micah holmquist's irregular thoughts and links
Welcome to the musings and notes of a Cadillac, Michigan based writer named Micah Holmquist, who is bothered by his own sarcasm.
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Tuesday, October 15, 2002
some long sentences about Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA,” “My City of Ruins” and people who can’t see things as having more than one quality
"The highlight for me, however," writes Eric Alterman about yesterday's Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band performance in Paris, "was the searing 'Born in the USA,' restored to its rock ‘n roll roots and placed — as far as one could tell — as a warning against war in Iraq. But it also seemed to be a cry of patriotic solidarity with the men and women about to have their lives ended — or at least badly messed up there. Perhaps this is conjecture on my part."
"Born in the USA" is one of my favorite Springsteen songs and probably second only to "American Skin" in terms of his post-River songs but also a song that is sometimes hard for me to like because how is has been misunderstood. Last year, on September 14, I walked into a convenience store in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago and heard it blasting over the speakers. With all the patriotic fervor running through the air at the time, I couldn't help but think, "Its been 17 years and most people still have no idea what this song is about."
And yet at the same time the song seemed strangely perfect for the situation. Most Americans refused to think that 9-11 was anything but an unprovoked attack and left the darkside of U.S. foreign policy out of their minds. They were not looking any deeper than the surface and what they wanted to believe.
Similarly, many people have heard "Born in the USA," wanted to believe it was a patriotic song and thus done so in spite of the lyrics -lyrics that prompted the webmaster of Country Gold USA to write, "this is NOT a patriotic song"-, which decry economic inequality in the United States and American military aggression in Vietnam. These people look at the surface of "Born in the USA" and see what they want to believe.
Whatever the reaction of audiences -Alterman says the French audience dug last night's version-, it is good to see that Springsteen is back rocking out with "Born in the USA." For several years he has usually performed it acoustically as a slow blues, with the point being to prevent the bombast from overshadowing the lyrics. It was a noble effort but made for a less powerful song and I doubt changed many people's minds about the song. Those who want to hear the message will hear its rock version. Those who want it to be a patriotic song will probably cling to that belief as long as they can, just like most of the all too many people who want to believe America can do no wrong in the world -most of whom are Americans but not all, witness Andrew Sullivan recently calling America "the anti-imperialist hegemon" and saying Bush's "current war proposal is, if anything, explicitly anti-imperialist"- will believe that as long as they can.
Springsteen shouldn’t get the blame for how “Born in the USA” has been misconstrued but he does deserve it for the recasting of “My City of Ruins.” Originally the song was ballad about urban decay in Asbury Park and a call for redemption and revitalization. As I’ve previously noted, Springsteen performed it last year on September 21 on a televised concert aiming to raise money for the victims of the terrorist attacks that occurred ten days earlier and let most of the audience believe that the song was not about the internal problems of the U.S. but rather the terrorists attacks.
And on his recent album The Rising, which was largely written in response to 9-11, Springsteen once again allows this happen by placing it as the fifteenth and final track. The version, like the rest of the album, is fine and rather moving, and I don’t want to dispute that music like all works of art can take on different meanings –a good example of this being Dave Douglas’ Witness album which I discussed in “Dave Douglas Live at the HotHouse!”- but I’m uncomfortable with this example because it seems to fall all too closely into what Americans want to believe about themselves.
The fact that many people such as firefighters and other rescue workers reacted heroically to 9-11 is probably second only to ignorance as an explanation for why many people to this day refuse to see the terrorist attacks of that day as a response to anything that the U.S. government has done. Beneath this is a way of looking at the world the refuses to see nuances. The U.S., in my opinion, has more than many positive qualities and wonderful people. It is also my opinion that the U.S. has a brutal foreign policy that is unjust to the core. I see these qualities existing side by side in a manner so easy it is worrisome and yet I feel a great number of people are unable to see two qualities like this existing simultaneously. They want to see the good and not the bad in America and so they latch on to very real examples of the good as way to denying the existence of the bad. This isn’t logic and it certainly isn’t logical but it is very prevalent in the U.S.
Springsteen isn’t responsible for this nor could he put an end to it, but he could challenge his audience and not allow “My City of Ruins” to perpetuate this problem as it does now. By refusing to regularly and consistently tell audiences that the song is about urban decay and not 9-11, Springsteen gives the public one more opportunity to believe that America can do no wrong and that all of its problems stem from outsiders, who of course we need to go to war against.
This is a major blemish on The Rising, which on the whole is an excellent album and easily Springsteen’s best since The River -which is the greatest rock and roll album ever, by the way-, and quite disappointing coming from the writer of “Born in the USA.”