Something curious is going on nowadays with the young.
On the one hand, the polls all show that young people are wildly enthusiastic about Ronald Reagan and that most of them intend to vote Republican in the future. On the other hand, these same young people have turned Bruce Springsteen into the new king, or "Boss," of rock 'n' roll, and one of the great superstars of the age.
It is itself a curious fact that many commentators see nothing curious about these concurrent enthusiasms. On the contrary: In their view, Springsteen is "the Ronald Reagan of rock 'n' roll," "the Rambo of rock," the symbol of a "resurgent American patriotism" and an expression of the new "dynamism of the United States." During the 1984 campaign, the president himsef seemed to accept this view by praising Springsteen's songs for bringing "a message of hope" for the American future.
Yet the plain truth is that the world evoked by Bruce Springsteen (who writes and sings his own music and lyrics) has much more in common with the vision of America painted by Mario Cuomo in his speech to the Democratic National Convention last year than with anything Ronald Reagan generally has to say. Listening to Cuomo's speech, one might have thought that we were living in the midst of a great depression. Listening to Springsteen's latest album, "Born in the U.S.A.," we get exactly the same impression.
The album begins with the title song, which has mysteriously been taken as a "patriotic anthem." Actually, however, it tells the story of a young man "born in the U.S.A.," as he keeps reminding us, who has been kicked around "like a dog" all his life, who is unable to find a job, who has "nowhere to run" and "nowhere to go." Except for the vitriolic anti-Vietnam sentiments (because he got into "a little home-town jam," the U.S.A. sent him off "to go and kill the yellow man"), these lyrics could easily have been written in the 1930s by a left- wing folk singer like Woodie Guthrie -- who, as it happens, is one of Springsteen's heroes.
And so it goes throughout the album. Times are tough and getting tougher; searching for work, young men hit the road, where as often as not they get roughed up by the cops; one ends up on a prison road gang, another settles for a job in a car wash. As for those who stay home, life is dreary and quietly desperate, with the defiant vows of "no retreat" and "no surrender" made in the "glory days" of early youth now daily falling victim to boredom, claustrophobia and unemployment.
Springsteen's lyrics, then, reinforce the delusion that the Reagan era has plunged us back into the '30s. The only "message of hope" here is in the beat and energy of the music, and that message is addressed not to believers in any Reaganite values but to people who are praying for a resurgence of the radical activism of the '60s.
Thus the reason Springsteen is worshipped (no weaker or more secular word will do) by the critical connoisseurs of rock, to whom Johann Sebastian Bach is a pygmy by comparison, is that they find in his music a return to the original "idealism" that had made of rock what one of them calls in all seriousness "the great spiritual alternative of the age."
According to these apostles of the Springsteen cult, by the mid-1970s the pressures of commercialization had all but buried "the idea that rock was a cause and a salvation." Then, miraculously, in an obscure little town in New Jersey, the lost rebellious spirit of the fallen Elvis, the fallen- away Beatles, and the apostate Dylan was resurrected in the messianic person of Bruce Springsteen.
But are such sentiments shared by the millions ofyoung people who have made "Born in the U.S.A." the biggest hit in the history of Columbia Records, and who have rushed to Springsteen's concerts in numbers that dwarf even the multitudes recently drawn by that other contemporary pop sensation, Michael Jackson? Not in the least, says one of the Springsteen apostles. "Clearly the key to the enormous explosion of Bruce's popularity is the misunderstanding of that song" as a patriotic anthem.
I wonder. After all, "Born in the U.S.A." is not the only current expression in American popular culture of the fantasy that we are again living in the '30s. We have had, for example, a whole string of films and TV dramas attempting (as Jane Fonda -- who else? -- puts it) to update the Depression classic "The Grapes of Wrath," thereby doing for rural America what Springsteen has done for the urban and small-town scene.
Nor is Springsteen alone in his musical return to the early '60s. There is, writes a prominent observer of these things, "convincing evidence that a '60s revival is in full swing" in the world of popular music.
In short, the rise of Bruce Springsteen to superstardom cannot be interpreted as yet another sign of the same conservative tide that has made Ronald Reagan so popular with the young. There is a deep contradiction in these simultaneous enthusiasms, and it will be fascinating to see how it works itself out in the years ahead.