Politico

Democrats, Break Up With Bruce Springsteen


Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen’s new Spotify podcast “Renegades: Born in the U.S.A.” launched in late February with promises of intimate conversations that would probe and possibly bridge deep divisions in America, represented, supposedly, by these two men from two different Americas. The podcast is the latest project in the post-White House career of the Obamas, who have produced well-reviewed documentaries, podcasts and books—if not the kind of muscular political activism that some supporters had hoped the Donald Trump era and a summer of mass protest would call for. The New York Times called the podcast a “searching, high-minded discussion of life in the United States from two masters of the form.” The Financial Times was quickly taken with the first few episodes of the eight-part series: “It all gets very deep very quickly,” its reviewers wrote.

Despite such promises, I was less than surprised to find the first few episodes of the eight-part series a genially pointless affair, the 44th president and the Boss speaking in chin-stroking tones about their lives and legacies while gauzily reflecting on the meaning of America. Early in the show’s first episode Obama remarks that “on the surface, Bruce and I don’t have a lot in common,” a sentiment that pops up repeatedly and soon began to wear on me. Both men are enormously accomplished and revered by billions of people the world over, to say nothing of being extraordinarily wealthy. Obama and Springsteen have more in common with each other than they do with the vast majority of other people in the world. In fact, this podcast itself is predicated on the premise that listening to meandering conversations between these two men is something that a sizable population of Americans—Democrats, specifically—would naturally want to do.

As someone who writes about music for a living and is both a Springsteen agnostic and a reliable (if at times reluctant) Democratic voter, I’m fascinated by the party’s longstanding love affair with the Boss. And it’s often been reciprocal: Springsteen has endorsed every Democratic presidential candidate since 2004 and has been affiliated with liberal politics for far longer, going at least as far back as his storied repudiations of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. At this point Springsteen and the liberal establishment’s mutual affinity feels completely intuitive, although it also feels like an early, analog model for an entanglement of political thinking and popular culture that has come to pollute Democratic politics in the 21st century.

Recent years have seen a growing penchant among online liberals for reworking the materials of pop culture into the shallowest sort of political commentary. Anyone who’s been on liberal-leaning corners of the internet over the past five years has seen Hillary Clinton imagined as Daenerys Targaryen, Donald Trump as Lord Voldemort, and Joe Biden as Captain America, to name just a few examples. Reworking pop-cultural figures into mascots for certain political values certainly isn’t a new phenomenon, but social media has made it a considerably more prevalent and embarrassing one.

These sorts of political expressions are an inevitable result of a time when most of pop culture is thought to belong to Democrats. You rarely see, for instance, rock bands telling Democrats to stop using the music at their rallies. But even Nickelback, a longtime critical punching bag who isn’t even American, told Trump in 2019 to stop using its material on Twitter. The vaguely liberal messaging of brands like the Marvel Cinematic Universe means that it’s only inevitable that their superheroes become liberal superheroes in the Twitter imagination. Alec Baldwin smugly wielding a hand-written “you’re welcome” sign on the first post-election SNL was a cringe-inducing gesture, but it tells us something about the show’s position in the liberal cultural-political firmament that Baldwin thought it an appropriate one.

Most people don’t usually think of Springsteen as part of these crasser conflations of politics, pop culture and celebrity worship, because they think there is a bit more political or ideological substance behind their fandom of a performer who claims working-class roots and emphasizes them in his lyrics and aesthetic. This perceived difference, though, attests in part to Springsteen’s gifts as a performer. One of the most enduring achievements of Springsteen’s career has been his ability to cultivate a powerful sense of authenticity in the minds of his admirers. He’s everything that rock fans want rock stars to be: a hard-working, self-made man of the people whose music provides an escape to a more vivid and better world. Springsteen has also made ungodly amounts of money, of course, but this isn’t why he does it, we tell ourselves—the money is simply a happy byproduct. This logic isn’t the easiest thing to hold together, and very nearly fell apart during the Super Bowl, when viewers were treated to a Jeep commercial featuring Springsteen and windy slogans about American unity.

During the Obama years Springsteen’s unassailable realness became a renewed fixation of America’s most venerable liberal journalists, some of whom even directly credited the Boss with Obama’s second-term victory. These ways of thinking about Springsteen are what allow the logic of a project like “Renegades” to cohere, and what allow for the tacit and utterly absurd belief that Bruce Springsteen is more like Barack Obama than he is, say, Katy Perry, another successful popular musician who donates her time and talents to the Democratic Party.

This isn’t to suggest that Springsteen is a phony; rather, it’s evidence that he’s good at his job. Musical authenticity is a product of performance, even if it’s often filtered through ideological biases. And of course, there are strong tinges of desire in Democrats’ Springsteen obsession as well. The characters that Springsteen sings about—everymen figures who are often implicitly or explicitly working-class, exurban, and white—are the exact demographic that, for the past 40 years at least, Democrats have grown most fearful of losing. Springsteen’s music offers a way back into a mythic America that’s easier and more comforting, an unruly but fundamentally good-hearted country united by rock and roll.

In these ways Springsteen is an antecedent to another current fixation of liberal celebrity worship, Dolly Parton. Recent years have seen a vocal contingent of left-leaning Parton fans elevate the famously apolitical country star into a saintly progressive icon. Like Springsteen, Parton is a beloved entertainer who’s exceptionally famous and well-off, an odd totem to build a politics around; like Springsteen, she also provides an imaginative connection to a population of people—in Parton’s case, white, rural Southerners—whom Democrats fear don’t like them.

There are a lot of good reasons not to conflate fandom with political action, and for political movements not to treat pop-cultural icons and institutions as being their allies. For starters, it cheapens our relationship to both: We should have a clearer sense of our politicians’ persons and policies than comparing them to the Avengers, superheroes here to knock down our enemies, or delighting at which rock stars they’re friends with, and there are certainly more thoughtful ways to engage with Springsteen’s music than treating him like some sweaty, guitar-wielding statesman.

It also risks reducing politics itself to fan worship, a troubling prospect for democracy. In a famous essay written in the mid-1930s, the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin extolled the liberatory possibilities of mass culture while also warning of its potentially nefarious uses in the political realm, arguing that a medium like film’s ability to turn politicians into aesthetic objects for mass consumption made it a powerful vehicle for fascism. Ironically, in 2008 it was Obama himself whom Republicans attacked as being an empty celebrity as opposed to a serious politician. Then, of course, in 2016, the Republican Party began its still ongoing love affair with Donald Trump, one of the purest embodiments of celebrity culture in American history.

The fundamental goal of politics should be to make people’s lives better. In its best instances popular culture makes our lives better as well, but to imagine that as being its fundamental goal is deeply naïve. Pop culture’s fundamental goal is to make money and sell itself to us. When corporations like Disney and Netflix try to present themselves as progressive or humanitarian, these are PR campaigns. The idea that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an ideologically righteous bastion of progressive ideals is exactly what Marvel Studios wants its progressive viewers to believe.

Like many podcasts, “Renegades” has advertisers—Dollar Shave Club and Comcast, in the episodes I’ve heard. I recently joked to a friend that it’s a shame that Bruce and Barack don’t do their own ad-reads, because it’d be funny to hear Barack Obama tell folksy anecdotes about shaving, or to listen to the guy who sang this sing the virtues of a cable provider. But the more I think about it I really wish they did, because at least one of these guys is making real money off this thing—“Renegades” is produced by Higher Ground Productions, the Obamas’ media company. And that’s fine, just as its fine if lots of Democrats want to listen to it. I just hope they keep in mind that building America back better will take a lot more than listening to a couple of guys sell razors.

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