Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Born to Run: The American Dream

Res Publica

August 2016

by Hayden Eighinger

In the opening lines of his Born to Run album, Bruce Springsteen drops a pickupline one might easily attribute to a smooth operator like Benjamin Franklin: Show a little faith/ there’s magic in the night/ You ain’t a beauty/ but hey, you’re alright/ and that’s alright with me. The album has a signature American, Ben Franklin quality not only in its unique women-wooing swagger, but also in its concept of an American Dream, echoing sentiments expressed throughout the nation’s history – even by the Founders. Of course, one may find it difficult to relate the street-rat passion in a Springsteen song to the sacred American Founding; however, the ultimate message of this lyrical epic testifies to those holy declared rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Released in 1975, Born to Run was Springsteen’s third studio album and his last shot. If he hadn’t produced a hit with this album, he would have been dropped from his record label. He was faced with the reality that he might fail in the pursuit of his dream, and this fear is subliminally echoed in many of the album’s lyrics. His own struggle with the American Dream is precisely what makes the album so relatable. In fact, it spoke so strongly to Americans that it launched Springsteen to stardom,reaching third on the album charts and now ranked by Rolling Stone as the 18th greatest album of all-time.

Springsteen arranged the album to reflect his concept of “that one, endless summer night.”It contains a series of narratives taking place on the same night, each reflecting some sentiment of the album’stitle.The eight-song album has what is known as “four corners;” that is, both sides of the record have powerful opening and closing statement tracks. All of the songs also have a distinct musical intro and outro which, in Springsteen’s words, “makes the song feel like it’s coming out of something and then evolving into something.” The album is backed by his now-famous E Street Band, blasting a signature Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” that artfully gives the music power and depth. The meticulous arrangement is designed to “grab you by your throat and…insist that you pay attention;” it is meant to evoke emotion and attention to the insight of the lyrics.

In a 2009 interview, “The Boss” said that he began writing music “to start a conversation with people about life.” The stories of the Born to Run album start the conversation with a question:what dreamsin life areworth risking everything? The songs suggest that only the dreams that make you feel truly alive, free, and happy are worth the gamble. Some are successful, with the protagonist pulling out of here to win, while others end in defeat, and the protagonist’s own dream guns him down. Every vignette becomes sacramental to the listener,who always finds himself praying for the narrator’s redemption. This happens because every human being can relate to that desire to bust out of submission and find the life worth living. The American Experiment is founded on that very “born to run” principle – not in the sense of fleeing in cowardice, but of escaping oppression and living freely as men ought.

The first corner of the album, “Thunder Road,”is the voice of a young dreamer with a guitar asking a girl named Mary to run off with him and find a life beyond a town fullof losers in this one last chance to make it real. The song ends in a powerful and optimistic saxophone solo that is the musical paragon of freedom. It is then followed by “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” an autobiographical story about a young rock ’n’ roller who has finally assembled a great band and is on the verge of hitting it big. “Night” follows as an expression of the frustration of a man who survives blue-collar nobodiness during the day just to search for love in the night. The second corner is “Backstreets” and concludes the record’s first side. It is a lyrical masterpiece about someone who gave everything for love only to be betrayed and wind up alone hiding on the backstreets. The song is a reality check – a reminder that passion alone is not enough to fulfill those romantic dreams; sometimes you try and fail.

The second side of the record echoes the format of the first: Born to Run opens as the third corner and again tells a story of romantic escape to get to that place where we really want to go. The protagonist sings to a girl named Wendy this time, making the song into a type of reconciliation for Peter Pan. “She’s the One” describes the exasperation of a man’s immutable love never to be reciprocated by its object. Next is “Meeting Across the River,” the story of two petty criminals hoping to pull off one last heist and escape or else lose everything. Finally, the album concludes with the fourth corner,“Jungleland,” a nine-minute epic about a young lover cut down in a real death waltz between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy. Much like the first side, the second side proceeds from romanticism and hope to a somber reminder that not everyone may win, reflecting not only Springsteen’s own condition, but also the American condition.

This precisely is Springsteen’s understanding of the American Dream: not everyone has made it, but every man ought to be free to risk his life for the sake of being truly happy. Free is the only way to live. This is the principle to which men like Ben Franklin pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. Born to Run envelopes these reflections in one of America’s greatest works of poetry. Springsteen captures the redundancy of the blue-collarworld bywhich he was surrounded growing up in New Jersey and from which he felt born to run. For its time, the album was a modern reality of the American Dream, but it still remains relevant today because it speaks not to a specific era, but to a specific set of ideals characteristic of the human experience and the American Mind. It is an embodiment of the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness; it transcends all times, places, and people because each of us is indeed born to run