Cool Rockin' Dummy

Reagan rah-rah, the last resort of a culture warrior

You may know about the 1984 Bruce Springsteen song “Born in the U.S.A.,” a bitter lament of the joke that was made of the American Dream in the late 20th Century, and how the irony of its majestic rock arrangement sailed over the heads of millions of dummies, among them the conservative propagandist George F. Will.

Will, who had the apparently fresh pleasure of attending one of The Boss’ concerts, praised him for having “not a smidgen of androgyny,” and for being indeed a “wholesome cultural portent” at whose concerts “flags gets waved.” Will marveled at the E Street Band’s work ethic, and sighed that if ordinary Americans, whom he seemed to consider soft, “made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about protectionism.”

Will’s jesting acknowledgement that the band made much more than the average factory worker — even assuming the factory worker had a job any more — did nothing to relieve the general offensive stupidity, but the offensively stupidest part was his reaction to the title song of Springsteen's then-hit album:

He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: “Born in the U.S.A.!”

Similarly, the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” was like the musical equivalent of Garfield.

It was presumably Will who that same year pimped Springsteen’s popularity to Ronald Reagan, whom Will had helped cheat in the 1980 Presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, and who invoked Springsteen’s name on the campaign trail. When Kurt Loder asked Springsteen about it for Rolling Stone, this was his reaction:

I think what’s happening now is people want to forget. There was Vietnam, there was Watergate, there was Iran — we were beaten, we were hustled, and then we were humiliated. And I think people got a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what’s happening, I think, is that that need — which is a good thing — is gettin’ manipulated and exploited. And you see the Reagan reelection ads on TV — you know: “It’s morning in America.” And you say, well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh. It’s not morning above 125th Street in New York. It’s midnight, and, like, there’s a bad moon risin’. And that’s why when Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey, I felt it was another manipulation, and I had to disassociate myself from the president’s kind words.

Springsteen’s means of disassociation was a performance at which he observed to the crowd, “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” Then he played “Johnny 99,” about a guy driven off the deep end when the plant he worked at closed and he couldn’t find another job.

Its been 35 years and most people know that story, including conservatives, including the kind of conservatives who write about “The 50 Greatest Conservative Rock Songs” and how every work of art people like is conservative because, well, because it just has to be. One of the dullest knives in that drawer is Kyle Smith, who at the New York Post and National Review has made a career of pushing this sophistry to absurd lengths — here are my alicublog archives on him, but for my money his low-water mark came when crazed wingnuts started screaming threats at New York’s Public Theater for putting on a production of Julius Caesar they found insulting to Donald Trump, causing Smith to exult, “Lefty Actors Are Beginning to Fear Donald Trump,” as if any non-psychopath (let alone an arts critic) would find that an encouraging sign.

At least that was his low-water mark. Today in National Review Smith runs through the “Born in the USA” story, and yes, he knows all about Springsteen’s lyrics — they’re “about as cheerful as a suicide note from an embittered veteran suffering from PTSD,” Smith writes — and admits the song isn't the patriotic anthem they made of it. But, he reasons, who cares what the song means and who cares what the artist thinks? There’s only one party whose opinion counts in these matters, and it's not the artist and it’s not the critic and it's not even the audience — it's the clever patriots who know how to turn it into propaganda:

Like the New York Times editor who said, “Let me control the headlines, and I shall not care who controls the editorials,” Reagan and Will were attuned to the big splash instead of the fine print. The lyrics mattered less than the tune.

Also, Smith goes on, Springsteen worked hard over the years to make his shows more exciting and to make his songs more popular, which he takes as proof that Springsteen was complicit in the misunderstanding of his own work — you know, like Mark Twain was complicit in the misunderstanding of Huckleberry Finn because he made it funny:

[“Born in the USA”] may have been conceived in bitter irony... But if you want your audience to feel despondent, don’t set your synthesizer to “triumphant.” For all of its gloomy words, “Born in the U.S.A.” became an American anthem malgré lui. The song roars. It defies. It conquers. It makes people holler and stomp and wave flags. Springsteen played it against a gigantic American-flag backdrop...

At least someone told Smith that happened. I saw Springsteen twice on that tour and I didn’t see any of that. But then I saw him in East Rutherford, New Jersey, not a big Springsteen town.

Smith finishes with some extremely close analysis of a single line — “I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the U.S.A.” — which he think makes his argument for him: “Despite everything he’s endured, the narrator is still rockin’, still cool... Dark as things got in a previous era, this is a new generation.” If it were any other time between 1984 and now, I’d probably say this was just stupid. But in the present moment — with the middle class that began to collapse under Reagan’s trickle-down finally a flattened, musty wreck; when the very idea of a crowd gathered to “holler and stomp and wave flags” evokes not the ecstasy of a rock concert but the senile, racist rage of a MAGA rally — it seems genuinely delusional. Culture warriors like Smith were never all there, but now they’re like those Japanese holdout soldiers of World War II who holed up in caves for decades after the cause was lost. In their minds, that old Reaganite rah-rah is still rockin’, still cool, while outside their I Love the 80s historical reenactment the world is locked in a death struggle between those who wish to save the planet and those who would surrender it to fascism and fire just so their donors can get even richer. Is a dream a lie when it don’t come true, or is it something worse?