There is a moment, early in Bruce Springsteen’s acoustic Broadway show Springsteen on Broadway, now available on Netflix, when the Boss begins to describe a particular type of fun. Standing at the microphone on a bare stage at the Walter Kerr Theatre, playing the same riff over and over on his guitar, he talks to the audience in his classic off-the-cuff way.
“Fun, the real kind,” he says, that “joyful, life-affirming…soul-lifting bliss of a freer existence…and all you needed to do to get a taste of it was to risk being your true self.”
He’s talking, of course, about rock ’n’ roll. More specifically, he’s describing the moment when, as a 7-year-old, he saw Elvis Presley perform on The Ed Sullivan Show—an experience Bruce credits with transforming him into an artist in his own right. Encountering Elvis’s hip-quaking guitar playing for the first time, Springsteen says, made him feel like “suddenly a new world existed.” It marked the beginning of a lifelong love affair with rock—one that would deliver him from the alienation that had blanketed his life and into that “soul-lifting bliss of a freer existence.”
For some of us, Bruce is also talking about something far more than just music. He’s describing an epiphanic moment of self-discovery, one in which he encountered a new vision of the person he might become and chose to embrace it. It’s a narrative that might particularly resonate with queer people, who are well aware of the possibility of a life-altering freedom that presents itself as the reward for stepping into your true self (even when that freedom comes, as is often the case, at great cost). Bruce is far from gay; some might argue he is one of the straightest men alive. But as one watches Springsteen on Broadway, it is easy to see why he has long been if not a queer icon, then at least a straight icon who is disproportionately beloved by many queers.
A quick poke around the Internet reveals as much: the academic texts reading his work as “homoerotic or queerly suggestive,” as Rosalie Zdzienicka Fanshel writes; the “We’re Here and We’re Queering Bruce Springsteen” roundup at one of the longest-running sites for queer women, Autostraddle; the queer writer Tennessee Jones’s short story collection Deliver Me From Nowhere, based on the album Nebraska; and of course, the many, many queer Bruce Springsteen zines, from Because the Boss Belongs to Us to Butt Springsteen. Writer Muna Mire once asked Twitter, “Can anyone name a straight man that qualifies as [a gay icon]?” Among the most liked replies, from the writer Teo Bugbee: “Bruce Springsteen for lesbians only.”
Which raises a difficult question: What exactly is so queer about Springsteen? Is it his extreme butchness, so practiced and so precise that he might as well have learned it from the oldest lesbian at a gay bar? Is it because his hard-earned, roughly hewn version of love is recognizable to those of us for whom desire has often meant sacrifice? Or is it something simpler? Do many queers love Springsteen because nearly every song he has produced in his 50-year career reflects a crushing, unabiding sense of alienation and longing—and what could be more queer than that?
My relationship with Bruce started sometime in my early teens, with a pile of my parents’ tapes and plenty of karaoke fantasies about being the leather-jacketed tough guy whom the girl of my dreams would want to “case the promised land” with. In part, of course, it was the butchness. I was a 14-year-old disciple of a very particular brand of masculinity, and there seemed to be no better teacher than Bruce. He was a walking Judith Butler text, and everything about his gender—from the sleeve roll on his white T-shirts to the tilt of his ass on the cover of Born in the USA—was somehow both perfectly studied and completely natural. The aesthetic, too, was essentially queer: With his leather jacket, bandanna, and just-tight-enough jeans, he might as well have been a go-go boy at a bar in San Francisco’s Castro on a Saturday night. Is it any wonder that I idolized him?
The paradox of Bruce’s butchness was that, as he sang about regularly, he was somewhat of a failed student in the subject. His relationship with his father was famously difficult, and one of the primary sources of tension between them was, as the Boss told The Advocate in 1996, that he “was gentle…a sensitive kid.” His father struggled with Bruce’s artistic inclinations, his shyness, his closeness with his mother, and his long hair.
My own relationship with my father was—somewhat miraculously for a genderqueer person of my age—characterized by acceptance and unconditional love. But Bruce’s lyrics about his attempts to measure up, the impossibility of meeting the expectations that were laid before him, spoke to me. Perhaps nothing defined my experience of growing up masculine and female so much as my constant anxiety that, as close as I might come to embodying a particular gender archetype, I would never fully arrive. I could wear the same jeans and white T-shirts as the masculine icons I styled myself after, but they would never fit quite the same way. Bruce’s masculinity, while natural on the surface, was in its own way troubled. He sang with real pain about his contradictions, and though I might have envied his problems, I also found comfort in them.
