When Blue Collar Becomes White Collar

The Fall of Bruce Springsteen

Paul Shirley
Mar 11, 2016 · 8 min read

Note: this was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Cartel magazine.

It is twenty minutes before Bruce Springsteen is to take the stage at Kansas City’s megalithic Sprint Center and I have just spilled a beer.

My friend wads several of the napkins she burgled from the hot dog stand and sops up four-fifths of my accident and then, conscientious soul that she is, she takes the sodden napkins to a trash can at the bottom of one of the staircases that would lead us, if we so desired, back to the bad barbecue booths and worse beer kiosks on the Concourse Level.

As she dumps the boozy mess into a mostly empty barrel, a security guard says, “Looks like you’ve got a little accident over there.” Smiling, he waves off my friend’s protestations and sends over a janitor.

Which is how a fifty-five year-old black woman ends up in the middle of the pit at a Bruce Springsteen show, mopping up my three ounces of Coors Light.

And which is when I was given my first clue that maybe I don’t like Bruce Springsteen nearly as much as I thought I did.

A week before the show in Kansas City, my friend Zeb said we’d be silly not to try to get into the pit.

Younger than I by six years, Zeb had seen Springsteen five times in the past two years. He’d made it into “the pit”–the area reserved for only the most die-hard of the Springsteen fans–two of those times.

The procedure was simple, he said: all we had to do was arrive with our floor tickets a few hours before the show, and we’d be given a number. Later, we’d come back, and if our number was close enough to whichever number was called, we’d be allowed up front with the super-fans, some of whom would be wearing Bruce Springsteen costumes, and some of whom would be carrying signs replete with requested song titles, like they were at a Pro-Bruce rally.

I worshiped at a lesser altar than Zeb, but I’d seen Springsteen before, once. The show had been everything I’d been taught to expect by music critics, by Billboard charts, by a high school English teacher who’d burned for me all four discs of Springsteen’s collection of B-sides when I’d graduated:

Grand. Epic. A comprehensive thrill ride in the sidecar of blue-collar ‘Mericana.

But that time my seats had been on the second level; I’d sat next to a guy whose Old Navy T-shirt could barely contain the basketball he’d smuggled in in his belly. Why wouldn’t I want to see Springsteen up close, with the real fans?

At 2:30, we showed our tickets to a nice lady who gave us numbered wristbands. 482 for me. 483 for Zeb. 484 for his sister. Three hours later, a man with a megaphone–after explaining that the first 500 numbers after the one he drew would be allowed entrance–called out number 87.

We were in.

Just like my first time in Springsteen’s grip, each song was a miniaturized version of the show itself: an introduction, a chorus, musician camaraderie, blaring horns, some back-up singing, some strutting, some prancing, and finally, some exhaustion.

For a while, as Bruce repeated this pattern, over and over, I fell in line; I was able to remember that I was watching American royalty and from ONLY TWENTY FEET AWAY and so what if, goodness gracious, he’s getting old! And it doesn’t matter that Nils Lofgren looks like he’d rather be anywhere but here because THAT’S NILS LOFGREN. And who cares if Steve Van Zandt looks a lot like Jar-Jar Binks with a guitar BECAUSE THIS MIGHT BE MY LAST CHANCE TO SEE HIM.

The important thing was that I was gettingtowatchBruceSpringsteen.

Keep your eye on the ball.

Remember who you’re talking to.

Show a little respect.

But then came a little ditty from Springsteen’s most recent album, Wrecking Ball. A song called “We Take Care Of Our Own.”

I was five years old when Born In The USA was released, which means that I was also five years old when “Born In The USA” was released. I cannot tell you, exactly, when I first heard “Born In The USA” but I can tell you that, whenever it was, I thought the same thing that Ronald Reagan thought about it, which was that here was a very simple song about how fucking awesome it is to be an American!

I didn’t give a second thought to “Born In The USA” until I Columbia Housed Springsteen’s Greatest Hits as a junior in high school. It didn’t take long for it to dawn on me that “Born In The USA” wasn’t the song I’d always thought it to be.

“Born In The USA,” then, was the perfect song for my life–it made sense for one reason when I was a child, and for another when I was an adult.

I don’t own the latest Springsteen offering, the aforementioned Wrecking Ball. I hear it told that Ball is an “angry” album, all about “The Great Recession” and the “toils of the working man.”

That may very well be, but none of those concepts is expressed effectively in the aural garbage heap that is “We Take Care Of Our Own,” a song so jingoistic, pandering and facile it might make Toby Keith blush.

