Friday, January 20, 2012

1984 All Over Again?

Bruce Springsteen's new single is a protest song called "We Take Care of Our Own," and Christopher Phillips, Editor of Backstreets Magazine, has offered an insightful analysis of its initial reception. Nothing like a protest song with an anthemic style to breed confusion among casual listeners; as Phillips points out, there's an emerging resemblance, here, to how Springsteen's 1984 hit "Born in the U.S.A." was widely misunderstood in the 1980s, from an endorsement by Ronald Reagan during his presidential campaign to a nod from conservative columnist George Will in the Washington Post (see Overthinking It for a summary). The ways in which people hear a song--especially one with a memorable yet ambiguous refrain that can be rather easily divorced from its contextualizing verses--presents all kinds of interesting questions for reception theory. I suppose we'll have to wait and see what Springsteen does with "We Take Care of Our Own" in concert and whether the presidential candidates start using it at rallies this spring.

By the way, while all this could turn into 1984 all over again, I'm also struck by the ways in which "We Take Care of Our Own" even more strongly invokes another ironic anthem, from 1940, that many people still don't fully understand: "This Land is Your Land." Entirely appropriate in the Woody Guthrie Centennial year, don't you think? Bruce knows what he's doing.

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