In the fall of 2012, a few days after Hurricane Sandy touched ground, Chris Christie received a phone call from Air Force One concerning New Jersey’s relief efforts. On the other end were two very important Americans: One was, of course, the president, Barack Obama; the other was the Boss, Bruce Springsteen. If it’s difficult to determine who outranks whom in a conversation among the president, the governor, and the Boss, it might be due to Springsteen’s inexplicable eminence.
He is less a rock star than a statesman. He and his posse, the E Street Band, do not simply play concerts, but, in the words of Bernard Goldberg, stage revivals. His music is not offered up for mere entertainment, but as necessary listening for processing national traumas. He was, according to Slate, the “poet laureate” of 9/11. His blessing is sought and occasionally received, depending on party affiliation, by would-be and sitting presidents.
The Boss’s latest gift to the world is Outlaw Pete, a graphic novel co-authored with cartoonist Frank Caruso and based on a song of the same name. Rock critic and Springsteen spaniel Dave Marsh calls it “a modern legend of a criminal who starts out in diapers and confronts the roughest edges of adulthood.” To correspond with the publication of this profundity, the New York Times printed a rhapsodically received list of the rocker’s favorite reading material. To nobody’s surprise, he admires Leo Tolstoy and Gabriel García Márquez, and found inspiration in Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail (2009). This was followed by an article about Boss, a new e-journal cataloguing academic references to Bruce Springsteen’s songs, which, according to the Times, “parallel psychological techniques used to promote moral development.”
If you’re surprised that every utterance and observation of the singer of “Dancing in the Dark” is so seriously scrutinized, don’t be. He was the subject of an exhibition of “artifacts” at the National Constitutional Center: “Millions of listeners have found their experience of the American dream reflected in his songs about the lonely, the lost, the unemployed, immigrants, and military veterans,” read the show’s didactics. And he was the topic of a theological seminar at Rutgers, a semester-long contemplation of “Springsteen’s reinterpretation of biblical motifs, the possibility of redemption by earthly means (woman, cars, music) . . . that casts the writer as a religious figure whose message does not effect transcendent salvation, but rather, transforms earthly reality.”
The literature on the subject casts the Boss in similarly reverent terms. “Bruce Springsteen appeals to the best in all of us,” Jack Newfield sermonized back in 1985. “He asks us to forgive the sinner but to remember the sin.” Almost clear-eyed in contrast, Hendrik Hertzberg reasoned that “Springsteen . . . is acutely aware of the moral responsibility entailed by the moral authority he has happened to earn.” More recently, David Brooks, enthralled by his hero’s songs of “teenage couples out on a desperate lark, workers struggling as the mills close down, and drifters on the wrong side of the law,” confessed that the Boss was a mentor of sorts: “Springsteen would become one of the professors in my second education,” he wrote in the New York Times. “In album after album he assigned a new course in my emotional curriculum.”
Clearly Bruce Springsteen, not just for rock critics but for our cultural poobahs as well, is some kind of civic saint. And a heartthrob: “He remains dispiritingly handsome, preposterously fit,” David Remnick panted in the New Yorker. “His muscle tone approximates a fresh tennis ball.”
At this point, Bruce Springsteen agnostics might ask what other public figure—in entertainment, in politics, even the clergy—is written or thought about in such terms. With the exception of a slain civil rights leader or two, and possibly Abraham Lincoln, the answer is: nobody.
High Hopes, Springsteen’s 18th studio album, released earlier this year, did little to explain why. Other than the addition of the grating guitar of Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine (a Harvard-educated, Los Angeles-based band that mixed equal doses of heavy metal, hip-hop, and Howard Zinn), the Boss still travels those same forlorn highways, still studies the lonely, the lost, the unemployed, and everybody else who has been beaten down by America.