From Badlands to Better Days: Bruce Springsteen Observes Law and Politics


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From Badlands to Better Days:

Bruce Springsteen Observes Law and Politics
William Haltom and Michael W. McCann
Western Political Science Association

San Francisco


Bruce Springsteen defines himself as a story-teller.1 We agree that Springsteen is as talented a story-teller as rock and roll has produced.2 He has written romances of adolescence and adolescents; lyrical tales of escapes, escapees, and escapists; and elegies on parents and parenthood. The best of Springsteen’s song-stories deftly define characters by their purposes and artfully articulate the artist’s attitude toward his “material.” Not so Springsteen’s songs that concern law or politics. In these songs the artist’s attitude toward his creations is often lost in a flood of seemingly studied ambiguity and the charactors’ purposes are usually murky. Springsteen, in legal and political songs as well as in his other stories, almost always evokes emotion. Until recently, too many of his songs of law or politics have been rock-and-roll Rorschach blots: scenes, acts, and actors without clear purposes and attitudes.

In contrast, Springsteen’s latest collection, The Ghost of Tom Joad, offers reason to believe that Springsteen will be writing more complete political-legal songs. Esthetes who prefer understated lyrics that permit listeners to draw their own lessons may continue to admire the multiple interpretations Springsteen leaves unobstructed in most of his work, while aesthetes who like artists to tie up loose ends will probably celebrate Springsteen’s recent “clarity” of political vision and reduced susceptibility to misunderstanding.


Springsteen’s songs are sufficiently numerous and his themes sufficiently varied that we hesitate to characterize them briefly lest we do so superficially. However, we should be able, through a few examples, to suggest the best sorts of songs this story-teller sings. The essence of Springsteen’s style, we argue, is to introduce familiar, often unsympathetic actors into ordinary, often urban scenes that lead to revelation.3 The actors, acts, and even costumes and props reveal purposes, often purposes implicit in scenes. The interrelations of those scenes, actors, acts, props reveal the artist’s attitudes. The artist’s attitudes  and sometimes twenty thousand or more concert-goers  then transform what we thought we understood into something more that we understand more profoundly.
Elements of Story-Telling
In A Grammar of Motives, literary critic Kenneth Burke suggested that such transformations occur only when artists answer  or cause members of their audiences to answer  customary questions of journalists: What? Who? Where and When? How? and especially Why? Burke then examined how dramatists and novelists created stories in which acts, agents, scenes, agency, and purpose suited each the other and each all of the others in a coherent definition of human motives.”4 He labeled interrelations of these five elements “ratios,” a metaphor that nicely suggests that each element must vary  “dramatistically,” not linearly, monotnically, directly, or inversely  with every other element if stories are to seem internally consistent, socially authentic, and conventionally interpretable.

Burke hypothesized that purposes were most crucial to creating and main­taining esthetically and intellectually pleasing stories. In the best dramas, for ex­ample, the actions that constitute plots grow out of and thus suit the agents. These actions must make sense in context  they must be purposeful behaviors in which “that kind of person” would engage in “that kind of situation.” The means [props, dialogue, and costumes are examples]5 that agents employ must not contradict scenes or the agents’ character lest audiences be confused. Configuring all these dramatic elements into a consistent sequence of action are purposes, the “dramatistic” elements that best foster audience identification with or disassocia­tion from agents.

In Dramatism And Development [1972], Burke made his “pentad” a “hexad” by adding the attitudes of the artist. The attitudes of the artist toward his or her material can transmogrify the other five elements just as certainly as the five elements can alter or complexify the artist’s attitudes. Satiric attitude, for example, can direct the audience’s attention away from prominent, professed relations between acts and purposes [we usually call this “rationalization”] and toward less obvious but more telling purposes that are the ratios [“ul­terior motives”] that the artist introduces to metamorphose acts in ways that audiences but not agents recognize. Incongruities between professed purposes and scenes, agency, and acts intensify audience-members’ awareness of contradictions. If the story-teller introduces purposes of which agents seem unaware, the satiric effect is heightened.

Table One  Terms for Analysis

Journalists’ Questions

Burke’s Terms

Our Terms Below




Act, Action

Deeds, Movement, Change




Protagonist, Antagonists

When and Where?



