I think that it’s safe to say that David Masciotra, author of Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen, has spent a lot more time reflecting on the music of The Boss than any of the rest of us. Several years ago now, I wrote a post about songs as short stories. I included several Bruce songs among a shortlist of examples that I called “so lyrically strong that they could be the basis of a prize-winning short story.” Masciotra takes this idea and carries it many steps further making the case that Springsteen’s body or work is a tool for progressive political change and social justice.
Working on a Dream is a timely look back on an impressive career by a musician dedicated to writing songs aboutsomething. It is pretty clear that The Boss could have decided to take the easier career path and make songs that would serve as the soundtrack for Chevy truck commercials. Instead, Springsteen consciously took the less commercially certain route. Masciotra highlights Springsteen’s work that explores the space “between the American Dream and American reality” and gives voice to the plight of people that are often invisible in our society.
The saying goes that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In support of this notion, the author’s descriptions of the actual music can be strained at times:
Piano notes are set against the wailing trumpet to evoke action and fill in the gaps. If the trumpet sounds like observation, the piano rings of movement. As a piano riff takes control, opening up room for the singer…
Masciotra is on firmer ground when analyzing lyrics. He takes a literary criticism approach, interpreting lyrics in their larger temporal and political contexts. The author name checks St. Augustine, Noam Chomsky, Confucius, Cornell West, Studs Terkel and others to bolster his interpretations of what is presented as Springsteen’s over-arching progressive political philosophy.
In one of the strongest chapters, the book quotes Bruce Springsteen as saying that his ideal concert is “part circus, part spiritual meeting, part political rally, part dance hall.” Masciotra follows up with examples to support each of these components. Springsteen is also quoted as describing his career as:
a community in the making…It’s not just my creation. I wanted it to be our creation. Once you set that in motion, it’s a large community of people gathered around a core set of values. Within that there’s a wide range of beliefs, but you still gather in one tent at a particular moment to have some common experience, and that’s why I go there too.
Masciotra persuasively argues that this idea of the importance of community is a pervasive theme in Springsteen’s work and is a striking counter to the “me first” mentality that permeates our culture and “I vote my pocketbook” political discourse.
Working on a Dream largely preaches to the choir. The book is likely to appeal most to Springsteen fans and/or those left of center politically.It is not likely that those who dislike Springsteen’s songs for whatever reason or those who feed on a steady diet of Fox News will find anything here that will convert them to Masciotra’s view. Working on a Dream also doesn’t supply many detailed arguments to bolster political statements that some would argue are controversial but are self-evident to the author and like-minded readers. Occasionally I found myself wondering if Masciotra had forgotten about the Boss when several pages of political discussion would go by with scant mention of Springsteen or his songs. But these are minor quibbles.
Overall, Working on a Dream is a unique book of musical/political scholarship. I am unaware of any similar books that examine a particular artist and his political philosophy at this level of scrutiny. Fans of Springsteen interested in viewing the Boss’s work through a new filter will definitely want to pick this up. Progressive political types that may have somehow missed Springsteen’s career or just “don’t get it” may also want to give it a look.
For your listening pleasure:
I should also note that I wore out my Springsteen collection on the iPod while reading this book.
Of the songs that Masciotra singles out in the book, two seem especially noteworthy.
- Springsteen recorded the theme song for Philadelphia at a time when recording a song about AIDS was not an intuitively strong career move for a straight rocker with a blue collar fan base.
- Relatively recently, Springsteen’s song American Skin (41 Shots) put the singer at odds with the NYPD
Springsteen’s The River will always stand for me as the pinnacle of Springsteen doing what he does best.
And I love this Raul Malo cover of Downbound Train