Darkness on the Edge of Town: Bruce Springsteen and the white working class

Jan. 18, 2017, 9:44 a.m.

For the two weeks directly following the election, I listened to nothing but Wu-Tang Clan and Bruce Springsteen. Somehow, I’d never listened to “The River” before, and when a friend told me “Nebraska” was the Boss’s best album besides “Born to Run,” I listened to all these albums over and over again, desperately playing one after the other and thinking, thinking, thinking.

I’m still unsure why I went to the Wu amid the climate of shock and confusion on campus — probably something satisfyingly grim and escapist about the near-dystopian kung-fu underworld of  “Enter the Wu-Tang” — but I soon realized I was listening to Bruce for reasons more immediate to our politics.

For all of its nearly 90 minutes of playing time and despite how damn good it feels to listen to, 1980’s “The River” stays pretty clear of political territory, restraining itself to the beer-drinking, highway-driving, tenement-beauty-in-the-passenger-seat fare that made him famous on “Born to Run,” albeit with an occasional dose of Christian imagery (e.g. the album’s title song). Springsteen seems to be more or less content with his world, the world of the blue-collar worker, except on “Point Blank,” where he is dismayed to find an old sweetheart transformed into a prostitute on the streets. Might this be a foreshadowing of a darker, parallel America to the utopian one Springsteen imagined a few years before with his song “Factory,” where workers at the factory “wake up every morning and go to work each day,” living a hard life but a good one?

“Nebraska,” from 1982, is where the dream turns into a nightmare. On “Johnny 99,” Springsteen sings, “Well, they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month / Ralph went out lookin’ for a job but he couldn’t find none. / Came home too drunk from mixing Tanqueray and wine, / He got a gun, shot a night clerk, now they call him Johnny 99.”

In a few lines penned more than a generation ago, Springsteen anticipated what has become one of the standard explanations for November’s stunning propulsion of Donald Trump onto the world stage: Blue-collar worker has good job at factory, loses job, can’t find new job, becomes angry and desperate, acts with violence against an order that seems to blame for his fall from dignity. Ipso facto, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

But who is Ralph, Springsteen’s epitome of the maligned American worker? Why does the hero of this song shoot an innocent man? Ralph gets to defend himself in the song: “Now judge, I got debts no honest man could pay,” he says at his trial. “Now I ain’t saying that makes me an innocent man / But it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand.” Ralph’s mother and girlfriend beg for him to be freed, but Ralph ends his appeal by begging for the death penalty: He’d rather than die than live the way he’s living.

“It was more than all this that put that gun in my hand.” Is that an early critique of the effects of free trade on American manufacturing? Speaking of how some economic force had robbed the American heartland of its dignity, driven it to random violence against the outsider, an action justified by the conviction that death is better than life robbed of factory dignity?

“Union Sundown,” a Bob Dylan song off “Infidels” (his 1983 return to form after a slew of god-awful gospel albums) seems to suggest something similar. “Well, my shoes, they come from Singapore / My flashlight’s from Taiwan,” Dylan sings. “It’s sundown on the union / And what’s made in the U.S.A.” Ironic, then, that the narrative whose final apotheosis resulted in the election of Donald J. Trump, a nominal Republican, had its genesis in the Reagan years, and that some of its first articulators were rock singers.

Springsteen, for me, represents the voter we imagine — correctly or otherwise — to have decided this election. The loyal union man or woman, white, living in the Rust Belt, working (as Bernie Sanders said those few distant months ago) “longer hours for lower wages.” Who has loyally voted Democrat for as long as memory serves. Who feels, as Springsteen feels, that the dream has been lost, betrayed, whose dignity has been lost in an increasingly unfamiliar world. The votes these people reluctantly cast, we might imagine them as actions like the shot Ralph fires into the body of the innocent night clerk: viewed by their perpetrators as justifiable in view of two things. First, their being forced into them by forces greater than themselves. And second, their conviction that anything, even death, is preferable to the status quo.

Of course, Springsteen himself is no Trump fan — although, tellingly, there has been at least one fake news story claiming he had made a statement to the contrary. Springsteen was interviewed in late September in Rolling Stone and dutifully excoriated the Trump campaign and its flirtation with white nationalism. However, nearly in the same breath, he warned “there’s a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years.” If nothing else, this serves as confirmation that Springsteen still sees in 2016 what he saw in 1982.

The Economist, in its post-election article, hailed what it saw as the collapse of an international order that had held since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a consensus that can be most succinctly summed up with the word “globalization.” What listening to vintage Springsteen in the wake of the election taught me was that the malcontents, those trampled under the wheels of economic progress, had already begun to take arms against a sea of troubles before the post-’89 consensus even officially began.


Contact Nick Burns at njburns ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Nick Burns '18 is a history major from Ventura. He writes on rock music, the Greeks, contemporary politics, and literature for several campus publications. He also serves as Prose and Poetry Editor for Leland Quarterly, Stanford's literary review.

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