Temporal, Spatial, Social Settings, Circumstances, or Contexts




Props, Tools, Methods




Motivations, Goals

What’s the angle?



Orientation, Perspective

In the analysis below, we search for Springsteen’s attitudes [which we shall label tone] and his characters’ motivations [hereinafter, purpose(s)] in the stories that Springsteen tells. With Burke, we assume that complete, satisfactory, and revealing stories depend on purpose and tone more than other elements. We argue that Springsteen’s best stories feature the purpose and tone that constitute the highest art. We then show that Springsteen’s few treatments of law and politics tended, until very recently, to understress motivations and mask his own attitudes toward his materials. In concerts this artistic shortcoming matters less, for Springsteen weaves his best narratives before he sings. However, those unacquainted with Bruce Springsteen the performer are unlikely to get much from Bruce Springsteen the album-maker when law and politics furnish the themes. Only in his most recent work on law and politics has Springsteen approached his artistry in story-telling unrelated to law and politics. Let us begin from examples of Bruce Springsteen’s artistry.

Acts, Actors, Purposes, and Attitudes
For originality and rock-and-roll artistry [which we do not regard as an oxymoron], we find it hard to beat “Growing Up,” an example of Springsteen in the first person on his first album.6 Springsteen mocks adolescent contrarian acts with rollicking horse-laughs that make his attitude toward his “material” unmistakable. More, adolescent rebellion is so universal that Springsteen needs only to allude to proclaimed purposes to recall to every listener her or his teen years [or  poor boomers!  his or her children’s current years]. We cite the second stanza, in which Springsteen’s lyrics take off in deliberately mixed nautical and aeronautic metaphors:
The flag of piracy flew from my mast, my sails were set wing to wing

I had a jukebox graduate for first mate, she couldn't sail but she sure could sing,

I pushed B-52 and bombed 'em with the blues with my gear set stubborn on standing

I broke all the rules, strafed my old high school, never once gave though to landing,

I hid in the clouded warmth of the crowd but when they said "Come down.” I threw up,

Ooh . . . growin' up.

This song puts a typical adolescent male actor
through his poses: rebellious acts romanticized by imagination, excess, contradiction of self and others, and other typically teen moments. Underlying purposes receive little explicit attention in this lyric, but the phases of adolescence are so familiar that discussing motives in a psychologically realistic manner would probably add little and subtract much. The contrariness of many teens has so many motivations that are experienced through so many different lenses that story-teller Springsteen probably believed that generic adolescent stunts would call forth their own motives. Thus, discussion of particular motives for common behaviors would add little. More, so myriad are individuals’ expressions of their contrariness and so varied are the cultural elements that teens counter that listing even a few would deny many more autobiographic associations for listeners than it would elicit.

“Jackson Cage,” in contrast, abounds with psychologically realistic purposes that reveal the actors behind seemingly ordinary actions. In this song, Springsteen compares a woman’s life to prison, a common allusion in his song-writing. We take this to betray Bruce’s attitudes toward many working-class women and men. He begins in the third person, goes to the second person, and ends in the first person  a wonderful way to move the story from one woman’s life to myriad lives of quiet desperation. We believe that the purposes of these actors are as unmistakable as they are poignant:

Driving home she grabs something to eat

Turns a corner and drives down her street

Into a row of houses she just melts away

Like the scenery in another man's play

Into a house where the blinds are closed

To keep from seeing things she don't wanna know

She pulls the blinds and looks out on the street

The cool of the night takes the edge off the heat

In the Jackson Cage

Down in the Jackson Cage

You can try with all your might

But you're reminded every night

That you been judged and handed life

Down in the Jackson Cage

Every day ends in wasted motion

Just crossed swords on the killing floor

To settle back is to settle without knowing

The hard edge that you're settling for

Because there's always just one more day

And it's always gonna be that way

Little girl you've been down here so long

I can tell by the way that you move you belong to

The Jackson Cage

Down in Jackson Cage

And it don't matter just what you say

Are you tough enough to play the game they play

Or will you just do your time and fade away

Down into the Jackson Cage?

