Another chapter has been written in modern politics’ most one-sided love story: Chris Christie’s unrequited infatuation with Bruce Springsteen. In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Tuesday, the New Jersey governor allowed that the aging rocker isn’t “all that fond” of him. The week prior, he tweeted a slavish commemoration of Born to Run’s fortieth anniversary, and a few days later a handful of Christie’s messages to a fifteen-year-old Springsteen fan listserv—including his jubilant account of meeting Springsteen in an airport—were made public. The governor’s getting more press for his loyal, spurned fandom than his floundering presidential campaign.
There’s something a little pathetic about Christie’s desire for the approval of his adolescent hero, and about the frequent speculation over whether he can be besties with an old man in a ripped denim vest. But by the same token, there’s something cruel in Springsteen’s persistent dismissal of his fan’s overtures. Their interactions have essentially conformed to the long-established pattern of admiration and discomfort between (almost uniformly conservative) politicians and (typically liberal, if they have any discernible allegiance) musicians. It’s a familiar phenomenon, and one that’s virtually always unfair to the conservatives.
The uneasy encounter between conservatism and popular culture has generally manifested itself in the petty unwillingness of prominent rock, soul, and hip-hop acts to allow Republicans to use their music in campaign events. In a media study spanning the last eight presidential cycles, FiveThirtyEight’s Walt Hickey dug up 28 instances in which musicians from John Cougar Mellencamp to K’Naan either complained about GOP candidates playing their songs or explicitly disallowed them from doing so, including each of the party’s presidential nominees since 1984. Hickey found just two examples of Democrats being similarly forbidden.
No neophyte in the political realm, Springsteen was the first and most famous celebrity scold, rejecting Ronald Reagan and George Will’s extremely tone-deaf attempt to conscript “Born in the U.S.A.” as a mindless hymn of blue-collar patriotism. That episode was probably the only time one of these dustups needed to happen, and the last time it was handled well, since Reagan’s endorsing “Born in the U.S.A.”—a painstaking inventory of the rage and sorrow festering beneath his “Morning in America” platitudes—was like George III whistling Yankee Doodle.
But more often than not, Republicans are well within the bounds of musical good taste (if not always intellectual property laws) in constructing their playlists. Consider Neil Young’s recent protest against Donald Trump’s embrace of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” his 1989 George H. W. Bush takedown.1 A dystopian anthem of the death and displacement that come from economic upheaval, the song is probably the perfect medium for Trump’s political message of American decline. Tom Petty happily permitted the Democratic National Convention to pipe in “Won’t Back Down” as President Barack Obama’s entrance music in 2012, but he sent a cease-and-desist letter to George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign over its use of the same song. Think about it, though: Between Bush and Obama, whose worldview was really defined by spiky, hopeless intransigence?
These songwriters are showing more than a little naiveté by insisting that their megahits—which they wrote, packaged, and promoted to be enjoyed by a popular audience of millions, regardless of political preference—only be employed as sonic propaganda by the leaders who back their specific policy preferences. But they also betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between artist and listener. Perhaps the best thing about pop music is that people end up liking things you’d never expect. There’s no reason, particularly, why John McCain’s favorite song should be ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” but I’m completely tickled by the fact that it is. It’s unfair to ask that he refrain from associating himself with it, just as it would be unfair to ask me not to play the Ramones because Johnny was an avowed conservative.
Classic rock music now makes up a kind of modern American songbook—a depoliticized public good that should be available to all people for all purposes (except torture). By denying the public use of that cultural repository to leaders they disagree with, these musicians are inadvertently deepening an existing musical divide between Democrats and Republicans. Our ever-expanding political polarization, which already finds expression in things as trivial as our television preferences, would have no trouble replicating itself in song. If Governor Scott Walker can’t play a 30-second snippet of a Dropkick Murphys single, he’s just going to turn to Kenny Chesney. So will the other Republicans, who can find in country music—as Senator Ted Cruz has—a reassuringly right-wing platform for which liberals have little taste (this is true for the male country singers, anyway; the women tend to be more enlightened, and therefore marginalized). Worse still, Republican candidates might take Mitt Romney as their model and attempt to cleanse themselves of any damaging preferences and affiliations, professing to “like music of almost any kind.”
Go back and read some excerpts from Christie’s posts on that fan listserv. These are the dispatches of a genuine, unabashed Springsteen dork. It’s damn near impossible to detect true joy—let alone the kind of vulnerability that enthusiasts display around their fellow travelers—in Christie’s public persona, but you’ll find it in his dutiful cataloguing of set lists, his breathless awe after meeting his idol for the first time. (“He was everything I hoped he would be if I ever got a chance to meet him--gracious and incredibly normal in a truly extraordinary way. That was my Christmas gift.”) I’d gladly see Christie dealt a political defeat at the hands of an ardent liberal, but I’d be even happier to talk to him about outtakes from Darkness at the Edge of Town. The Boss belongs to both of us.
“We got a thousand points of light / For the homeless man / We got a kinder, gentler / Machine gun hand.”