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Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball and the Plague of the 99%

Stephen Maher is a social critic and PhD candidate at York University in Toronto, Canada. He blogs at Rational Manifesto.

On his most recent album, Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen crafted a powerful statement of support for the working class, the existence of which barely penetrates contemporary art or politics. This is not an accident: the growing power of capital over public discourse has provided it a forceful means through which to shape individual consciousness, and establish an apolitical and at most technocratic understanding of power. Those at the top, we are led to believe, are there because of their technical skills and have risen by meritocratic means—the vast gulfs created by inequalities in wealth, power, and privilege are ignored. In fact, gigantic corporations—controlled by the 1% (or by the 0.1%)—dominate all forms of production. Even in the cultural realm, the art and voices of the working class are sidelined and squelched. Working people thus become invisible. As Occupy has helped make clear, the 99%, though divided in all kinds of ways, share the collective disappointment of being ruledby others, as opposed to ruling themselves;of constantly producing and reproducing the bases of wealth and power at the top of society, rather than fulfilling their own developmental potential. Power over surplus distribution—and thus nearly everything else—is left to an unelected ownership class. The overwhelming majority of the population is unable to locate itself in the “democratic consensus” or the dominant culture.

In our ad-driven consumer age, it is a monumental struggle to encourage sympathy and solidarity by bringing the stories and views of working people to a mass audience. Indeed, one of the greatest successes of the Occupy movement has been to force the idea into the national discourse that the working class exists as such (we are the 99%), a notion that is usually reserved for the radical fringe. On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen channels and supports the proletarian discourse of the 99%, which overcomes post-political, technocratic ideology and constructs a world sharply divided between exploited and exploiters. He crosses over from his earlier lament for a fallen America and the unfulfilled promise of the American dream to rage at the “robber barons” who “ate the flesh off everything they’ve found” and “whose crimes have gone unpunished,” calling on workers to stand united in seeking social justice. In telling the seldom-heard stories of working people and subjectivizing them as victims of the violence of capital, Wrecking Ball represents an important salvo in the cultural struggle, providing justification for and encouraging solidarity with the cause of the 99%.

In its review of the album, the popular music website Pitchfork chides Springsteen for “rail[ing] against those up on ‘Banker’s Hill’ in the sort of black-and-white terms that continue to plague and cleave his home country.” In suggesting that those who have united as “the 99%” are merely troublemakers, and that Occupy is actually a “plague” on society, Pitchfork—regarded as a hip and liberal publication in the hegemonic discourse—paradoxically adopts a position that would make Newt Gingrich blush. How is this possible? In fact, the Pitchfork review can be taken as a model to demonstrate the shortcomings of the so-called “hipster” current. This social current, of which Pitchfork is the ultimate expression, is the embodiment of postmodern skepticism and relativism. Artistically, it is concerned solely with exhibiting middle-class angst, while it presents liberation as the styling of an individualized consumerism and pornographic self-expression. Any transformational social project, or genuine contact with the working class, is seen as anachronistic and totalitarian. As Arcade Firedescribed on their 2010 album The Suburbs, what appears as progressive experimentation and “liberation” is really Rococo—trivial but elaborate ornamentation that amounts to little more than an indication of privilege and isolation, like the elaborate dress of the court of Louis XVI.

Naturally, this ideology—which emphasizes consumerism and the liberation of the market while discouraging social and political engagement—poses no threat whatsoever to structures of power and domination, and is therefore ubiquitous. It has served to mask and even defend the marginalization of working-class art while concealing the domination of the cultural terrain by the forces of capital, under the guise of liberation and freedom. As Arcade Fireput it, “they seem wild, but they are so tame.” With Wrecking Ball, Springsteen has produced a record of startling beauty, that unambiguously proclaims solidarity with the 99% and reaffirms the possibility of a better world. It is a powerful statement in support of the Occupiers’ struggle against a ruling class that is waging unmitigated war against workers and the poor. The force of this statement, and the nature of Pitchfork’s response, help to reveal the class bias concealed behind postmodern “common sense” and hipster skepticism.

