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