Bruce Springsteen and the duality of the ‘American Dream’

Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest American storytellers. That is in the world of popular music. Like how the Beatles captured the raw energy and experiences of life living in the politically charged 1960s, Bruce Springsteen gives insight into the rough realities of American life like no other artist has been able to. Through analysis of his varied discography, we see Springsteen (alongside help from the E Street Band) paint the landscape of America that is littered with discarded and broken dreams for a better life and the heartbreak and consequences that come with that failure. The cast of characters in his songs acts as mouthpieces for Springsteen’s own grievances with the broken promises of success that America was supposed to be offering. These promises were and still are wrapped up in the perfect, cookie-cutter rhetoric of what is known as the “American Dream”. In the case of Springsteen’s songs, the definition of the ‘American Dream’ is malleable. The success that anyone aspires to achieve in life can be in some way constructed into their own version of the American Dream. Through his songs, particularly the ones recorded for the albums, Born to Run (1975) and Darkness of the Edge of Town (1978), Bruce Springsteen lays out a vision of the United States that contradicts the trope of the “American Dream”. The album, Born to Run, first released in 1975, is what some consider to be Springsteen’s magnum opus. Every song of the album from the opener on side one, “Thunder Road”, to the closer on the second side, “Jungleland”, is a portrayal of characters on the journey of trying to achieve their journey of the American Dream. Yet through these songs, Bruce Springsteen is exposing the duality of what the American Dream is idealized to be counteracted by the truth or the harsh reality of what that dream really means and for who those dreams truly exist for. In Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen was attempting to demonstrate that the myth of the American Dream creates a false sense of hope and the reality of it is that so few people actually attain it.

The first line of the song “Born to Run” is “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream”. Here Springsteen is cutting right at the heart of the mythos of the American Dream. It’s a “runaway” just always barely out of reach for those that want and need it the most. Yet that idea is the very one that Springsteen is attempting to demonstrate through his songs on these two particular albums. In an article from The Atlantic entitled, “Born to Run and the Decline of the American Dream” by Joshua Zeitz, helps to contextualize Springsteen’s motivations behind expressing that particular message in his songs within the era that the songs were written in. Speaking about the lyrics of the albums titular song Zeitz writes, “the opening lines of “Born to Run,” Springsteen invoked one of his favorite metaphors—the automobile as an engine of escape from the many dead ends and disappointments that seemed to constrain young, working-class Americans”. For Bruce Springsteen, the car, as for many young Americans living in a post-WWII era, viewed the automobile as the ultimate representation of the freedom or the aspiration for being free that every young person felt that they could achieve.

In the songs on Born to Run, Springsteen is essentially taking on the harsh task of tearing down that idealized notion of what the American Dream means for most people. Behind the jazzy atmosphere created in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and the gut-wrenching and all-encompassing Clarence Clemons saxophone solo in the middle of “Jungleland”, lies a more nihilistic viewpoint. That the yearning for escape is never actually possible. Yet, at the same time, there is an expression of hope. In the bridge of “Born to Run” Springsteen sings, “I wanna die with you, Wendy, on the streets tonight/In an everlasting kiss”. The journey that one takes to achieve the American Dream in Springsteen’s mind should be enough to sustain someone until they die and if not just like the protagonist of the song, they’ll die trying.

While the album, Born to Run, can be seen as the journey to realizing the eventual hopelessness of the American Dream, Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 LP entitled, Darkness on the Edge of Town, is showcasing the life led after the realization and coping with the imminent reality of living without the aspiration to achieve this model of success which was the American Dream. Essentially having to face the ins and outs of regular life understanding while understanding the inescapable quality of it. With Darkness, Springsteen is specifically honing in on the collapse of the American rust belt and how that lack of industrial revenue began to add to the overall feel of hopelessness in the minds of millions of Americans. In an article from Nieman Storyboard called, “In a divided land, Bruce Springsteen and the runaway American dream” by Tom McNichol he mentions that “In Springsteen’s 1978 album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” one Springsteen character finds himself “working all day in my daddy’s garage / Driving all night chasing some mirage” and fighting to maintain a belief in “the Promised Land.” Because the facade that was the American Dream had become dismantled, the characters that Springsteen portrays in his sort of second act of analyzing the duality of the American Dream are now forced to find out what success means for them. They are all searching for that sense of satisfaction that the journey of uncovering the American Dream previously had. “Chasing” as Springsteen calls it, hinting at the fact that although just like the characters in his songs realized that the American Dream is largely unattainable, there is still a part of everyone that yearns to be the successful person that the American Dream promised they could be.

Through his songs, Bruce Springsteen captures the duality of the trope that is the ‘American Dream’. In his songs on Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen showcases all facets of the journey, the realization, and the acceptance that most people have had to and will have to go through to discover that hope riddled portrayals of success and good fortune that come with the American Dream are just purely myths, and that most people will have to accept living the lives of the characters painted in Darkness. While Springsteen paints a widely nihilistic but realistic picture of what American life truly looks like, in his songs, there are still glimmers of hope that are showcased along the journey of trying to attain the American Dream.

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