Baby there's nights when I dream of a better world

But I wake up so downhearted girl

I see you feeling so tired and confused

I wonder what it's worth to me or you

Just waiting to see some sun

Never knowing if that day will ever come

Left alone standing out on the street

Till you become the hand that turns the key down in

Jackson Cage

Down in Jackson Cage

Well darlin' can you understand

The way that they will turn a man

Into a stranger to waste away

Down in the Jackson Cage

We have chosen examples in which Springsteen has made purposes and his own tone unambiguous. When an artist unmistakably furnishes both purpose and tone, the likelihood of an unambiguous moral for each story increases. We do not assume that every story that fails to furnish an unambiguous moral, purposes, and tone is imperfect, except in the etymological sense of the term. Indeed, only by skimping on some elements and their implications can a story have a beginning and reach an end. We assume instead that purposes, before some point of diminishing returns, enrich characters and attract the interest of the audience and that poets who wish to communicate their tone had better adopt some clear stance(s) lest their poems be hostages to interpreters. We also offer the lyrics above as evidence that purpose and tone need not overwhelm other elements or obstruct the audience’s view of those elements. With Burke, we seek perfection of the poem in proper measure, that measure which Burke aptly called ratios.

To be fair, Springsteen often “completes” his lyrics when he supplies underemphasized elements in his preludes to songs in concerts. One particularly poignant such story precedes Springsteen’s song “The River” on the third CD of the 1986 issue of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Live / 1975-85.7 Springsteen tells his audience how his father had Bruce’s hair cut when Bruce was laid up in the hospital, leading the adolescent Bruce to tell his father that Bruce hates him. Bruce’s father says he cannot wait until the Army makes a man of Bruce. Bruce purposely failed the physical for the draft in 1968. When his hated father hears that the Army will not have its chance to make a man of Bruce, his father says, “Good.”

Bruce Springsteen has more than enough art to convey complex purposes and multiple attitudes in his lyrical stories about sons and fathers even without such narrative prefaces. We know of no better example than “Independence Day:”

Well Papa go to bed now it's getting late

Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now

I'll be leaving in the morning from St. Mary's Gate

We wouldn't change this thing even if we could somehow

Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us

There's a darkness in this town that's got us too

But they can't touch me now

And you can't touch me now

They ain't gonna do to me

What I watched them do you

So say goodbye it's Independence Day

It's Independence Day this time

All down the line

Just say goodbye its Independence Day

It's Independence Day this time
Now I don't know what it always was with us

We chose the words, and yeah, we drew the lines

There was just no way this house could hold the two of us

I guess that we were just too much of the same kind

Well say goodbye it's Independence Day

It's Independence Day all boys must run away

So say goodbye it's Independence Day

All men must make their way come Independence Day

Now the rooms are all empty down at Frankie's joint

And the highway she's deserted clear down to Breaker's Point

There's a lot of people leaving town now leaving their friends, their homes

At night they walk that dark and dusty highway all alone

Well Papa go to bed now, it's getting late

Nothing we can say can change anything now

Because there's just different people coming down here now and they see things in

different ways

And soon everything we've known will just be swept away

So say goodbye it's Independence Day

Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say

But won't you just say goodbye it's Independence Day

I swear I never meant to take those things away.

In “Independence Day,” social conventions supply familiar purposes. Springsteen adopts  in order  an overtly rebellious tone, an almost expository tone, and an explicitly apologetic tone. The rebellious tone is clear in “They ain't gonna do to me/ What I watched them do you” at the end of the first stanza, albeit that the son rebels against a scene as much as against the paternal antagonist. We find Springsteen’s hypothesis  “I guess that we were just too much of the same kind”  to be an interesting if prosaic attempt to understand his conflicts with his father. Thus, we “read” the lyrics as moving the protagonist-son from denunciation [of the dark setting or the antagonist-father or both] to explanation and understanding. This shift of tone is completed in the final stanza when understanding dissolves at least some of the resentment and antagonism and yields to a touching apology for a thousand filial sins. Such realization is revelation. While we are hardly blinded by the light of such forgiveness and maturity, it is difficult not to feel the warmth.

Tone, Autobiography, and Working-Class Perspectives

Because the lyrics seem to be written in a sincere first person, the three tones in “Independence Day” very nearly express Springsteen’s autobiographic bent as well. The artist is settling some old business through his story, perhaps using music to tell his own father what Springsteen otherwise cannot convey. As in “Growing Up,” in “Independence Day” Bruce Springsteen creates identification between his own life and the lives of his listeners by citing very common difficulties that persist past the teen years.