We take care of our own;

We take care of our own;

Wherever this flag is flown;

We take care of our own.

It is possible that “We Take Care Of Our Own” is meant as a commentary on how we actually don’t take care of our own; the song references New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. But as I looked around during the chorus, and saw the middle-aged men and women, many of whom were no more rebellious than a second Bartles & Jaymes on a Friday night, there was no evidence that anyone in this crowd was taking that message away.

And anyway, when I looked back at the stage, at Springsteen, in his cut-off T-shirt and black jeans, and saw him smiling and pointing at the American flag held aloft like this was the Battle of Bunker Hill, it didn’t matter what he may or may not have meant when writing the song. What mattered was that Springsteen was right there with the crowd.

That’s when it dawned on me: I wasn’t at a rock concert; I was at a nostalgia act being put on by a man who now embraces the values and myths he once critiqued.

Bruce Springsteen has given up.

Or maybe he never cared in the first place.

It could be (and has been) argued that Bruce Springsteen hasn’t done anything worth a damn since Born In The USA. I am suspicious of such statements because they’re often made by nostalgiaphiles who would never admit that, yeah, Star Wars looks a little dated now. But after watching Springsteen up close, I’m ready to side with anyone who’s suspicious of late-model Boss.

Maybe it was all the adulation he received after The Rising–that album inspired by September 11th that made so much sense at the time but now seems hackneyed and flimsy. Or maybe Bruce just got old. Whatever it was, what I know, for sure, is this: the Bruce Springsteen I respect–the one I discovered when I figured out what “Born In The USA” was really about–that Bruce Springsteen would’ve looked around at the crowd I was in, all $500 jeans and 401(k)s and BMW X5s, and he would’ve laughed. Not in the way he laughed when I watched him from the pit in Kansas City–a laugh of relief; that we’ve come this far and we’re all still alive!

No, a laugh of derision: who the fuck are these people? The Man, the enemy, the guys who own the factory, not the guys who work there. If not the one percent then certainly the five.

But Bruce Springsteen can’t do that, because Bruce Springsteen still thinks he’s a humanitarian or a philanthropist and even if, failing that, he’s still Johnny 99 and Meet Me Tonight In Atlantic City and Down In The Shadow Of The Penitentiary.

Now, Bruce Springsteen is Glory Days, and Glory Days only.

If the crowd’s behavior was any guide, I was the only person in the Sprint Center who was bothered by Springsteen’s hypocrisy. No one else cared that each of us had paid $100 to a man who likes to think himself blue collar even while being worth $200 million. No one else seemed to notice that this rebel soul onstage–this man of the people–was giving a rock concert in a place where, if you spilled three ounces of beer, someone would hustle over with a mop.

No, instead, backs were clapped. Boat shoes were tapped. Fists were pumped. Dockers were rumpled.

And then, sometime after “Dancing In The Dark” and the requisite tribute to late saxophonist Clarence Clemons–the inclusion of which was not at all calculated or motivated by profit–the show was over. The house lights were on. Bruce had his band–all politically correct in their various races, creeds and hairstyles–at the front of the stage.

The masses thanked their god, they turned to one another with smiles, they said we’d gotten a great set list.

Everyone had been fooled by the masquerade. Even me; after all, I, too, had paid my $100.

But then I saw the black woman who’d cleaned up the Coors Light I’d spilled. She was leaning on her mop, waiting for us to get out of her way so she could get busy and get home. A smirk played on her lips. Maybe that smirk was accidental–a trick of her facial physiognomy or the result of thinking about something funny her husband had once said. But I couldn’t help but see it as confirmation of what I’d decided about four bars into “We Take Care of Our Own.”

That we were suckers, that Bruce Springsteen is a fraud, that this was nothing more than a nostalgic circus.

And that the only person with any credibility left at a concert given by the man who’s supposed to bleed credibility was a fifty-five-year-old black woman making $15 an hour to mop up beer spills so a bunch of middle-aged white people could keep their Rockports clean while the man they idolized played on their need to be thought of as hardworking, as humble, as Authentic.

Bruce Springsteen may once have been hardworking, humble, and Authentic. The people in the pit with me: those adjectives may once have described them, too.

But neither party could be described that way now.

Now, the people I watched watch Bruce Springsteen play are the same as Bruce Springsteen:

Rich, delusional, and full of shit.

And perfectly fine with it.

Paul Shirley

Written by

I finished 5th in the 1991 Kansas State Spelling Bee. Metallurgical.

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