Barack Obama, one volume into his epic memoir, is busy trying to shape his legacy. Bruce Springsteen has been spinning away at his own with increasing intensity for half a decade: recent music videos set him against a wild American landscape, like a cowboy (sometimes he even rides a horse). The pair met in 2008, during Obama’s presidential campaign, when Springsteen played a show for him in Ohio, and they recorded this podcast in a barn on the musician’s ranch in New Jersey last year. Obama’s sing-song voice would lull your baby to sleep; Springsteen’s is wildly old and croaky these days, like Pa Joad from a Grapes of Wrath audiobook.
“On the face of it, Bruce and I don’t have much in common,” lilts Obama. But they do, and that’s the problem: Renegades – what a title – is basically two blokes in awe of each other agreeing about everything. It is fascinating on paper, but hair-tearingly dull in practice: a bland value amalgamation exercise centred on discussion of the American ideal. No texture or friction at all. How good it could have been!
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Three episodes in, the subjects are music, race and outsiderdom. Springsteen and Obama are both outsiders, they say, and seem to compete to be the biggest: Barack with his lineage, Bruce with his “emotional displacement”. Though he’s generally seen as a mouthpiece for the US white working class, Springsteen has a lot to say about race relations, too: his high school was “a microcosm of the 1968 race riots”. He has lived through every American experience ever, it seems, and he sends them out in bubbles of poetic self-reflection. He wins the podcast, while Obama basically interviews him.
It is strange hearing the former president’s language fall flat: at one point, he calls music “a mirror into the fault lines of American society”. He is arrestingly eloquent when describing the time he sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, killed in the 2015 Charleston Church shootings, and the failed gun reforms that nearly made him lose faith in the US. But that’s because he’s talking as a statesman for a moment, and not as a fan of Bruce Springsteen.
Renegades: Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama
This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation