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Last week, when Nebraska’s Lincoln Journal Star reported that Bruce Springsteen had been spotted in town with a film crew, my heart leaped to the best-case scenario: Maybe he was working on a documentary for a reissue of 1982’s Nebraska, which is due for the archive-digging box set treatment. That beloved solo album had Springsteen blending imagery from his 1950s childhood with stark depictions of the economic divide in Ronald Reagan’s America, coming away with a haunting series of vignettes that seems increasingly relevant today. Nebraska arrived during a fertile period in Springsteen’s career, as he was piecing together his eventual commercial breakthrough, 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. The outtakes are legendary—including a rumored electric version with his loyal E Street Band—and there are also mountains of unreleased songs from this era, like one called “The Klansman,” that clarify his conflicted, and famously misunderstood, stance on American patriotism. So I optimistically imagined him visiting the album’s namesake state to shed light on all of this, offering new insight into an artistic peak.
Instead, he was filming a Jeep commercial, called “The Middle,” for the Super Bowl. It is the 71-year-old’s first-ever commercial appearance, his first-ever product endorsement, and, apparently, a project that he took a significant hand in, creatively. In the moody, two-minute ad, Springsteen visits a humble church located in the geographical center of the country. Alone, he meditates on what makes us Americans while driving around in a Jeep and offering a message of hope to a country that, in his vision, has strayed far from its initial promise. “We can make it to the mountaintop, through the desert,” he says in a gravelly voice-over, reaching for gravitas. “And we will cross this divide.” In the end, a message on the screen addresses the “ReUnited States of America.”
Now, if you have never been receptive to Springsteen’s patented brand of rock’n’roll transcendence, or if you are skeptical of the working-class fixations that helped turn him into one of the most famous musicians on Earth, then this commercial will not convince you otherwise. In fact, this might be how you have always seen him: Here he is preaching a vague message of unity while standing far removed from any actual human beings. He is speaking to a promised land that maybe never actually existed. He looks impossibly well-maintained even though he wants you to think he’s weathered and worn from years of manual labor. He is selling you a car.
And even for someone like me, who views his work as a complex and empathetic portrait of American life, the message here feels blurry—and even worse, not entirely his own. For one thing, Springsteen himself has never quite sought out any sort of middle ground, and the political outlook in his lyrics has never wavered. From the bitter class struggles depicted on 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town through the seething indictment of the Iraq War on 2007’s Magic, he has shown us, time and time again, exactly where he stands.
Not to mention, he has fought for decades against being co-opted by corporations and politicians trying to align themselves with his hard-won integrity. When powerful people once tried to glom onto “Born in the U.S.A.”’s red-white-and-blue bumper sticker of a chorus while glossing over its damning verses, Springsteen was adamant about his refusal. In the mid-’80s, he allegedly turned down a $15 million offer from Chrysler to license the hit, and he rebuffed President Reagan, who shouted him out during a campaign stop in New Jersey. “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been,” Springsteen told a concert audience at the time. “I don’t think it was the Nebraska album.” Although he tried to laugh off such advances back then, Springsteen was shaken: For the first time in his career, his work fell out of his control.
“A songwriter writes to be understood,” he admitted in his 2016 memoir, and after the enormous fanfare that came in the wake of Born in the U.S.A., he never attempted to match those pop heights again. His work largely became subtler and more personal, while his political songs—like the controversial police brutality ballad “American Skin (41 Shots)” and the recession-era protest music of 2012’s Wrecking Ball—felt more direct, almost allegorical.
He has also grown more comfortable aligning himself with like-minded politicians, campaigning for Democratic candidates like John Kerry and Barack Obama. When he performed at Joe Biden’s inauguration last month, Springsteen chose to sing “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a gospel-influenced song he wrote in the late ’90s to accompany the E Street Band’s reunion (another call for unity following a polarizing era). While the song itself is as empowering as any of his radio classics, the tone is more wistful, narrated by a traveller closer to the end of his journey. Fittingly, the performance that night at the Lincoln Memorial was neither celebratory nor triumphant. It was a slow, quiet rendition, searching for its rhythm.
As with other recent film projects like the accompanying documentaries for 2019’s Western Stars and last year’s Letter to You, “The Middle” was co-directed with Thom Zimny, and its imagery is lush and poetic. The commercial is soundtracked by an instrumental score from Springsteen and his studio collaborator Ron Aniello—I immediately felt a wave of gratitude that he didn’t use something like “Glory Days”—whose melancholy blend of strings and pedal steel strikes a similar chord to that inauguration performance. But the voice-over’s message feels closer to the catch-all refrain of “Born in the U.S.A.” than its thorny verses: As familiar and uplifting as Springsteen sounds against images of rustic back roads and country skylines, at times, I don’t recognize the disembodied voice behind the words.
Two days before the Jeep commercial aired, Springsteen officially released the latest recording from his ongoing live archive series. It captures an extraordinary 1997 show from his very first solo tour, behind his understated solo album The Ghost of Tom Joad, and it represents the furthest he ever wandered from the mainstream. For two hours, he is heard strumming an acoustic guitar as he sings elaborate story-songs about immigrants crossing the border to America only to find themselves forced into cooking meth, selling their bodies, and dying alone, far from their families. The music is spare and bleak, and the message is overwhelmingly tragic. It is difficult to imagine Springsteen telling any of the characters in these songs, as he does in the Super Bowl commercial, that “the very soil we stand on is common ground.”
Of course, perspectives, and context, change. In addition to the Tom Joad songs, Springsteen peppers the setlist with reimagined versions of more iconic material. He plays “Born in the U.S.A.” the way he initially wrote it for Nebraska—with a droning acoustic accompaniment, constantly in danger of fading away. He plays “This Hard Land,” one of the more renowned outtakes from Born in the U.S.A., retreating from the microphone to let the audience deliver the closing message back at him: “Stay hard, stay hungry, and stay alive… if you can.” To close the show, he plays a funereal rendition of “The Promised Land,” a song that’s not about arriving anywhere but just fighting your way forward. Slowing the melody down to a crawl and tapping against the body of his guitar, he cuts the last line of the final chorus—“And I believe in a promised land”—down by half: “And I believe.” It was all he needed to say.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork