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

NICHOLAS KAMM / Staff
Show Hide image

Blow-dried and supplicant, Ivanka shows the limits of the power women are allowed in Trumpworld

A new book by the US President’s daughter has surpisingly strong echoes of medieval royalty.

Exactly 500 years ago this month, the apprentices of London rose up, ­angry with Flemish immigrants and the bankers of Lombard Street. The race riot was quelled only when a couple of dukes sent in their private armies. Hundreds of looters were arrested and some were hanged, drawn and quartered. But some rioters were as young as 13 and the city’s residents felt sorry for them.

Henry VIII wanted to look magnanimous, but not weak. And so, at the trial in Westminster Hall on 7 May, ­Cardinal Wolsey first asked for mercy on the youngsters’ behalf. He was refused.

And then three women came forward: Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, and his sisters Mary and Margaret, the widowed queens of France and Scotland. Faced with three women on their knees, the king relented. “It was a scene straight from the pages of chivalry,” writes Sarah Gristwood in her history of Renaissance women and power, Game of Queens. “An intercessory function, of course, had been traditional for queens, from the biblical Esther and Bathsheba to the Virgin Mary.”

Whenever contemporary politics gets too depressing, I take refuge in history. I always hope I will gain some perspective from people whose problems are very different from my own. Yes, climate change is terrifying; but at least I don’t have scrofula! Yet modern life has a way of creeping back. Late-medieval Europe was full of resentment for “aliens”, for example, who were felt to be prospering at the expense of native populations, even if those tensions were often expressed in religious rather than nationalist terms. It was Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, who expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find such strong echoes of medieval royalty in Ivanka Trump’s new book, Women Who Work. I won’t waste your time by attempting to review this seminal tome, especially as it’s largely constructed out of bits of other self-help books. The advice boils down to: be “multi-dimensional”; don’t be afraid to use “architect” as a verb; feel free to turn down Anna Wintour, when she offers you a job at Vogue straight out of university, because your true passion is real estate. If it’s a busy time at work, as it was for Ivanka on the campaign trail, go into “survival mode”. (“Honestly,” she writes, “I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”) Something for everyone.

Still, Women Who Work gave me the chance to contemplate the point of Ivanka Trump. I’ve seen her far more than I have heard her, which is no surprise, as her role in the administration is largely symbolic. What is Ivanka if not a Renaissance queen, tearfully pleading with her lord to show mercy? She is, we are told, his conscience. When his daughter’s clothing line was dropped by the US retailer Nordstrom in February, Trump tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Two months later, her name was invoked again. The First Daughter was distraught – “heartbroken and outraged”, she tweeted – at the sight of Syrian children gassed by the Assad regime. This prompted her father to bomb an airbase to atone for the slaughter of what his statement referred to as “beautiful babies”. “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence,” her brother Eric told the Telegraph. “I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’”

This is the power that women are granted in Trumpworld: softening, humanising, empathetic. Their tears moisten the oak-like carapace of great leaders, showing them that sometimes it’s OK to be kind – but obviously not too kind, because that’s a bit soppy and girly and gay. Women are naturally prone to emotion, of course, unlike sturdy, ­rational men, who get so cross about the way TV news is reporting their firing of the FBI director that they start sending unhinged tweets implying they have incriminating “tapes” of White House conversations.

In this structure, however, the limits of women’s power are sharply circumscribed. The tears of both Ivanka and Catherine of Aragon only provided cover for something that their lord and master wanted to do anyway. (As New York magazine urged acidly on 13 April, “Someone Please Show Ivanka Pictures of Starving Yemeni Children”.) Ivanka’s whole book is designed to render female power unthreatening by making it “feminine”; merely a complement to male power instead of a challenge to it.

To reassure us that she isn’t some frumpy bluestocking, Ivanka has crafted an image of expensive, time-consuming perfection: perfect white teeth, perfect blow-dried hair, perfectly toned body. Her make-up, clothes and home are all styled in unobtrusive neutrals. Together it says: let me in the room and I promise not to be a nuisance or take up too much space, even on the colour wheel. It’s noticeable that no woman in Trump’s orbit has “let herself go”, even though his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has the complexion of a body that’s been found after two weeks in the water. I somehow doubt he ever makes “time for self-care”.

And don’t come at me with all that garbage about a nice frock and a manicure being “empowering”. Look at Donald Trump, the one with his own military: he has a fat arse and uses Sellotape to hold his ties in place. A president is allowed to have appetites – for women, for food, for power. His supplicant daughter gets to peddle platitudes about how you should “bond with your boss”. (Being a blood relative helps, although, sadly, Women Who Work is silent on what to do if he also fancies you.)

Is this how far we’ve come in 500 years? Ivanka Trump might try to sell herself as a modern woman, but her brand of female power is positively medieval.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

0800 7318496