William Antholis column Commentary

With just over a year until our next presidential election, our country feels deeply divided over the American dream. Do we still believe in it? Is it a lie?

Across history, authors, poets and musicians — from Harriet Beecher Stowe and Walt Whitman to Woody Guthrie and Toni Morrison — have wrestled with the idea that all Americans are created equal, with equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

At a moment when white working-class men might determine the future of the country in next year’s presidential election, an iconic American voice — Bruce Springsteen — is returning to the American dream.

His five-decade obsession with dreams of work, love and escape has always been connected to real moments in our political — and, indeed, presidential — history.

His new album, “Western Stars” (and soon-to-be-released movie of the same name) re-examines those dreams. It is deeply compelling art — among the Boss’s best. But it is not a pretty picture.

Springsteen burst onto the scene during the oil-shock recessions of the Nixon, Ford and Carter 1970s, when the nation was losing its confidence. His characters sweat it out in the streets of the runaway American dream. His workers have death in their eyes as they leave their factories. They occasionally find construction jobs, “but lately there ain’t been much work, on account of the economy.” Amid Reagan’s sunny 1980s optimism, Springsteen’s Vietnam vet can’t find work. “I’m 10 years burning down the road. I got nowhere to run, nowhere to go.”

His characters also dream about love and community. They “want to know if love is real.” They fall in love and marry. But their fathers warn them that true love is just a lie. It is an amusement ride, with crazy mirrors and dark tunnels. Love requires brilliant disguises, where lovers don’t trust their own selves. And, despite moments of brotherly love, we live in hometowns still divided, decades after the race riots of the late 1960s.

Those dreams of work and love don’t always go well together. Characters cry: “I’ve lost my money and I’ve lost my wife. Those things don’t seem to matter much to me now.” Laid-off workers feel cursed by unplanned parenthoods: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true? Or is it something worse?”

And then there is the dream of escape. If you’re born in the USA, then you’re born to run. That dream is as old as America itself — first Pilgrims, then pioneers, then runners and drivers and hitchhikers. During the Bush and Obama eras, Springsteen focused on immigrants and hobos and bikers and hunters of invisible game. We drive into storms and across borders because we believe in a promised land, filled with pastures of gold and green.

Escape is a dangerous dream. We run from despair and madness. We are broken heroes on last-chance power drives. Often, we give up on work and love. Do you have a hungry heart? Well, then… go out for a ride and never come back. Look for things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town.

In “Western Stars,” the romance of the road is gone. Springsteen confesses that he’s the same old cliché, a hitchhiker, a wayfarer slippin’ from town to town. He’s leaving pills and rain and the pain of relationships, where couples fight hard over nothing. Wrestling with depression, he is looking for ways to shut off his brain.

Work is no solace. The factories are gone. Like a Van Gogh self-portrait, Springsteen now looks darkly at his own profession. His workers are actors and stuntmen and songwriters. There are cowboys, too, but of the rhinestone variety, for whom (as Glen Campbell once sang) “hustle’s the name of the game.”

Written and recorded five years ago — before the Trump presidency and before Springsteen’s own autobiography and Broadway show — “Western Stars” is both personal and prophetic. As he says in his Broadway show: “I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I.” It is as if the American dream is no longer about redemption, but illusion.

The troubling and true heart of Springsteen’s new album is the indictment of the fraud of the white American male — obsessed with success and glory and willing to sacrifice love, community and truth in the process. A broken (and broke) songwriter sings from a lonely hotel room somewhere north of Nashville: “For the deal I made, the price was strong. I traded you for this song.”

We are hungry overachievers with distant fathers. We distance ourselves from loved ones in our search for success or escape.

In the past, Springsteen has been amused at his own success, his own better days. “It’s a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending. A rich man in a poor man’s shirt.”

And yet in today’s America, the consequences of success built on fraud and deceit only seem greater. “Western Stars” is a jeremiad, a mournful warning to come home before it’s too late.

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William Antholis is the director and CEO of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. Contact him at wja8yh@virginia.edu.

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