The Plague of Class Society

Pitchfork’s review seems to advance the peculiar suggestion that class conflict is caused by the troublemaking of workers. This assertion is deeply anti-democratic, disdainful of the poor and working class, and ignorant of history—not to mention current events. The only way that democracy can be practiced in a society divided by its economic system into classes is through the popular organization and activism of the systemically disempowered—the 99%. In the absence of such mobilization, the desires and interests of those empowered by the system—the 1%—have been pursued almost unopposed, as reflected in the platforms of both the corporate-owned political parties. The bipartisan consensus around “free trade” and deregulation has led to the implementation of measures permitting our rulers to endlessly enrich and empower themselves, while reducing their obligations to the rest of society. The vast and growing disparity in power and wealth that has resulted has contributed to the dangerous weakening of already limited democratic institutions, constraining the ability of people to defend the victories of the past.

It is worth noting the level of abstraction at which the review operates: aside from distant allusions to Occupy as a divisive plague (to which the album contributes), history is noticeable only in its absence. In a review of an album dealing almost entirely with working-class issues at an absolutely critical historical juncture, the Pitchfork reviewer makes no note of the radical, bipartisan attack on working people (and their organizations and communities) underway across the country, intensifying in recent years. That the reviewer did not even consider such issues relevant to his critique indicates the degree to which the working class has been rendered invisible, and explains the vital importance of forcing working-class voices into the public arena. With capital’s increasing dominance over cultural production, the appearance of the working class in the world has likewise diminished, its voice silenced. As shown by the Occupy slogan “we are the 99%,” in the current hegemonic ideological constellation, even proclaiming the existence of a single working class is a subversive act. If the historical moment that gave birth to the record were clarified, the meaning of the record as a contribution to a struggle for justice and freedom would be plain.

In the wake of the economic crisis, millions of Americans have been thrown out of their homes and left with nothing, while the banks evicting them are provided with trillions in tax dollars. Across the United States, unions are being attacked and dismantled, and hard-fought gains in living standards and political rights rolled back. The recent “right-to-work” (for less) offensive, direct attacks on public sector unions in Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and elsewhere, and the revelation of the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—a national anti-labor organization in which corporate lawyers hand legislation to the “representatives of the people” to propose in legislative bodies across the country—are only the most recent examples of this battle.

This ruling-class offensive has been justified by deflecting blame for the economic crisis from Wall Street financiers on to working people. In the wake of the 2008 economic catastrophe, a myth was fabricated by the bankers and elite corporate managers. The crisis, they argued, had nothing to do with the immense risk that had accumulated within the financial system, responsibility for which lay with the laissez-faire, deregulatory attitude of the post-Reagan era and the ensuing bonanza on Wall Street. Rather, according to this myth narrative, the causes of the crisis were the remnants of working-class organizations and excessive state spending, which provoked a “debt crisis.” And since, as usual, any reduction in military spending is off the table (with the exception of a few symbolic gestures and accompanying histrionics from the “defense” establishment) these cuts must come from our already pathetic social safety net—which is the laughing stock of the industrial world.

Of course, according to this ruling-class mythology, the crisis has even less to do with stagnating real wage rates over the past thirty years, despite the fact that the average American has worked more hours with dramatically greater rates of productivity. That is, even as Americans produce more—through both working longer hours and greater productivity—their wages stagnate and decline. This means that every penny of this additional wealth has gone into the pockets of the corporate and financial elite, even as they cry poverty and insist that there “just isn’t enough money” to pay for public schools, medicine for the old and sick, and houses for the homeless. Unable to work any more hours, and with real wages stagnant, workers were forced to take on debt to maintain standards of living, which also kept up aggregate demand in the economy.

