Bruce Springsteen, Jeep and the death of the lie-dream of Liberalism in American rock and pop
The more I look at the image, the more it disturbs me. It is an American flag, cut into the familiar shape of a map of the lower 48. The map has a large crucifix imposed over it. The messaging is unmistakable: The cross has dominion over our flag, over our country.
The very first lines of the Bill of Rights states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” So, anytime we see anything like this — a flag overlaid by a cross— we should be afraid. Very afraid. Now, a cross alongside a flag, I could see that and not get so ruffled. But a cross over the flag, imagery that literally puts the whole lower 48 in the shadow of the cross (we presume Alaska and Hawaii are pagan?), well, that’s another thing entirely. That’s a very damn specific statement.
I would expect to see this imagery on some right wing website, or on a banner waved by one of the terrorists in the Capitol invader mob. But I most certainly did not expect to see it in a Jeep commercial.
There was nothing exceptionally subtle or hard to parse in “The Middle,” Jeep’s (now withdrawn) Super Bowl ad featuring Bruce Springsteen. It was all pretty much right there. Seven crosses. Two American flags. There’s a horse in the video, but no people of color. Good looking horse, too. The text, spoken by Mr. Springsteen in a terribly earnest Pepperidge Farm Remembers groan, begins with, “There is a chapel in Kansas.” Language, especially on the level of multi-million dollar advertising, is intention. Got that? There are no accidents when it comes to Super Bowl ads. Mr. Springsteen doesn’t say, “There’s a factory in Kansas.” He doesn’t say, “There’s a farm in Kansas,” “There’s a hospital in Kansas,” “There’s a school in Kansas,” and so on. He says “There is a chapel in Kansas.” Not an accident, pallie. This lets us know that the ad’s idea of the American middle is a Christian middle. And Kansas? That’s no accident, either. Kansas is a state where Jews and Muslims make up less than one percent of the population, and where the black and brown population is significantly smaller than percentages in the United States as a whole. And believe me: If the geographic center of the United States had been a project in East St. Louis, they would have changed the concept of the ad. So, friends, make no mistake: This is Triumph of The Wilford Brimley.
But, whew! It went away! That was close. Here’s my theory: An employee in Mr. Springsteen’s management office – you know, the kind of person who schedules the oil changes, calls the exterminator, and keeps track of the airline miles – dug up Mr. Springsteen’s relatively inconsequential DUI from this past Autumn, and realized it was a terrific way to make this whole misguided “middle” mishegas disappear. Man, what a gift that was. Give him or her an edible arrangement!
So now, we can all pretend that never happened, except really we cannot. There are no accidents when it comes to high profile, ludicrously expensive Super Bowl ads (I so very, very much want to make a Superb Owl joke here). It happened. It really did. It was an intentional act that Mr. Springsteen and his very hands-on long-time manager, Jon Landau, signed off on. When two minutes of ad time costs over 20 million dollars, your ad copy says precisely what you freaking want it to. I direct you to the commercial’s tagline, “Come meet us in the middle,” which has an unmistakable echo of Trump’s “very fine people on both sides.” There were so very, very many phrases ol’ Jeepster could have used that did not echo Trump: “Let’s move forward, united,” “Let’s come together and celebrate our freedoms,” “Did you know that Cap ‘n Crunch’s full name is Horatio Magellan Crunch, and that’s funny, and laughter will bring us together,” whatever. But Jeep chose a tagline that deliberately brought to mind “there are very fine people on both sides.” When you are spending over $100,000 a second (!), you think this stuff through, and they knew exactly what they were doing.
But you know what? Let’s move past that. Personally, I don’t like what the commercial implied, but I truly believe Mr. Springsteen’s intentions were sincere. I believe that he genuinely thought he could help create a unifying moment for a distressed, stressed, and debilitated America. It was a bad call, but that’s what erasers, I mean old traffic violations, are for. But still, ol’ Tim needs to say this: When you wave seven crosses at me, give me some shpiel about a church in Kansas representing some American ideal and show me a big fat cross superimposed over a flag, it scares the bejeezus out of me. You start flaunting that crap, and chatter about the Rothschilds, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Jewish Space Lasers can’t be far behind. The neo-fascists in our future (and present) will also be waving the cross and the flag, and although I do believe Mr. Springsteen meant well, exactly whose “middle” was he talking about?
