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February 3, 2009

In Bruce We Trust


A well-received new album. Knockout performances, within 11 days of each other, at both the presidential inauguration and the Super Bowl. A Golden Globe-winning song. All just a few months before he turns 60.


Yes, I'd say Bruce Springsteen's on a pretty good run.


Actually, that run began 10 years ago this year when the Boss, who had struggled to maintain relevance as a solo artist throughout the '90s, reunited the E Street band, which had disbanded in 1984, for a long tour. This tour led to a trilogy of studio albums – 2002's The Rising, 2007's Magic and the new Working on a Dream – that stand with the band's best work from the '70s and '80s.


And it was more than great music. The Rising, seven years later, remains the single greatest artistic response to the Sept. 11 attacks in any medium, while Magic channeled the dissatisfaction and hopelessness of the Bush years without coming across as sanctimonious. It's hard to imagine any other current pop or rock act composing a song based on John Kerry's "last to die for a mistake" speech and actually making it work.


But that was nothing compared to Boss's last few months. First, Springsteen performed at a series of outdoor swing-state rallies for Barack Obama, which were both more effective and better-organized than 2004's misbegotten "Vote For Change" tour. When I saw the 2004 version of the tour, I'm guessing 98 percent of the audience was there for Bruce and couldn't have given a hoot about John Kerry. This time, the crowd was just as fired up for Obama as for the Boss.


Then there was the 1-2-3-4 punch of the standout "Working on a Dream" album, Springsteen's memorable performances at both the pre-inauguration concert in Washington and the Super Bowl halftime show in Tampa, and his eponymous song from The Wrestler, which was inexplicably denied an Oscar nomination.


Throughout this all, have you noticed any "Bruce fatigue"? I haven't.


Then there was the fascinating subplot of Super Bowl week, in which Springsteen was confronted, in a New York Times interview, about a recent deal he and the band had reached to sell a new greatest-hits collection exclusively at Wal-Mart. Springsteen's response was to immediately call the deal a mistake and ask his audience's forgiveness. When was the last time a celebrity apologized for his own endorsement deal?


For awhile in the early part of this decade, the involvement of celebrities in liberal political causes became a sort of cause c้l่bre on the right. For some reason, we were supposed to be driven to a sputtering outrage because Rosie O'Donnell or Alec Baldwin or Whoopi Goldberg had made some innocuous anti-Bush comment. It all culminated in the Dixie Chicks weakly insulting the president, leading to organized burnings of their albums.


Times have certainly changed. I haven't noticed any negative effect on Springsteen's album sales brought on by his Obama support, nor has the backing of the new president by actors and musicians been a particularly large part of the right's general anti-Obama narrative (the media is much more the villain there).


Why's that? Perhaps it's because we have a popular new Democratic president, and besides, these days we have much bigger problems to worry about. But when it comes to Springsteen, approaching his fifth decade as a major figure in American popular music, it's hard not to be impressed with what he’s done and will continue to do.


ฉ 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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