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Rock & Roll Fantasies | The Nation

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Rock & Roll Fantasies

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It ain't no secret
The secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin
          --Bruce Springsteen, "American Skin (41 Shots)" Rock & Roll Fantasies

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

Also by the Author

Why is the political coverage in The New York Times so lame?

Revisiting Eric Alterman's writings on The New Republic during the Marty Peretz years.

It is a depressing rule for students of American political discourse that the more one happens to know about a given subject, the more amazing one finds the brazen ignorance that passes for public debate on it. I felt myself to be unshockable on this point, having published two editions of a critical history of the punditocracy (Sound & Fury). But I have also written a short book on Bruce Springsteen (It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive). And never have I witnessed anything quite as ridiculous as the attempts by dozens of know-nothing pundits to piggyback on the campaign by the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association to tar the singer with the brush of inciting cop hatred and embracing radical chic by performing his new song "American Skin (41 Shots)."

Patrick Lynch, president of the PBA, publicly attacked Springsteen for allegedly "trying to fatten his wallet by reopening the wounds of this tragic case" and for suggesting that the killing of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo was a case of racial profiling. One might argue that the PBA's campaign raised a few semilegitimate, slow-news-day questions for a working journalist:

(1) Had Lynch actually heard the song performed? Simple answer--no.

(2) Did Springsteen write the song to "fatten his wallet"? (Lynch picked a particularly unfortunate symbol here, given that Diallo died trying to show cops his wallet.) In fact, Springsteen does not stand to make any money on the song; all 200,000 tickets to his ten remaining shows sold out months before the song was released. What's more, he has no new records, videos or anything else to promote.

(3) Did the Diallo family consider the song exploitative? Amadou's parents, Saikou and Kadiatou Diallo, asked to meet Springsteen "to greet him and thank him for the song" after one of his shows. They hugged him, shook his hand and "blessed" him, Saikou Diallo said.

(4) Was Lynch speaking for all cops, or was he mouthing off on his own dime? This question is the toughest to answer, as it would require a serious inquiry into the attitudes of a representative sampling of tens of thousands of police. Nobody attempted this. True, much of the brass supported Lynch, though this turned out to be of questionable political value. Bob Lucente, president of the state's Fraternal Order of Police, called Springsteen "a fucking dirtbag" and "a floating fag," whatever that is. He was quickly forced to apologize and was asked to resign from the force. Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir joined in too, though New York Governor George Pataki refused, citing his love for the artist. George Molé, a police lieutenant, wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times attacking Springsteen, while another one named Michael Gorman wrote in to support him. And yes, the cop next to me Monday night booed obnoxiously during the song's performance at Madison Square Garden, but he cheered all the other songs. And I haven't been able to identify a single cop trying to get rid of any tickets. So the only sensible answer to question four is, We have no idea.

But admitting to ignorance about questions of alleged public import is not in the punditocracy's job description. Its task is to talk--or write--regardless of knowledge, evidence or, in this case, common sense. On the basis, apparently, of collective clairvoyance, the pundits came up with the following set of explanations for the artist's motivations:

§ Springsteen wrote "American Skin" because he wanted to help Hillary Clinton's election campaign. (Tim Noah, Slate)

§ Springsteen wrote "American Skin" because he has "joined ranks with limousine liberals" (John Tierney, the Times)

§ Springsteen wrote "American Skin" because "situations involving potentially violent felons, loaded guns and dark vestibules scare the hell out of [him].... He just won't admit it." (Paul Mulshine, Newark Star Ledger)

§ Springsteen wrote "American Skin" because "he wants to act as some kind of court of appeals." (Steve Dunleavy, New York Post)

Note that none of the pundits making these nutty claims have yet mentioned actually hearing Springsteen perform the song. I did, in the presence of the Diallos, and was deeply moved by its quiet, mournful dignity as I tried to imagine the pain a parent must feel upon hearing such horrific news.

Look, Bruce Springsteen is not Dorothy Day. He is a wealthy rock star with multimillion-dollar houses on both coasts and private planes to ferry him to his gigs. (He is also, I might add, demanding an awfully high ticket price for a guy with hundreds of millions socked away.) But Springsteen is also just about the most socially empathetic star the business has ever produced. Despite the distance he personally has traveled from his working-class upbringing, he continues to strive to represent the honest thoughts and feelings of people--like the Diallo family-- most of society (and just about all the punditocracy) would prefer to forget.

With "American Skin," Springsteen has turned a human tragedy into a powerful work of art, just as he has done in the past with songs on subjects as disparate as the treatment of Vietnam veterans--also idiotically misinterpreted by the pundits--nuclear power, deindustrialization, anti-immigrant violence and the death penalty. In doing so, he's traveling down the road of Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye, among many others. To the degree that Springsteen's songs are political, it is politics with a small "p"--politics where people live their lives, not where professionals debate them on TV.

Perhaps the pundits' problem with the song is not so hard to understand after all. In any case, it sure ain't no secret.

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