How 'The Boss' can explain modern America

Bruce Springsteen has produced the perfect soundtrack to the Obama 2012 campaign.

Banks of televisions greet air passengers entering the USA as they queue for passport control. From the wall above the perspex cocoons housing border agents, the monitors broadcast a visual paean to the country beyond. Clouds gush under the Golden Gate Bridge, the sun rises above the Washington Monument, a kaleidoscope of apple pies, soaring mountains and white picket fences entrances the jetlagged traveller. Cheery denizens of every colour and creed bid him welcome. It is morning in America.

Not far off, perhaps behind the queues, or in the baggage hall beyond, further monitors are tuned to CNN, or Fox News, or CNBC. Here the story is different. From their televisual pulpits, America's influentials betray the country's self-doubts and internal conflicts. Manichean social and political disunity, the rise of China and the ongoing reverberations of the financial crisis trigger angry clashes over the state of the nation. Commentators ask: in an uncertain and changing world, does the USA take care of her own?

Bruce Springsteen deploys the opening track of his new album Wrecking Ball to address this question. The result is a richly reverberant anthem entitled We Take Care Of Our Own, one that speaks to that very American dichotomy flickering across those airport screens. And for non-Americans puzzled at the bombast of the Presidential election, it provides some superb insights into the anger and energy fuelling Barack Obama's re-election campaign.

The song is pure Americana - and pure protest. Drums thump, voices whoop, a siren wails; all is subsumed into an urgent industrial throb. Fiddles and glockenspiel hint at the perky, patriotic optimism of a marching band. Springsteen, however, is has more frets than his trusty Fender. A dispirited itinerant roaming a barren moral landscape, he reports that: "The road of good intentions is dry as a bone."

Most angrily he decries the abandonment he sees around him: "From the shotgun shack to the Superdome / There ain't no help, the cavalry stayed home." He fills the final verse with questions, quasi-Biblical in their synecdoche: where is salvation - "the eyes with the will to see", "the hearts that have not forsaken me", "the work that will set my hands free" - that will rescue the wanderer from his predicament?

But he is not alone. The stamp of feet on the march punctuates his laments; the nation of which he seems to despair is restless. The American ideal remains unfulfilled; the pledge "We take care of our own / Wherever this flag is flown", repeated in each chorus, does not yet hold true. Note the reference to Katrina's victims, crammed into the New Orleans Superdome without succour. Springsteen's patriotism is, however, undiminished: his search for "the promise" continues.

Layered with dark irony, the song manages to be both satirical and earnest. Typically of the heartland genre (especially such previous Springsteen hits as Born in the U.S.A., No Surrender and Working on a Dream) it juxtaposes the unquestioning optimism of a patriotic refrain with the inadequacy of the reality. Indeed, the very words "we take care of our own" simultaneously nod at an inclusive 'national interest' and at fragmented, factional interests.

The genius of We Take Care Of Our Own is in this seamless segue from verses deploring the plight of the forgotten and the destitute to a chorus that both parodies naïve flag-wave-ery and expresses sincere belief in the possibility of renewal. Finishing not at a dead end but at a series of questions, the song exhorts the USA to rise to its own rhetoric. In doing so it joins a long tradition, lyrical and literary, that explores an ambiguity in the country's identity arising, perhaps, from the world's most famous oxymoron: "We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union..."

In particular, Springsteen voices that conceptual fusion of work, political action and salvation that typifies a country in which Max Weber's 'Protestant [work] ethic' reigns supreme. In essence, this is a song about striving; with each question, each denunciation of the gap between what is and what should be, Springsteen hails the redemptive toil - "the work that will set my hands free" - required to close that gap. One is reminded of Leonard Cohen's Democracy "It's coming to America first, / the cradle of the best and of the worst. / It's here they got the range / and the machinery for change / and it's here they got the spiritual thirst."

It is no wonder, then, that We Take Care Of Our Own features on the official soundtrack of Barack Obama's re-election bid. The campaign too is all about striving to close the gap; these days few speeches by the President are complete without the phrase: "we have more work to do". It was back in 2008 that the then-Senator Obama stated: "This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected." To paraphrase Woodrow Wilson's quip about the American Revolution, his subsequent election victory "was a beginning, not a consummation" of the next phase of that process.

Four years on, unemployment is falling, but the scars of the financial crisis run deep. The troops have returned from Iraq, but Iran's nuclear programme threatens further conflict. Bin Laden is dead, but the nation now finds its preeminence challenged by a rising Asian superpower. Progress has been made on healthcare, but rising living costs, social immobility and a looming foreclosure crisis all threaten to put the American Dream yet further from the reach of the average American worker.

The song deftly exposes the tension between this tough reality and the shibboleths, those incantations of faith in a national ideal that permeate American life and, especially, the Obama 2012 campaign. But more than that, it encapsulates the energy that this tension generates; the urgency with which activists take to the streets, the zeal with which pundits attack and defend the President on the nightly discussion shows, the evangelical sense of mission that infuses rallies, debates and conventions.

So in preparation for the impending barrage of Obama 2012 news coverage, and the campaign's likely victory in November, the curious observer would be well advised to ponder that dual identity evident to the air traveller within minutes of arriving in the USA: the 'shining city on a hill' is at once an ideal achieved and an aspiration ever to be striven for. My advice: download We Take Care Of Our Own today and let The Boss explain.

Jeremy Cliffe is a Labour activist and was the 2010-11 Michael von Clemm Fellow at Harvard University.

He tweets as @jeremycliffe

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt