Nobody was less hip in the ’80s than Bruce Springsteen. Coming off a decade when punks and new wavers made the 45-minute, one-encore concert chic, Springsteen’s were the longest, sweatiest and dancingest on the planet. They were also mostly drug free. At a Springsteen concert, you didn’t need good reefer, you needed good Reeboks.
Springsteen made more loot than 10 arbitragers with inside info, but aside from the silver tips on his cowboy boots, he never got the hang of flaunting it.
He didn’t understand about hits, either. Everybody from Michael Jackson to Phil Collins could tell you that if you write a hit on Tuesday, you can have it selling Pepsis or Michelobs by Friday. Springsteen never sold a song to Madison Avenue, cold-shouldering a reported $12 million offer from Chrysler. He was typically square about concert-ticket prices, too, charging half of what Michael was getting. He even had to be dragged into our MTVs. He didn’t get serious about video until 1982, and that one, Atlantic City, didn’t even show his face.
His Bossness never got behind androgyny cool, either. He never had even one face-lift, never appeared onstage in purple briefs, never called himself Boy Bruce. Springsteen was hopelessly hetero, with biceps men itched for and buns women pinched for.
And when he tried to be cool—marry a model, like Jagger or Joel—he messed that up, too, and eventually just went with the girl in the band. Springsteen was terminally Jersey. Not a drop of Hollywood in him.
But in a decade obsessed with the bottom line, Bruce delivered. He lit the fire under cause rock, singing in support of everything from canned foods to canned vets. He passionately wrapped ’60s rock and rebellion around ’80s dance and romance, and as he did so, he grew up before our eyes (he turned 40 last month). In that sense, he reflected his times. He came into the decade strapped to a motorcycle and left in a limo. He came in scruffy, left buffed, like a lot of us.
Through it all, he wrote what he felt, beginning the ’80s with The River, a musical freeway of trapped lives deciding whether to get off at Hurt and Fear or keep going toward Love and Redemption. He followed that with the powerful acoustic experiment Nebraska, his one-man garage-tape inkblot of the Great Disattached.
But it was the 1984 album Born in the U.S.A., released at the height of the Vietnam catharsis and just before the red-white-and-bluest Olympics ever, that made him both a megastar and politically impotent.
So big was the Boss’s bang that year that nobody heard him. Born in the U.S.A., about a Vietnam vet whose life had been ruined by the war and about his guilt at resenting his country—”Had a brother at Khe Sanh fighting off the Vietcong/ They’re still there he’s all gone”—was woefully misconstrued. It became a patriotic, feel-good anthem. Fans waved American flags at concerts and belted out lyrics they never understood. Talk about dancing in the dark.
Even Reagan claimed Springsteen for his own. And why not? This was Reagan’s America, home of the eight-second sound bite, where you never read past the first paragraph. Hard as Springsteen tried to undo himself from Reagan’s “It’s morning in America again” campaign (listen to his five-disc live set), America was not to be dissuaded. The nation was hungry to feel good about itself.
In the next two years, Madison Avenue put a Boss gloss on hot cars and cool brews, sometimes in front of the same giant American flag drop Springsteen used in concert. If he had sung about animal rights, we’d be up to our ears now in chinchilla boas.
Maybe it was inevitable. Springsteen spent the decade belting out blue-collar angst to mostly clean-cut college-going and college-been audiences, whose only tie to blue anything was the color of their Calvins. “This whole world is out there/ Just trying to score,” he wrote in “Cover Me,” 1984. “I’ve seen enough/ I don’t want to see any more.” You could hear the song any day at the stoplight, blaring from the dash of a Bimmer driven by a Polo-suited broker getting psyched for the big deal.
Bruce Springsteen’s curse in the ’80s was that he wrote sad songs that somehow made people feel good, dark anthems so stirring the pain just had to wait. But his music could also give you the strength to face the pain. And we needed that. Because what he had to say we couldn’t have taken any other way.