Vol. 12, No. 1, December 2010

A Little Protest Music

Randy Duane

“Spectacle,” hosted by Elvis Costello, is the best music show on television, for it allows us members of the post-boomer generation to wax nostalgically about the righteousness of our musical heroes with greater accuracy. For a two-episode special this past winter, Springsteen and Costello shared stories about musical influences, their sense of craft, and what it means for an artist to take a stand. This special, alas, was filmed prior to one of the most poignant stands of recent memory, for which Springsteen was in attendance as an honoree. Last December, at the Kennedy Center Honors of 2009, John Mellencamp drew upon the Springsteen oeuvre to remind the well-heeled audience of the political capacity of popular music.
            The accolades for Springsteen’s fellow honorees–Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, opera singer Grace Bumbry, and Robert DeNiro–were predictably upbeat. Springsteen headlined, of course, and Jon Stewart and Ron Kovic offered hilarious and poignant tributes, respectively, then yielded the stage to John Mellencamp.
Under the spotlight, Mellencamp offered not even a wave to the honorees, who shared a box with the President and the First Lady. At a reception earlier that day, President Obama had honored these artists, noting how, “In moments of division or doubt, they compel us to see the common values that we share; the ideals to which we aspire, even if we sometimes fall short. In days of hardship, they renew our hope that brighter days are still ahead.”
            For the first stanza, Mellencamp offered a gravelly and guttural lament, de-familiarizing words the audience largely knew into a thinly veiled accusation. Stripped of their melodic accompaniment, the phrases “dead man’s town” and “like a dog” were clearly Springsteen-esque, but difficult to match to a particular song. After a drawn-out rest, Mellencamp abandoned the amelodic ruse, growling haltingly, “Born / in the USA.”
Mellencamp moved slowly through the second verse, as if he alone were bearing the burden of another war against “the yellowman.” The 1984 release of Born in the USA coincided with the Reagan-approved, US-sponsored terrorism against the government of Nicaragua. At the time, critics lamented Springsteen’s apparently uncritical celebration of American masculinity, likening him to Rambo and Reagan himself. Such artifice fueled Reagan’s audacity and, in 1984, at a New Jersey campaign stop, he said, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen.” Reagan’s handlers played “Born” at rallies, until Springsteen denounced the use of his image and his music by the union-busting populist. Springsteen’s reprimand for Reagan’s camp was also a matter of honor. The largely misunderstood lyrics of “Born” recall the dishonorable treatment of American soldiers, upon their return from Vietnam and, in doing so, recalls–and honors–their sacrifice and privation.
            Following this rebuke, Springsteen resisted overtures for an endorsement for Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate. In subsequent elections, Springsteen treated art and politics discretely, until 2004, when John Kerry, a close friend, secured the Democratic nomination. In a New York Times op-ed piece that August, Springsteen wrote, “for many of us [musical artists] the stakes have risen too high to sit this election out.” Likewise, Mellencamp picked “Born” to honor Springsteen, and to honor the American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
            At the second chorus, Mellencamp growled a capella: “Born / in the USA / I was / born / in the USA.” Springsteen sat quietly, with his lips locked tight. To his left, Michelle Obama leaned forward and, to her left, President Obama leaned back, with his arms crossed, his eyes nearly closed. With a few more measures in pianissimo, Mellencamp twisted the moment taut and full, then allowed the audience some catharsis by freeing the band to take up the next stanza in full, anthemic abandon.
Melissa Etheridge, Ben Harper and Jennifer Nettles, Eddie Vedder, and Sting followed with capable renditions from the Springsteen songbook. None, though, matched Mellencamp in either power or poignancy.
            Only Mellencamp reminded us that the stakes can be high in politics and popular culture, and that Bruce Springsteen had chosen again and again, in his music, to honor the American tradition of protest music, from Leadbelly to Woody Guthrie to–yes–the Dixie Chicks. If the gesture lacked Kanye-esque hauteur, Mellencamp still, in three short minutes, recuperated the song in its ambivalent richness, and reinvigorated the tension of its downcast lyrics and upbeat tempo. Likewise, he coincidentally reclaimed its freewheeling misuse by a former President to remind the current President that it was his responsibility not to repeat the folly of his predecessors. To do otherwise would be to dishonor, once again, our soldiers and our nation.
            In April 2008, Springsteen announced his endorsement of Obama. “He speaks to the America I’ve envisioned in my music for the past 35 years,” Springsteen wrote. “A generous nation with a citizenry willing to tackle nuanced and complex problems … A place where ‘... nobody crowds you, and nobody goes it alone.’” If Reagan was remiss in his effort to imagine himself as a character in a Springsteen song, Obama was now honored by “the Boss” himself, through lyrics from “Long Walk Home.” Obama’s camp acknowledged the gesture by following Obama’s victory speech with Springsteen’s “The Rising.”
            On this night, Springsteen could do little to ease the burden of the President and, with his lips-pursed grin, he even seemed to take delight in Mellencamp’s use of “Born” to discomfit the command-in-chief. Obama, in turn, offered the camera little more than his characteristic pensiveness. In 2009, in words especially, Obama expressed a keen understanding of the contradictory tension between war and peace. In 2010 and after, let us hope his actions, in all their nuance and generosity, will yield a more artful peace at home and abroad.


>>> back to Consumers, Commodities & Consumption, Vol. 12(1) December 2010.