In “Walk Like a Man,” from 1987’s Tunnel of Love, Springsteen sings about the lessons he learned from his father and whether he’ll ever know what he needs in order to “walk like a man”: “All I can think of is being 5 years old / Following behind you at the beach / Tracing your footprints in the sand / Trying to walk like a man.” The lyrics are not exactly inspired, and they certainly lack feminist analysis. And yet the words seemed to perfectly encapsulate my experience of growing up in a body out of alignment with my gender, trying to walk a path that was not made for my feet and being constantly, painfully aware of the dissonance.
It’s a nice touch and perhaps not entirely coincidental that the music video for one of the most quintessentially queer songs in Springsteen’s discography, “Tougher Than the Rest,” was one of the first mainstream music videos to feature a queer couple. In the video, Springsteen, wearing one of his dressier outfits—black cowboy boots, black jeans, a festive silver shirt, and a black vest—performs in front of a live audience, often singing while staring into the eyes of his guitarist, backup singer, and now wife, Patti Scialfa. The concert is punctuated by short black-and-white shots of couples: couples kissing, couples laughing, couples cuddling, couples nuzzling. The video itself is uneventful, and the scenes with the couples are no different; they are essentially portraits in motion. But the appearance of queer people is significant, particularly in how unremarkably and without fanfare they are presented. (The video debuted in 1988, hardly an age of queer visibility in the mainstream media.) Even more significant are the lyrics, which gloss on the surface as heterosexual, but capture something essential about queer love.
Some girls they want a handsome Dan
Or some good-looking Joe
On their arm some girls like a sweet-talking Romeo
Well ’round here, baby
I learned you get what you can get
So if you’re rough enough for love
Honey, I’m tougher than the rest
Bruce’s version of love, in “Tougher Than the Rest” and throughout his discography, is no fairy tale. It’s not love that depends on an upwardly mobile, chisel-jawed hero. It’s not love in which everyone ends up walking down the aisle or even in which the aisle is unequivocally a good thing. Love, for Bruce, is often hard. It struggles under the weight of structural challenges. It does not always conform to the blueprint we’ve been given for romance. It’s a love that demands a new map.
Queer love, too, often demands a new map—one that reflects our stories, one that doesn’t require us to tilt it just so or squint at it under good light in order to locate ourselves. And along with that map comes a lover who might not be Dan or Joe or Romeo but who can offer something else: toughness for the inevitably difficult path ahead, the promise of companionship in the face of risk, someone who will run away from home with you when home is not a safe place.
I can’t remember every time I’ve felt unsafe kissing a woman in public, can’t possibly recall every time I’ve walked with a partner past a group of men, that timeless queer question hovering above us, so obvious that we don’t need to acknowledge we’re both thinking it: “Will they say something?” The awareness of risk, the knowledge that holding hands could open us up to real physical danger, feels inextricable from my experience as a queer person. But what feels even more defining than the threat is the intimacy and mutual protection that rises in response.
When I was a freshman in college, my girlfriend and I had a run-in with a carful of frat boys who blinded us with a flashlight and threatened to show her what a “real dick” could do. That night changed us. The sense of openness laid before us as new lovers, the endless opportunities for play and fun had expanded to include a different element: danger. It was devastating, and it felt profoundly unfair. Straight couples at our school were bonding over study sessions on the quad, not close calls with gay-bashing.
But in the sadness, in the fear, in the way we held each other afterward in her tiny dorm bed, there was something mighty, too, something fiercely loving that cut through. We both understood, as has been the case with every lover in my life, that we would protect each other. In some way, queer couples are always singing to each other the bridge from “Tougher Than the Rest”: “The road is dark / And it’s a thin, thin line / But I want you to know I’d walk it for you anytime.”
If there is a single song that defines Springsteen, it would have to be “Born to Run.” The Boss told Esquire’s Michael Hainey that the song is his “epitaph” and that “I use the song at the end of the show every night as a summary. The idea is that it can contain all that has come before.”
It makes sense. “Born to Run” is anthemic, and it speaks to Springsteen’s undeniably universal appeal: Who hasn’t wanted to escape sometimes? The desire to run, to seek newness, to shed the feeling of stagnation and its companion, mortality—it’s a fundamentally human set of emotions.
