Lose a House, Keep Your Pride

Bruce Springsteen opened his last concert at the landmark Giants Stadium in New Jersey last week with a song he had written for the occasion, Wrecking Ball. It was to be the last of 24 times he had sung there over his career; next year the stadium will be demolished. “I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey,” he sang, “some misty years ago. /Through the mud and the beer, and the blood and the cheers, I’ve seen champions come and go./So if you’ve got the guts mister, yeah if you’ve got the balls/If you think it’s your time, then step to the line, and bring on your wrecking ball.”

It was vintage Springsteen: defiant, angry, poetic and still strangely sexy in tight pants and rolled up shirt. He was singing to his own crowd, his people, his hometown, and the fervour of the response was striking: shining faces of all ages chanted every word to every song, even the first, as he urged them to ”hold on tight to your anger, and don’t fall to your fear.”

The words ”Hard times come, hard times go, hard times come, hard times go” echoed around the stadium like a mantra as 10-year-olds bounced on their seats, mothers wiggled bottoms and punched fists into the air and men wrapped their arms around each other, drunk and red-eyed.

It was joyful, unaffected, an almost religious outpouring of affection, as a community sang back to their hero, who for so many years had put words to their heartache and rebellion.

Born in the USA was released 25 years ago, but with its tale of the downfall of industrial America, and the impact on the ordinary man, it could have been written today. Springsteen is much like Woody Guthrie, the folk singer who emerged from the dustbowls of the Great Depression and wrote This Land is Your Land as a reaction to what he saw as the too-sweet God Bless America (”As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/Is this land made for you and me?”). Springsteen, too, sings of a dignity rooted in pride, not wealth, and provokes nostalgia for ”my hometown” even in those who wish to escape them. The more he sings about hard times – which he has largely avoided by his talent and commercial success – the louder people cheer.

Standing in the thick of this thronging emotion, you couldn’t help but wonder what this defiance actually meant. At first glance, not much. While Springsteen got rich, the vast bulk of his fans have not been so lucky.

Between 1979 and 2007, the portion of income going to the top 1 per cent of households shot up by 7 per cent to 16 per cent: the share going to the bottom 80 per cent dropped by the same amount. Between 1981 and 2003, roughly 30 million full-time workers in the US lost their jobs as companies restructured, retrenched and downsized. And they bought Springsteen albums by the millions, but did not hoist placards on their shoulders. As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her new book, Bright-Sided, in the 1980s and ’90s workers were remarkably compliant about their lack of job security, and the fact that many were forced into lower-paid jobs, often on contracts.

All the while, corporations hired motivational consultants to urge their employees to be positive and dream high. Ehrenreich writes that workers ”did not take to the streets, shift their political allegiance in large numbers or show up at work with automatic weapons in hand. As one laid-off executive told me with quiet pride, ‘I’ve gotten over my negative feelings, which were so dysfunctional.”’

When this recession hit, Americans were slow to get angry. And history tells us they will not stay angry for long. Why resent a rich man or woman when, if things go right, you could be one? Unemployment may be almost 10 per cent but America is, after all, a land of opportunity, of easily scaled ladders reaching from shanty towns to the heavens. A 2006 Brookings Institution report found, ”The majority of Americans surveyed believe that they will be above mean income in the future (even though that is a mathematical impossibility).”

What is now discomfiting is that many European countries, including Denmark, Germany and France, are more socially mobile than America. Not only are fewer people moving upwards: fewer are moving outwards. In 2008, the total number of Americans who moved house was less than it was in 1962, when the population was half the size. Springsteen moved up, and remains a symbol of what might be possible: Democrats and Republicans alike laud him.

When Woody Guthrie, the ”Shakespeare in overalls”, sang for men rumbling along in box cars in the mid-1930s, biographer Joel Klein says he was amazed by the impact his songs had.

Grown men grew misty-eyed and choked up as they sang along: ”The whiney old ballads his mother had taught him were a bond that all country people shared; and now, for the migrants, the songs were all that was left of the land. It wasn’t just entertainment, he was performing their past.”

By performing the past, you remind people of their resilience in the face of trouble, of their ability to survive blows by staring down their fears. This is why a Springsteen concert, sung in the midst of the swamplands of Jersey, can make middle-aged men weep.

He sings of a shared past, of solidarity, endurance in the face of hardship, and longing for a better life. You can take away a job, a house, and a stadium, but not dignity, and not self-worth.

Hard times come, they chanted, then hard times go.

So come on, architects of the economic collapse: bring on your wrecking ball.