We Take Care of Our Own

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Well, the Boss is coming out with a new record and embarking upon a national tour to promote it. Though the full album, Wrecking Ball, has not yet been released, a single entitled “We Take Care of Our Own” has just appeared, and it happens to provide a very good topic for semiotic analysis. I heard it on the radio for the first time last night while driving home from teaching a popular culture class. Aesthetically, it sounded like vintage Springsteen to me (same chord patterns and instrumentation, same arrangement, same less-than-clearly-enunciated lyrics), but I could pick out the chorus, which is “Wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own.” And that surprised me. It sounded so jingoistic, so emptily patriotic, not like the Boss at all. And then I immediately remembered that this happened before, almost thirty years ago, with “Born in the U.S.A.,” a protest song dripping with irony, most of which was lost on Ronald Reagan, who alluded to the song for campaign purposes until he was set straight on the fact that it was hardly Republican campaign material. So I decided to look up the lyrics on the Net. Sure enough, the chorus, when juxtaposed with the rest of the lyrics, which bitterly describe a nation that isn’t taking care of its own, abandoning them “From Chicago to New Orleans, from the muscle to the bone, From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome,” make it clear that the Boss hasn’t gone conservative in his later middle age. He’s still on message. But alas, there’s a hitch, as there always is when popular music assumes the mantle of social protest. A brief search of ticket prices for the upcoming Wrecking Ball tour makes it clear that, excluding what scalpers may be getting, tickets will cost anywhere from $118–$872, depending on location and amenities. (I’m sure other prices can be found, but these figures are representative). Now, who is taking care of whom with such prices? Such a contradiction, of course, is to be expected with an art form (popular music) that is thoroughly embedded in commercial culture. Protest music, in such a context, is virtually ensured to become what Thomas Frank has so usefully called “a commodification of dissent.” I can easily imagine purchasers of those $872 tickets boasting to friends about how they have struck a blow against corporate America by attending the latest Springsteen concert. It’s like wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt (indeed, Che’s iconic image in black beret and beard is a lucrative one for express-your-radicalism-through-commodity-consumption purposes). But the contradiction goes deeper than this. Popular music, even when framed in the form of social protest, is created to be entertaining, and entertainment makes you feel good. People who feel good are not likely to go out and try to change the things that the music they enjoy may criticize. Another way of putting this was offered in a popular song from the 1960s written by Tom Lehrer, called “We Are the Folk Song Army,” which was a spoof of the protest movement of that era. Alluding to the Spanish Civil War, Lehrer sings, “Remember the war against Franco/It’s the one in which each of us belongs/Though they may have won all the battles/We had all the good songs.” Or, as Lehrer acidly noted in an interview given in 2000, “I’m fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the ’30s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War.” Pointing out such things can be dispiriting to students. After all, popular music, from the era of the Beats to the present, has been a cherished medium for the expression of social protest and countercultural vision. But Bruce Springsteen singing about an America that is doing everything it can right now to abandon the social vision of Franklin D. Roosevelt is a powerful signifier of the inability of commercially based popular music to effect social liberalism. Indeed, even the Boss’s new single undercuts its own bite at the end with a feel-good chorus that makes it easy to forget the bitter, but obscurely metaphorical, lyrics with which the song opens. Heck, even I thought, at first listen, that Springsteen had gone soft.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.