Springsteen Strikes a Chord with Have-Nots

Thom Duffy is international deputy editor of Billboard

Bruce Springsteen's current reunion tour with his E Street Band, which comes to Los Angeles this fall, will be a flashback for many. Fourteen years have passed since Springsteen's most successful tour was accompanied by this same group of musicians. Back then, his album, "Born in the USA," dominated pop culture and Billboard's pop album chart, selling more than 15 million copies.

However, this tour is no mere nostalgic fling for Springsteen and his baby-boomer fans, no easy trip back to their glory days. While still giving his fans three hours of roof-raising rock 'n' roll, Springsteen is presenting an urgently needed perspective on the high-flying economy of the '90s. He is singing about the darkness on the edge of boom town.

Springsteen also offered this uncompromising vision during his earlier "Born in the USA" tour. Back then, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and it was morning in America--at least, if Reaganomics played in your favor. But the characters in Springsteen's songs often had fallen through the safety net. They were lucky to be working on the highway, laying down the blacktop.

In the past decade, however, a lot of Springsteen's fans no doubt have done pretty well for themselves. Their stocks are up. Unemployment is down, so they've got jobs. Shelling out $37.50 to $67.50 for a seat at a Springsteen concert--or bidding a lot more for tickets on the Internet--is no problem.

Yet Springsteen's songs of working life still echo the insecurity and anger of many of his aging fans. They know the strength of today's stock market doesn't mean they'll have a job tomorrow. A study earlier this year by International Survey Research of Chicago found that anxiety about job security is three times higher now than it was during the recession of 1980-81.

Springsteen's evocations of economic uncertainty have struck a chord with his fans in Europe even more than in the United States, perhaps one reason why he opened his concert tour abroad this spring. For example, unemployment in Germany, Europe's largest music-buying market, topped 10.6% in the past year, with joblessness rates even higher among the young. Springsteen's socially charged acoustic album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," released in 1995, has sold twice as many copies in international markets as it has at home, despite its focus on dispossessed workers in America. Maybe it's because his European fans, watching refugees cross nearby borders, understand when they hear Springsteen sing: "Shelter line stretchin' 'round the corner/Welcome to the new world order."

The insecurity of many American workers in the '90s boom can't compare. But it is real. Jobs are relocated, redefined or eliminated. Rising sales and profits are no guarantee against worker upheaval. Consider the music business, where U.S. album sales rose 9.1% last year, yet an estimated 3,000 employees saw their jobs disappear in the merger of two major record companies, PolyGram and Universal Music.

Those layoffs were not unique by any means. Major layoffs this year have followed news of plant closings by Levi Strauss, a reorganization at Procter & Gamble, the purchase of Netscape Communications by America Online, the BP Amoco oil company merger and more.

Now Springsteen is back on the road with a reminder that, even in this robust economy, there are plenty of people who are not rolling in it, who are a little bit scared, feeling as if the future is not quite in their control. No popular artist of this day has given voice to the anxiety and anger of workers--white or blue collar--as passionately as Springsteen: "Now, sir, you tell me the world's changed/once I made you rich enough/rich enough to forget my name!" howls an unemployed steelworker in Springsteen's song, "Youngstown."

Another song which Springsteen has performed during his shows speaks to the violence of America's gun-ridden culture. But it carries the double meaning of business interests that kill a worker's spirit in its very title, "Murder Incorporated."

But Springsteen also will offer his fans something more uplifting during his concerts this summer: a blissful, cathartic escape for the moment and a continuing belief in the possibilities of this promised land.

"So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore," sang Springsteen to his audience this spring, in a well-remembered lyric. "Show a little faith, there's magic in the night . . . "

When Bruce Springsteen performs, the magic and faith come easily--even to those facing uncertain times.

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