Springsteen’s working-class poetry and outsider’s perspective endow his lyrics with a political tone that, ironically, we find far fainter or missing when his songs concern law or politics. Springsteen has observed adolescence, urban flora and fauna, the strictures of family, school, romance, friendship, and parenthood, and chronicled the lives of would-be winners and has-been losers. He has provided running comment on baby boomers’ experiences. That commentary may be seen as political or not depending on the perspective the listener brings to the music.

Springsteen might explain his usual leeriness of broader themes and explicit tones by citing his own modest,8 baby-boomer background:9

I kinda keep to myself. As a writer it’s where you’re from. You know, if you grew up in a slum, you just want it like that. You don’t show, like, that kind of emotion. To show too much was not the thing to do in those days. I sort of keep to myself as far as I can.
Springsteen has offered an explanation that is less about where he came from and more about he has managed to go. This more affirmative self-understanding suggests that Springsteen has concentrated on what has worked in his own life. Rock and roll, fierce individualism, romanticism, and escape have all worked for Springsteen. Neither law nor politics nor thoughts about law or politics have fueled Springsteen’s creative engine:
I looked at Born to Run and the things people were saying about it, that it was just a romantic fantasy and all that, and I thought, “No, this is me. This is my story.” And I really felt good about it. . . . But later, as time went on, I started to look around and see what other stories there were to tell. And that was really when I started to see the lives of my friends and the people I knew, and they weren’t that way at all.
Taken together, Springsteen’s self-examinations yield a tentative explanation for the irony that his tone is more explicit and perhaps even more political when he writes about everyday life but at most implicit and seemingly apolitical when he turns his hands to less mundane, more public themes. Keeping to himself and to what he was confident that he knew and understood, Springsteen could convey his own orientation to characters and stories. Beyond that which he was confident that he understood, Springsteen tended until his latest album to escape into am­biguity. We shall see that Springsteen tends to diffidence about legal or political matters beyond the grasp of a child of the Fifties and Sixties who was born when he discovered rock and roll and got a guitar.

Purposes and tones are, of course, neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for pleasing stories. If songs such as those above were the focus of this paper, we should love to draw attention to tropes and other devices that reveal the “dancing of attitudes” that Burke says is the essence of poetry. We hope that readers unfamiliar with Springsteen’s music have reveled in his poetry from excerpts above. Our analysis is so focused that both the steps of that dancing and the music that the artist and his audience love have been played down. We have undertaken the above only to show the usual qualities of the best story-telling of Bruce Springsteen.


Evocative as Springsteen’s music often is, the artist’s very genius for actors and scenes can work against him as well. Bruce Springsteen brings to his political song-stories a style that disinclines him to stress characters’ purposes and his own attitudes. In some songs, Springsteen stands back from acts, actors, and scenery and lets the listener react or respond without much guidance from Springsteen. While this distant or diffident style may broaden his audience and enhance marketing, leaving listeners to their own conclusions permits Springsteen to be understood in a ways wildly inconsistent with his expressed intentions. Many listeners find Springsteen’s lyrics blowin’ in the wind, whether from political windbags or overwrought groupies.
Springsteen’s Political Style: Evoke and Evade
Springsteen recently characterized his song-writing to an interviewer who asked about The Ghost of Tom Joad:10
I don’t like the soapbox stuff. I don’t believe you can tell people anything. You can show them things. For this particular record, all I knew was that I wanted to write some good stories. . . . I don’t set out to make a point. I set out to create understanding and compassion and present something that feels like the world. I set out to make sure something is revealed at the end of the song, some knowledge gained. That’s when, I figure, I’m doing my job.

We leave undiscussed many of the philosophical issues buried in Springsteen’s analysis of his song-writing habits. Specifically, we choose not to debate whether one can create understanding or compassion without taking a perspective, whether one can present something that feels like the world without telling people anything political, and whether one can be certain that anything gets revealed by the end of the song unless one undertakes to push some values centerstage and other values backstage. For our purposes, it suffices that Springsteen is trying to “let the song speak for itself.” Before we read this interview, we saw in Springsteen’s work indeterminacy, apparently deliberate ambiguity. Many artists choose not to hit audiences over the head with the message. Bruce Springsteen is one of those artists.