It’s also a queer one. If “Tougher Than the Rest” is Bruce singing about queers who bash back, “Born to Run” is Bruce singing about queers who get the fuck out of town to find happiness:
Wendy let me in, I wanna be your friend
I want to guard your dreams and visions
Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims
And strap your hands across my engines
Together we could break this trap
We’ll run till we drop, baby we’ll never go back
The lyrics in the second verse are some of his most famous for a reason. “I want to guard your dreams and visions” is romantic by just about any definition. But listening to it, I think of the iconic 1999 queer film But I’m a Cheerleader. In its closing scene, main characters Megan (the titular cheerleader, played by Natasha Lyonne) and Graham (her love interest, played by Clea DuVall) find themselves at a crossroads. Up until this point, they have been attendees at a “conversion therapy” camp, where they have fallen in love. Now Megan is escaping in the back of a pickup truck, and she wants Graham to come with her. Graham has to decide: Will she stay in the camp, where she will be safe but deeply unfulfilled? Or will she take a chance on the unknown—“walk with me out on the wire,” as Bruce puts it—risking everything for a chance at real, meaningful, wild love?
Megan performs a cheer, and after a brief moment of hesitation, Graham runs after her and jumps into the pickup bed. The truck peels out, and Graham and Megan make out in front of a background of pink clouds painted on the rear window. As they drive off into their uncertain future, knowing nothing except that they’re escaping suffocatingly oppressive circumstances for a shot at real happiness, it’s not hard to imagine “Born to Run” playing in the pickup.
“State Trooper” isn’t one of Springsteen’s best-known songs. The track from the 1982 acoustic album Nebraska is almost the opposite of “Born to Run.” Whereas the latter is poetic and rich with imagery, “State Trooper” is sparse and simple. In the song’s short chorus, Bruce pleads with an imagined state trooper on a New Jersey turnpike, over and over, “Mr. State Trooper, please don’t stop me.”
The sound is also unequivocally dark. We don’t know where the narrator is driving, but it’s clear that he needs to go somewhere—desperately. The only clue we get comes in the second verse, when he tells the trooper, “Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife / The only thing that I got’s been bothering me my whole life.”
Perhaps nothing is so fundamentally queer about Springsteen as the pervasive feeling of dislocation that’s threaded through his work, the nagging sense that something has been plaguing him since birth, and that he’s dreaming of a place where he might finally fling it off his back. I grew up in just about the luckiest circumstances that a queer kid born in the 1980s could ask for. My parents embraced my gender expression from the time I was a toddler, and my father cried when I came out, happy for me that I had found this piece of myself. But no amount of familial support could have shielded me from the outside world, where I often felt that I was an alien—a being who had been dropped on this planet by accident, a poor hapless soul whose spaceship had forgotten to pick her up after lunch.
I don’t know what’s at the root of Springsteen’s alienation. His recent memoir offers some clues: his distance from his father, his lifelong struggle with depression, his identity as an artist in a world that asks something very different from men. I suspect he might add that there is something fundamentally alienating about growing up American and working class. But no matter where it comes from, there is an unmistakable echo of queer loneliness in his work. “Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny, something that they just can’t face,” Springsteen sings on “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” “Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop…. I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town.”
There is another, much older piece of music that has entered the queer canon for its ability to speak not only to queer pain but also to queer survival. Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” has been a gay anthem for decades. The song, with its fantasy about “a land that I heard of…where troubles melt like lemon drops” evokes the isolation of a repressed life and the hope of transcending it. It gives voice to sorrow, but it also offers a vision for a way out. (Garland’s funeral took place on June 27, 1969, and the Stonewall rebellion began in the early morning hours of June 28. Some have suggested—though not without contention—that grief over her death was a factor in the riots.)
If “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is a gay musical theater anthem about the dream of a freer existence, “Born to Run” is unquestionably its rock ’n’ roll twin. From the first verse—“Baby, this town rips the bones from your back / It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap”—Bruce minces no words about the brutality of the life he and his lover are living. But “Born to Run” is no wallow. The song’s closing lines reinforce not resignation to the trap we find ourselves in, but the belief in life beyond it: “I don’t know when / We’re gonna get to that place / Where we really want to go / And we’ll walk in the sun / But till then tramps like us / Baby we were born to run.”
“Tramps like us” is, as others have noted, a beautifully queer line. It follows a long tradition among queer and trans people of reclaiming the slurs we’ve been tarred with. But there is another reason the final verse is essentially queer. Like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” it is a prayer, a salve, a reminder of what is possible. In Garland’s version the promised land is a magical place, a place where the sky is famously blue and where, as many a drag queen has promised, dreams “really do come true.” In Springsteen’s, the destination is similarly far off, but we’re guaranteed to reach it eventually: a place where “we really want to go” and “we’ll walk in the sun.” Both songs imagine a world where self-actualization is not just a possibility but a promise. Both songs affirm our loneliness—but also invite us to believe in escape.