteen.” Village Voice, 15 Dec. 1998, p. 137. Music Periodicals Database.
- Melnick, Jeffrey. “9/11.” Oxford Music Online, 2012.
- Meyer, Philip N. “‘Springsteen on Broadway’ Gives Lawyers 3 Storytelling Lessons.” ABA Journal, no. 9, Sept. 2018, p. 1. Criminal Justice Abstracts.
- Patch, Justin. “Notes on Deconstructing the Populism: Music on the Campaign Trail, 2012 and 2016.” American Music, vol. 34, no. 3, 2016, p. 365. Music Periodicals Database.
- Pratt, Ray. “Vietnam War.” Oxford Music Online, 2013.
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