With workers now unable to carry any more debt and the economy stagnating, the ruling class proposes to turn the screws still further on working people. With its mythology parroted by politicians and the media across the country, the ruling class now imposes its “solution”: cruel austerity measures, which will further damage the economy and needlessly punish workers and their families. The term austerity itself is misleading: this austerity for workers and the poor has meant super-profits and mega-bonuses for the rich. Springsteen presents these contradictions when he sings, “banker man grows fat, working man grows thin / it’s all happened before, it’ll happen again.” There is certainly a “plague” at work here, but not the one Pitchfork envisions. It is the plague of the dictatorship over society by an elite few, who systematically exploit the rest of society.

Wrecking Ball

From beginning to end, Wrecking Ball furiously tears these myths to shreds, while incorporating a surprising array of influences, each linked with the American experience, and weaving them into a brilliant and contemporary pastiche. Attempting, as always, to create an American music (perhaps this time more successfully than ever), Springsteen incorporates gospel, the blues, early rock, modern rock, Irish folk, African rhythms and choruses, country and western, contemporary pop, New Orleans jazz and funk, American folk music, and a seemingly endless array of other textures and flavors in order to create a seamless whole. Though Pitchfork insists that this is really all just an attempt to “cover up some of the album’s lackluster songwriting,” the writing is worthy of comparison with the compositions of America’s finest working-class troubadours (with whom the writers at Pitchfork are no doubt unfamiliar).

The first half of the record, derided by Pitchfork as a “misguided” if “noble gesture,” is a fiery denunciation of the wealthy and powerful from the point of view of those who mow the lawns, pull the leaves out of the drains, repair the roofs, harvest the crops, fix the cars, and who were left behind to die as the levees broke in New Orleans. Springsteen captures these voices and presents these experiences in the song “Jack of All Trades.” By narrating American life from the point of view of the oppressed, exploited, and neglected, Springsteen gives the working class the voice that it is denied in dominant culture. As he sings on “Shackled and Drawn”:

gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills
it’s still fat and easy up on Banker’s Hill
up on Banker’s Hill the party’s goin’ strong
down here below we’re shackled and drawn.

It would be hard to find a more succinct way to summarize the principles that have animated economic developments in the wake of the financial crisis than these few lines.

The opening song, “We Take Care of Our Own,” points out the bitter class and racial divisions in the United States with biting irony. Do we take care of our own? And who are “we”? The patriotic elite are always urging us to unite around the flag in support of another foreign intervention, yet they have abandoned working people to a grim fate. While the revolving door between big finance and politics has ensured that the 1% has taken care of its own, the disgusting neglect for the poor of New Orleans—who were literally left to die—stands out in history as a shocking disgrace. But it is also clear from the song that Springsteen is not merely addressing an isolated, tragic phenomenon in New Orleans. Rather, those in need all across the country have simply been abandoned by the ruling class, left without homes, medicine, education, and food:

from Chicago to New Orleans
from the muscle to the bone
from the shotgun shack to the Superdome
there ain’t no help, the calvary stayed home
ain’t no one hearing the bugle blowin’
we take care of our own
wherever this flag is flown.

The pro-immigrant rights message of “American Land” further deepens this question: If “we” refers to Americans, then what about the large number of Americans who were not born here? “The hands that build the country / we’re always trying to keep out,” he sings.

On “Death to My Hometown,” an incredible composition embracing Irish folk music, American gospel, African rhythms and choruses, and contemporary rock and pop, Springsteen declares war on the “greedy thieves” who “brought death to our hometown.” Though there was no overt war—no bombs fell, no armies invaded, and no shots were fired—“just as sure as the hand of God / they brought death to our hometown” and then left us out to rot:

They destroyed our families, factories,
and they took our homes
They left our bodies on the plains
The vultures picked our bones.

The song then reaches its rousing climax to the sound of a shotgun blast. Similarly, the somber, doubtful consolation the narrator of “Jack of All Trades” provides his beloved masks homicidal fury at the injustice of his situation, which explodes in the song’s final verses: “If I had me a gun,” he groans, “I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.”