(Quick but important aside: we should have no trouble whatsoever with the fact that Mr. Springsteen’s image and voice were being used in a commercial. Many of our greatest and most respected artists, from Bob Dylan to The Beatles to The Rolling Stones and many, many more, have had their likenesses and/or music used in advertisements, so that Rubicon was crossed long ago. An artist does not sell out by treating their art as a business; an artist sells out by deliberately compromising their art in order to attempt to make money. Ergo, by my standards, Cheap Trick’s “The Flame” is a hundred times more of a sell out than Mr. Springsteen’s Jeep ad.)
VIDEO: Cheap Trick “The Flame”
Having said all that, I still don’t think all that scary cross an’ farm stuff was the most noteworthy aspect of Mr. Springsteen’s Jeep ad.
We, those who loved loud, louche, rough and rhythmic music in the 20th and 21st century, had a dream. That dream, which had been living on fumes for decades, finally died on the evening of February 7, 2021. But the dream was a dysfunctional fiction, so I cannot condemn the person who shook us awake. This was the dream that we were generation rock ‘n’ roll, and our values of inclusion, equality, and fairness stood in opposition to the more restrictive values of a less enlightened America.
Of course, this concept was largely bullshit; rock’n’roll was a tool for a lot of stylistic change and some social change, but almost completely ineffective as an instigator of meaningful political action. Still, this was a useful and pervasive myth, continually supported by all those Doors songs in all those Vietnam movies, the Beatles’ “Revolution” and All You Need is Love-ism, Bob Dylan’s specific and non-specific songs of protest, the rabble rousing and finger pointing of Sex Pistols and Green Day, and on and on. We all believed this: We shall know each other by the trail of our peace signs and anarchy signs. Of course, it was largely bullshit. Again and again, Generation Rock confused the right to dye our hair, get tattoos, and piss off our parents with far, far more important rights. But I suppose our intentions were good, even if actual action was sorely lacking.
Bruce Springsteen, via both intention and perception, positioned himself as the heir to the most public rebels of rock’n’roll (figures like Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Guthrie, the MC5, even Elvis, who was a vital social radical, even if he was not a political one). Mr. Springsteen even benefited from the perception that he was a fellow traveller of punk. All of this was intentional. At every step, he positioned himself as the cross-generational king of rock-as-rebellion, the poem-spouting, cause-loving greaser of our dreams. Mr. Springsteen was unquestionably successful in achieving and maintaining this pose, regardless of extreme wealth and occasional missteps (if the on-stage shaming of Lynn Goldmsith had happened in 2021 and not 1979, Mr. Springsteen would probably be out of business in a week). And because Mr. Springsteen personified our teenage rebel rock dreams, we endorsed him as a standard bearer for a socially liberal, multi-cultural America, as we had the Beatles, Dylan, or the Doors before him. This was undeniable: During the 20th century, the rock’n’roll king was going to be the king of outsiders. Even if he or she appealed to all ends (and middles) of the political spectrum, their name was going to inextricably linked to social liberal issues, like No Nukes-ism, Obama-ism, union-ism, all the sort of stuff Mr. Springsteen readily aligned himself with.
On February 7th, 2021, with the airing of Bruce Springsteen’s Jeep commercial, an era ended in American pop and rock. It’s an era that existed, I believe, since young people listened to the recordings of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and said, we are not our parents, we believe in the power of music to underline the egalitarian promise of America. In a clumsy yet deliberate fashion, the Jeep ad severed the connection with the idea that our generation’s musical icons in any way represented socially, culturally, or politically liberal values. Springsteen, deservedly one of Generation Rock’s icons, firmly said that the middle – according to his Jeep ad, a place full of crosses, chapels, and dusty crossroads, free from the troublesome noise of Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Hindus, and all other blue-voting city dwellers – was the place that personified America.
I say this again, and I mean it: These words are not a criticism of Mr. Springsteen’s stance, just a description of it. Bruce Springsteen can support whomever the heck he wants to. So can you. And this is a fact, not just a clichéd boast: Some of my best friends are Trump supporters, and I can actually understand and empathize with why they made this choice, even if I disagree with it. This is not an anti-Trump piece. This piece is about how, on February 7, 2021, a consistent harmonic constant to our rock’n’roll culture – the belief that rock’n’roll was synonymous with socially and culturally liberal values – was shot in the back of the head and buried in a shallow grave in Kansas, marked by a rough-hewn cross painted with the colors of the American flag.
Good. Time to start again, and maybe we can do it right this time, and hand out instructions, and not just t-shirts.
VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen Jeep Super Bowl ad 2021