Rock stars tend to support liberal and/or Democratic causes and candidates. This isn’t a slam at conservatives; Ted Nugent notwithstanding, it’s just the way it is. Elvis Presley was reportedly a supporter of Democrat Adlai Stevenson in his 1956 presidential race with Dwight Eisenhower, although he would become pro-Nixon in later years. Frank Sinatra’s friendship with John F. Kennedy and support for him in 1960 was of high pop-cultural significance. Tommy James and the Shondells went on the road for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 (and he returned the favor by writing liner notes for the album Crimson and Clover). A number of rockers played benefits for George McGovern in 1972 and for Jimmy Carter in 1976.
It’s doubtful whether Republicans cared much about any of this while it was happening. They were content to pick where the berries were thickest, and that wasn’t among young people. But as the baby boomers aged, Republican strategists began to wonder when and if they would be able to snag a rock star for their party.
The story of what happened in 1984 has become famous: During Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign, his team heard Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a patriotic anthem, and tried to suggest that Springsteen shared Reagan’s values. And as the story goes, Springsteen quickly slapped the idea down. But there’s more to the story than the story.
In his forthcoming biography Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll, author Marc Dolan traces Springsteen’s political development. In the 70s, Springsteen was apolitical. Although he played a small McGovern benefit in ’72 well before he was famous outside of New Jersey, he claimed that in the 70s he voted no more than once. But he was not non-ideological: his music expressed a certain set of values, and Reagan’s election in 1980 caused Springsteen to suspect those values were under attack.
In 1980, this suspicion was not universal among Springsteen’s audience. Dolan reminds us that in 1980, the youth vote broke slightly in favor of Reagan, and many kids casting their first presidential vote that year went for him. Reagan also got nearly half the Catholic vote, 40 percent of union members, and nearly a quarter of registered Democrats, “all groups to which Springsteen had strong personal ties.” And come 1984, with Reagan about to run his “Morning in America” campaign, there appeared to be some congruence between what Reagan claimed to stand for—individualism and hard work in pursuit of dreams—and what Springsteen valued.
In Dolan’s telling, “Born in the USA,” with that ringing riff that hides the hard times/lost dreams bleakness of its lyrics, plays no role in the Reagan story. The critical figure was political columnist George Will, an off-the-record advisor to the Reagan campaign, who attended a Springsteen concert in August 1984. Although hopelessly square and not at all impressed by the show or Springsteen himself, he was a savvy political observer. He saw a connection between the hard work Springsteen put in with the hard work Reagan Republicans claimed to value. And not long after Will wrote about it in a September column, Reagan first invoked Springsteen in a New Jersey campaign speech.
Within days, Springsteen took notice—and exception—to the idea that, in Dolan’s words, “Reaganism and Springsteenism were one and the same,” During the Born in the USA tour, first in oblique remarks from the stage and later in more explicit ones, Springsteen began talking about the unfairness of America’s division into haves and have-nots and indicating his support for liberal organizations and causes in the cities he visited. Ever since, and for nearly 30 years now, Bruce Springsteen has repeatedly spoken about public issues in specific, political terms, in ways he did not before the dawn of the Reagan era.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, Salon published an excerpt from Dolan’s book dealing with Springsteen’s political education. Go read the whole thing.