It was 2008, and another term of Republican rule remained a cruel possibility. Then Bruce Springsteen — the year's second-highest-grossing touring act — led a supergroup that included Billy Joel through a hope-inspiring "Born to Run" at a fundraiser in New York City in October. The Boss then introduced "the next president of the United States," and Barack Obama took the stage to a roar of cheers. "I just told Michelle backstage that the reason I'm running for president," said the then-candidate, "is because I can't be Bruce Springsteen."
Rock stars typically make for pretty shitty role models, especially for politicians. And their endorsements usually undermine a candidate's all-important authoritarian image. But after years of deftly supporting pro-proletariat officials, Springsteen positioned himself as a worthy Obama ally.
It's tempting to dismiss Springsteen's endorsement of the president as conveniently populist. But then, you'd be discounting the sly liberal stance the Boss maintained through the Reagan, Bush, and Dubya years.
Springsteen's first true political statement couldn't have come at a less opportune time. On November 4, 1980, Ronald Reagan ran a dirty-tricks campaign and trounced Jimmy Carter. Springsteen performed the next night at Arizona State University and told the crowd, "I don't know what you thought about what happened last night, but I thought it was pretty terrifying." That ostensibly minor statement marked Springsteen's first step down a path of adroit liberalism unmatched by any pop star before or since.
The Boss bravely followed his first number-one album, 1980's The River, with 1982's Nebraska, the most brutally honest and haunting American protest album since Woody Guthrie's 1940 classic, Dust Bowl Ballads. In 1984, Reagan's reelection team tried to use "Born in the U.S.A.," a song about the deplorable treatment of Vietnam vets, as a campaign rallying cry. But Springsteen refused to be the Gipper's boy, although he expressed that with restraint and grace.
"The president was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been," Springsteen told an audience on September 22, according to ace biographer Dave Marsh. "I don't think it was the Nebraska album."
By summer 2004, George W. Bush divided the nation like no president in modern history. Springsteen, in middle age, had become more comfortable in his speechmaking. But instead of pontificating onstage, he voiced his opinion on the New York Times op-ed page with the stirring "Chords for Change" piece published August 5, 2004.
Then, at the 2006 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the first major Crescent City event post-Katrina, Springsteen delivered a rousing performance of musical mastery and raw emotion. "I saw sights I thought I would never see in an American city," he said. "This is what happens when people play political games with people's lives."
Most recently, it's impossible to determine what role — if any — Springsteen played in getting Obama elected last year. But survey the artist's career, which remains as strong as ever as he prepares to play the BankAtlantic Center on Sunday. There's not a single American rock star who has so elegantly championed the working-class ideal of compassion and who has acted in a dignified manner we could only hope for in our elected officials. That's why Reagan wanted the Boss — and Obama smartly received him with open arms.
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