Cultural Caviar

Springsteen’s Promise: Brightness on the Edge of the Horizon

November 25, 2010

On any given night back then, there was a Springsteen record playing down the shore. The hair was big, the cars were loud, and irony was a word in the dictionary, not a way of life. His band’s style of Americana—the innocent keyboards, longing sax wail, high-octane guitars, the weary-yet-hopeful vocals—wasn’t just great background music. It reflected who we felt we were and who we aspired to be: hearty, idealistic, earnest, ambitious, and yet modest people. Bruce was a man’s man unafraid to shed a tear.

There was a time when Americans strived to be our best selves, when we knew what we did well and what we valued. (Side note: Women’s Studies professors, Black History Month lovers, and Harvey Milk fans, I realize things weren’t great for you, but if you could put your niche politics aside momentarily, that would be swell. Thank you.) The songs evoke a bygone era, one that was devoid of the knee-jerk media cynics, wingnuts, ambivalent citizenry, and puffed-up politicians that have been so polarizing the past decade.

The title track, with its themes of betrayal and despair, feels more relevant for today than for 1978. Bruce laments that “When the promise is broken, you go on living/But it steals something from down in your soul.” I, too, feel like a promise has been broken—the one America made about being a country of the free and the brave. Lately, it feels more like the greedy and the subjugated.

American institutions are failing, our leaders follow, politicians lack backbone, artists mash up what’s already been created rather than create anything new, and I can’t get $20 from an ATM without buying the bank their morning latte.

But Bruce never surrenders to despair. In his anthemic work, the future is always better, though the road may be long and uncertain. There is always a ray of hope, whether in a lyric, note, or his voice’s timbre. Upbeat and soaring, his earnestness melts any doubt or cynicism.

The Promise is an aural time capsule to a brighter period in this country’s history. Releasing its 70s-era positivity into today’s toxic culture makes it abundantly clear that America has lost its true north. On The Promise, Bruce Springsteen reminds us of who we once were and still can be–but “We gotta get that feeling/Back again.”

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