On songs like “Death to My Hometown,” the object is militant organization to “send the robber barons straight to hell.” But Wrecking Ball is not merely a rabid attack against bankers. Even the narrator of “Jack of All Trades,” despite his homicidal impulses, affirms that “there’s a new world comin’ / I can see the light.” Where Springsteen once shied away from the darkness on the edge of town, here he locates there the possibility for something better, which is largely the focus of much of the album’s latter half. Not surprisingly, Pitchfork views the second half as “something of a rescue mission,” but wildly misinterprets Springsteen’s central point. “Why spew anger when exultance is in your grasp?” asks Pitchfork—in other words, ignore the darkness altogether and focus myopically on the light.

The religious imagery on the second half of the record could lead one to conclude that the liberation and peace Springsteen describes can only be achieved in heaven. But it should be read, rather, as a reaffirmation of the utopian project—the realization of a better world on the other side of the wrecking ball of capitalist crisis. On “Land of Hope and Dreams,” we discover the sheer beauty of total liberation in a world in which “dreams will not be thwarted” and “faith will be rewarded.” After “forty days and nights of rain have washed this land,” “a new day’s comin’,” Springsteen sings on “Rocky Ground,” but in the future paradise “Jesus said money-changers in this temple will not stand.” Throughout the album, Springsteen deliberately plays on this ambiguity between a heaven on earth and the realization of a divine afterlife.

“We Are Alive” presents a view of eternity definitely out of sync with the Christian notion of the afterlife. Referred to by Pitchfork as a “dry history lesson,” the song reminds us that those who dedicate their lives to change live on in their victories, reaching out from the grave to stand with us today and continue the fight:

we are alive
and though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
our souls and spirits rise
to carry the flame and light the spark
to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.

We hear the voice of a man who was killed in the Great Railroad Strike in 1877, which lasted for forty-five days and spread to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Missouri before being brutally suppressed by the U.S. military. The voices of many other people are heard: one was killed in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights movement, and another describes trying to cross the U.S. border from Mexico. “Tonight all the dead are here,” Springsteen sings on “Wrecking Ball.”

Far from being “divisive,” Springsteen unites these seemingly disparate struggles, illustrating the universality of the emancipatory movement to which he aspires. This inclusiveness is mirrored in the incredible range of influences he exhibits on the album, which could be seen as the musical expression of the unifying discourse of “the 99%.” It is here that the greatness of Wrecking Ball lies, and it is what makes Pitchfork’stake on the second half of the record particularly troubling. The reviewer sees a music that “welcomes all Americans regardless of class, race, creed,” and expresses the wish that the rest of album could be equally “ambiguous.” But what he misses is that while Springsteen (like Occupy) welcomes everyone to what he sees as a universal struggle for justice, it is not Springsteen’s music that divides America into classes—capitalism does. Class difference is not merely articulated, but rather is ontologically prior to discourse. Rather than running away from this reality, Springsteen seeks to use his music as a way of overcoming it—not by constructing some ideal paradise to which we can escape, but by alerting us to the real injustices in the present preventing the realization of such noble ideals.

The Invisible Cage

George Orwell once remarked, “all art is propaganda.” Indeed, culture is the site of a giant battlefield, and music is a weapon deployed by both sides. Antonio Gramsci applied the notion of a “war of position” to the political struggle as well as to the terrain of culture. Rather than seeing culture as a self-identical and coherent whole, Gramsci saw it as a contradictory set of appropriations and deployments. From Gramsci’s point of view, hegemonic uses of culture—that is, cultural deployments articulated within the dominant order—unfold in accordance with a “logic of domination,” while counter-hegemonic practices move according to a “logic of resistance.” Thus in order to decode the meaning of a cultural activity, Gramsci argued, one must identify the political processes that work either to maintain or transform cultural patterns.

Today, the large-scale production of music is dominated by concentrated capital, much like the rest of the media in the United States. In their landmark work Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky documented the effects of private control over the media, and “free market” pressures, on news content. Their results were startlingly consistent: views outside of the elite consensus are marginalized and essentially silenced. But these tendencies—exacerbated alongside continuous deregulation and concentration—are also present in other areas of cultural production.