More, Springsteen has said that he grew up in a very apolitical household.11 He has prefaced such protest songs as “War” with concert-comments about childhood friends who were going off to Vietnam and knew not where it was. His opposition to the draft concerned survival rather politics or patriotism.12 The most authoritative examination of Springsteen and his music frequently refers to Springsteen’s self-consciousness about the limits of his knowledge about politics and wariness of being used by trendy opportunists and politicians.13

Springsteen is an extremely cautious man, and he’d always been extra careful not to speak out about issues he didn’t fully understand. This was an admirable way to avoid becoming “the new Jane Fonda,” but it sometimes meant he sold himself short. At No Nukes [an anti-nuclear concert, recording, and film], for example, he was the only artist who didn’t make a statement on the issue in the concert program. Rhetorically, this was supposed to mean that he preferred to let his music speak for him, but the unavoidable implication was that he didn’t really feel that he knew what he was talking about (and as the unreleased song, “Roulette,” proved, that just wasn’t true).
Still, even the author of this appraisal was compelled to concede that years later Springsteen’s appreciation of class and poverty remained “profoundly prepolitical.”14 Without explicit ideology, Springsteen was still groping about for what he thought of institutions, structures, and processes. The politics that Springsteen fathomed was profoundly personal politics.

To listeners seeking comment on larger political ideas, Springsteen’s diffidence and embrace of escape makes his lyrics evocative but almost immediately evasive. We believe that New York Times critic Stephen Holden captured the evasiveness of Springsteen’s style, albeit a bit obliquely:15

Springsteen recognizes rock and roll as a product of the working class culture he writes about . . . [T]his hard Saturday night party music for the common people wasn’t invented to help examine the hard realities of life but to find a release [from] those realities. But on Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen uses the music to do both. He has transfused rock and roll and social realism into one another, and the compassion and surging brawn of his music make his very despairing vision of American life into a kind of celebration.

We believe that Mr. Holden has defined an important aspect of Springsteen’s artistry. Few rockers paint pictures of the world as abject as some Springsteen’s “landscapes.” His hard realities are stark and often startling but he almost always releases the listener. At least before The River (1980), Springsteen “was as unfailingly optimistic in his songs as he was in his everyday interpretations of events.”16 “The central tenet of everything Springsteen had ever done was hope.”17 This is true both of albums and of particular songs.

Springsteen’s two darkest “solo”18 albums each end with songs that, if not uplifting, at least promise escape or release from the misery Springsteen has shown his listeners. Nebraska ends with “Reason to Believe,” the last stanza of which may betoken a release through faith and hope.

Congregation gathers down by the riverside

Preacher stands with his bible, groom stands waitin' for his bride

Congregation gone and the sun sets behind a weepin' willow tree

Groom stands alone and watches the river rush on so effortlessly

Wonderin' where can his baby be

Still at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe

Springsteen tells us why The Ghost of Tom Joad ends with three deliberate changes of pace:19
I got to the end of the record, and there had been a lot of mayhem [in the songs]. I wanted to leave the door open, so I wrote “Across the Border.” That song is a beautiful dream. It’s the kind of dream you would have before you fall asleep, where you live in a world where beauty is still possible. And in that possibility of beauty there is hope.

Then I had the idea of writing a song [“Galveston Bay”] about the Vietnamese and the Texas fishermen, about a guy who makes a particular decision not to add to the brutality and violence. . . . He decides to let it pass on this night, to leave it alone, for whatever the reason. That’s a miracle that can happen, that does happen. People get to a certain brink, and they make a good choice, instead of a deadly choice.

Perhaps the most interesting “uptick” is the last song on The Ghost of Tom Joad. “My Best Was Never Good Enough” deftly answers the mindless, escapist optimism of Forrest Gump even as it signals listeners that the artist suspects that this album and the artist’s portraits will satisfy neither his corporate marketers nor his usual fans:

"If God gives you nothin’ but lemons then you make some lemonade

The early bird catches the fuckin’ worm, Rome wasn’t built in a day

Now life’s like a box of chocolates

You never know what you’re going to get

Stupid is as stupid does" and all the rest of that shit

Come on pretty baby call my bluff

‘Cause for you my best was never good enough

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