“I don’t know if our democracy could stand another four years of his custodianship.”
by David Brooks
Contributing writer at The Atlantic and columnist for The New York Times.
This is a moment of tumult, anger, hope, and social change. At moments such as this, songwriters and musicians have a power to name things and help us make sense of events—artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Janelle Monáe, Tom Morello, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.
It’s been 20 years since Springsteen wrote “American Skin (41 Shots),” a powerful song about the police killing of a black man. I thought it might be a good idea to check in with Bruce, to get his reflections on this moment and on music in this moment. Here’s a slightly edited transcript of our conversation, which took place on June 9.
“…at the heart of our racial problems is fear. Hate comes later. Fear is instantaneous. So in “American Skin,” I think what moves you is the mother’s fear for her son and the rules that she has to lay down so he can be safe. It’s simply heartbreaking to watch a young child be schooled in this way.
I want to understand the structural issues, personal issues, social issues that are pressing down hard on the people I’m writing about and still living among. That’s where what I’m looking for resides. And so that’s kind of where my politics really began to develop, out of concern for my own moral, spiritual, emotional health, and that of my neighbors.”
If you look at the long narrative, like a half century ago when I was 20 or in 1968, when I was 18, you would say there have been great improvements—the civil-rights movement, the Voting Rights Act, the Obama presidency. Of course, there’s a constant pushback to whatever progress gets made, by a reactionary element. But I feel that that’s smaller now than at any time in the past, and it’s diminishing. It’s folks who see themselves being left behind by history and losing status, and it’s forces within the Republican Party and in society that are intent on keeping the power balance of the nation in one place, when that’s simply going to be impossible.
The Democrats haven’t really made the preservation of the middle and working class enough of a priority. And they’ve been stymied in bringing more change by the Republican Party. In the age of Roosevelt, Republicans represented business; Democrats represented labor. And when I was a kid, the first and only political question ever asked in my house was “Mom, what are we, Democrats or Republicans?” And she answered, “We are Democrats because they’re for the working people.”
But I reference my Catholic upbringing very regularly in my songs. I have a lot of biblical imagery, and at the end of the day, if somebody asked me what kind of a songwriter I was, I wouldn’t say I was a political songwriter. I would probably say a spiritual songwriter. I really believe that if you look at my body of work, that is the subject that I’m addressing. I’ve addressed social issues. I’ve addressed real-life issues here on Earth. I always say my verses are the blues and my choruses are the gospel. And I lean a little heavier on the gospel than the blues. So I would categorize myself as ultimately a spiritual songwriter.