Springsteen Targets Wall Street With "Wrecking Ball"

  • Feb. 26, 2012
  • Tags: Music

Mainstream culture is often years behind the underground when it comes to talking about important issues in a way that pushes the envelope of social change forward. Indeed, the last decade has produced thousands of albums of songs critical of the government, critical of corporations, and critical of the direction in which we are heading as a society. Few mainstream artists have dared to take on that conversation, let alone take it to another level.

At the same time, it is often when demands for radical social change become truly mainstream that the envelope is able to be pushed forward effectively. It is in those times that mainstream artists have a special role to play, one that is informed and influenced by grassroots currents in society and perhaps directly inspired by the artistic work of those in the underground. Like society at large, these artists are moved by the shifting tendencies of those around them and, in return, they produce work reflecting that reality.

Bruce Springsteen's newest album Wrecking Ball is an example of this process, and it comes at a time of significant protest in the United States. With the movement spurred by Occupy Wall Street significantly altering the public dialogue around the economics of our lives, the album makes sense in this moment but may have seemed rather unprecedented before.

The man many anarchists call "The Only Boss Worth Listening To" comes out swinging against Wall Street on Wrecking Ball. Touching heavily on the wealth-poverty gap, immigration, work, the financial crisis, the outsourcing of jobs, and more, Springsteen has said more in one album than many mainstream musicians are willing to say in their whole careers.

"My work has always been about judging the distance between American reality and the American dream," Springsteen said of the new album recently in an interview posted on YouTube. Indeed, Wrecking Ball reads like a collection of related stories, introducing various characters representing different perspectives of the American experience under the weight of the recession.

Easy Money is the story of a man who turns to street robbery after hitting hard times. "He's imitating the guys on Wall Street the best way he knows how," Springsteen's says of the song, which is reminiscent of Woody Guthrie's Pretty Boy Floyd.

"The banker man grows fatter, the working man grows thin, it's all happened before and it'll happen again," he sings in Jack Of All Trades, describing a hard-working man reflecting on the lazy-rich. "So you use what you've got, and you learn to make do, you take the old, you make it new. If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight. I'm a Jack of all trades, we'll be alright"

While it was written before Occupy Wall Street spread around the country, Wrecking Ball was certainly inspired by the same conditions and understandings that inspired the call for Occupy Wall Street. In Shackled and Drawn, Springsteen talks about the emotional weight of unemployment; "Freedom, son, is a dirty shirt, the sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt, the shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone, I woke up this morning shackled and drawn."

The song goes on to look at the other side of unemployment, the side that is enjoying record profits at the height of the worst economic period since the Great Depression; "Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills, it's still fat and easy up on bankers hill. Up on bankers hill the party's going strong, down here below we're shackled and drawn"

We Are Alive delves into social history to draw a lineage between those characters introduced in the album to real characters from other periods of social struggle and survival. "A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877, when the railroad workers made their stand. Well, I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham. Well, I died last year crossing the southern desert, my children left behind in San Pablo."

"Now sometimes tomorrow comes soaked in treasure and blood. Here we stood the drought, now we'll stand the flood," says Jack Of All Trades, again pulling on the strings of history. "There's a new world coming, I can see the light, I'm a Jack of all trades, we'll be alright."

"They destroyed our families' factories and they took our homes, they left our bodies on the plains, the vultures picked our bones," says Death To My Hometown, alluding to the outsourcing of decent-paying manufacturing jobs in the U.S. to become low-wage jobs in Latin American and Southeast Asia. "The greedy thieves who came around and ate the flesh of everything they found, whose crimes have gone unpunished now, who walk the streets as free men now," it continues.

Indeed, Wrecking Ball verges on anti-capitalist themes, is unabashedly critical of Wall Street, and is quite condemning of the U.S. government's ability or interest in taking care of regular people. "It sort of seemed like a metaphor for what had occurred," Springsteen says of the album's title. "It's an image where something is destroyed to build something new, to the flat destruction of some fundamental American values and ideas that occurred over the past, really, thirty years."

We Take Care Of Our Own is a sort of alternative patriotic anthem similar to Springsteen's Born in the USA, focusing not on the policies of the U.S. government but on the good will of common people in hard situations. It invokes the suffering and survival of those stranded by Hurricane Katrina, referencing the lack of response from officials while regular people risked their lives to rescue others from the flood, organizing ad hoc clinics and food stations across the city. "From Chicago to New Orleans, from the muscle to the bone, from the shotgun shack to the Superdome… We take care of our own"

We Take Care Of Our Own perhaps sums up the other main theme of Wrecking Ball, that of human survival and solidarity. While many tracks look at desperation, woven throughout the album is a hope born from struggle and endurance. The album paints a militant but human picture of the United States today.

"I think you look at this record and there's a question to ask; 'do we take care of our own?" Springsteen says. "And then there's scenarios where you meet the characters who have been impacted by the failure of those ideas and values."

Musically, Wrecking Ball utilizes an interesting blend of instrumentation and plays heavily with mixing genres. One song will delve into elements of hip-hop mixed with American pop, and the next will be heavily Irish-folk, followed by a pop-blues track with a digital drum-loop or a bagpipe. Some tracks have an almost live feel, like Springsteen used on his Seeger Sessions album. Others could be compared to the digital-folk present on Steve Earle's Jerusalem.
"The idea was that the music was going to contextualize historically that this has happened before," he says later in the interview, "over and over and over again."

Though Wrecking Ball's title track was initially written about the pending destruction of Giant's Stadium, where Springsteen played many a show, it reads in part as a timeless look at life, touching on the destroy-and-rebuild themes present on songs like Jack Of All Trades. "Yeah, we know that come tomorrow, none of this will be here. So hold tight on your anger, you hold tight on your anger, hold tight to your anger, don't fall to your fear."

Springsteen described his goals for the album as "not to answer the question that I ask, but to move the question forward." This reminds me of a homemade sign I saw a young woman holding up early on in Zuccotti Park reading "this is not a protest, it's a conversation."

In many ways, for better and worse, Occupy is less about defined goals as it is about pushing forward ideas and visions that are tied to goals. Perhaps Wrecking Ball can be seen as a small part of this larger tide.

"Oh, and though we lie alone here in the dark," We Are Alive ends the album, "our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark, to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart. We Are alive."

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