The Escapism of Bruce Springsteen

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 14: Bruce Springsteen performs onstage during a special performance of "Springsteen on Broadway" in front of an audience of SiriusXM subscribers at Walter Kerr Theatre on March 14, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

There is a moment at the end of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” his seminal hit from the 1975 album, Born to Run, in which New Jersey’s most famous son intones, “It’s a town for losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win.”

The lyric is classic Springsteen, a nod to the most consistent theme of his biggest hits throughout his early catalog, which spans seven records over a decade from the mid ’70s to the mid ’80s. From “Born to Run” to “Atlantic City,” Born in the USA to The River, Springsteen is constantly searching for the open road and thus fulfilling some inherent promise and potential. Springsteen was 26 when he recorded “Thunder Road,” and it’s not surprising that the musician’s promise that “these two lanes will take us anywhere” would appeal to fellow baby boomers, those trapped in contemplation between seeking out quarter-life ennui or something more.

But Springsteen’s evolution as an artist hasn’t been static. As fans age with the Boss, those same themes of entrapment and freedom have taken on new meaning while, at the same time, attracting new audiences, such as millennials and those who came of age during the recession. Born in New Jersey, Toniann Fernandez of The Paris Review grew up haunted by Springsteen’s specter:

The sound of “Born in the U.S.A.” used to conjure images of the muscular white boys of my high school years, drunk with testosterone and Natural Ice, clad in denim and American flags. They screamed along with E Street imitators in bars we were all too young to patronize. I had always found the Springsteen omnipresence in coastal New Jersey offensive.

That sentiment, though, changed recently, and Fernandez describes her quest to not only embrace the musical menace of her teenage years but to actually meet Springsteen during the Broadway run of Springsteen on Broadway.

I had exactly five hundred dollars in my savings account at the time, the last crumbs of my earnings from my days as a nine-to-fiver. He encouraged me to buy the ticket. I told him that he didn’t get it. The point was not just to see the show, the point was for the Boss to request my presence at the show, perhaps in the front row. I suppose I hadn’t been so clear to myself or to anyone else how much this was about me, not Bruce. When I went back to the ticket window, the clerk told me the ticket was in someone else’s cart on Ticketmaster and that I would have to wait three minutes to see if they released it. Of course, having the ticket withheld was all I needed to draw my debit card from my wallet. Three minutes of purgatory ended, and I paid for my ticket through tears.

Fernandez writes of finally understanding the Boss’ appeal once she left New Jersey, of realizing and appreciating what the open road feels like upon riding in the getaway car, and what’s fascinating is how this thread of escapism that Springsteen represents — his hook for all these years — is an oft-repeated thread through various forms of music. Take EDM — as Emily Yoshia explains in her recent essay for Vulture about Avicii’s reported suicide, the musician’s massive hit, “Levels,” spoke of attaining a level of both personal and professional success that seemed (and still seems) unattainable to anyone who celebrated their 21st birthday in the mid-2000s.

Like every apocalyptic radio pop song of that era, asking us to live like tomorrow will never come, there was an overwhelming need for the music of the era to freeze time, both to stave off adulthood, but also to deny every feeling of doubt and sadness and confusion that had come before, to will it away in order to start our lifestyle brands or build our Twitter following. I had managed to convince myself in 2011 that I could still get what I wanted, but in reality I had a very small reservoir left, constantly one disaster away from moving back home again.

There is a connection between Springsteen and Avicii, of escaping and living like tomorrow will never come, and it’s why Springsteen’s catalog still sounds fresh after all these years. Yes, many of his tracks are bangers, but that’s beside the point: the Boss’s lyrics connect us to a future that we may never know.