Here lies the moment of truth of the ideology of individual self-expression, to which everyone supposedly has an equal right: it is not what is said that matters so much as what is heard. As the ruling class accumulates wealth and power, its control over culture grows, increasingly reflecting bourgeois views of the world and its problems. Working-class art is marginalized and reduced in proportion with its spending power and political voice. What at first appeared as the freedom of all to express themselves equally becomes the means through which capital dominates our conceptions of the world, amplifying those voices it finds palatable and silencing those it does not. Che Guevara, in his “Man and Socialism” speech, perhaps best described the result: “Meaningless anguish or vulgar amusementbecome convenient safety valves for human anxiety. The idea of using art as a weapon of protest is combated. Those who play by the rules of the game are showered with honors—such honors as a monkey might get for performing pirouettes. The condition is that one does not try to escape from the invisible cage.”

Music critics are key components of this cage. Employed by the same giant corporations which not just produce the albums but own the radio stations and concert venues, their job is not to conduct a serious analysis of the social-historical meaning of a given artistic development, but rather to sell advertisements in their magazines. Since serious, critical social analysis is prohibited, these critics are forced to consider music solely in the abstract, without taking into consideration its real historical foundation. As such, they become champions of Rococo (the obsession with “meaningless anguish or vulgar amusement”), a key characteristic of the “modern man” so brilliantly lampooned by Arcade Fire. The critical skepticism of Pitchfork and those of like mind is thus merely a mask for the unrestrained domination of culture by capital. Rather than urging that cultural elements and apparatuses be appropriated as conduits for the voices of working people, and art used as a way of protesting injustice, the working class, they suggest, would do best to keep its filthy hands out.

The point of Springsteen’s work has always been the exact opposite: to bring the plight of the forgotten into public consciousness. He sketches the exact contours of the “invisible cage,” rendering it visible. Exploring Springsteen’s most brilliant canvases can be a wrenching experience, awakening the listener to the emptiness and despair swept under the carpet of the American dream. Even the positivity of his most exuberant songs (“Thunder Road”) is driven by the extreme fragility of the possibility of escape from a dark and disappointing world to a vaguely conceived promised land. As he put it in a recent interview, “my work has always been about measuring the distance between the American reality and the American dream.” In Springsteen’s art, this distance manifests itself as a tension between content and form, meaning and aesthetic. Aesthetically, the foundation of much of Springsteen’s music is the early rock-and-roll of artists like Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison. But clearly, Springsteen’s music is not just a kitschy throwback to the golden age of rock. Rather, its originality and power reside in his application of this pure form, the saccharine sound of the American dream, to the harsh realities of working-class life. This is the counter-hegemonic gesture par excellence: Springsteen appropriates and turns to the ends of the working-class forces alien to it, redeploying these elements in accordance with a logic of resistance.

This tension between content and form is a sonic representation of class struggle, the very sound of the hollowness of ruling-class idols. Far from the heroic and liberating depiction of the automobile that was as ubiquitous in the early rock songs as it is prominent in American dream ideology, to Springsteen, cars are objects of tragedy. They illustrate the paradox of capitalist “liberation”: one can drive as fast or as far as one wants, but it is impossible that the destination will be a “new life” or a “new world.” The promise of the automobile, such a central part of American dream ideology, is empty. Just as abstract ideals of democracy and equality are circumscribed in their concrete application in a class society, Springsteen lays the technicolor world of the town green beside the unthinkable, barely concealed darkness on its outskirts.

The Occupy movement demands that we stare into that darkness and imagine another world that might be constructed there. “Wrecking Ball,” the song from which the record takes its name, is a moving testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit, that infinite element that surpasses any given situation. This is the place from which all resistance—and reconstruction—must come. A wrecking ball destroys, but it also creates, and the wreckage it leaves behind must contain the tattered germ from which the future will blossom. Even the U.S. military, a white lynch mob, and the guns of the U.S. Border Patrol cannot prevent those who have gone before from joining us today. With them at our side, we must pick up the pieces and join the fight for a new world. And in so doing, we will stand with them in eternity.