How Bruce Springsteen Became a Cultural Icon—We Asked an Expert

The question of how Bruce Springsteen became a cultural icon is multifaceted. Whether it’s his persona, look, songs, or records, there are many reasons why people have followed his career for the past 50 years.

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To try and hone in on how the Boss became a cultural icon, we reached out to best-selling author and noted Springsteen historian Charles Cross for his help and take on the matter. Thankfully, Cross graciously supplied us with a lot to look into.

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It’s All About the Live Shows

“For me and a lot of people, the concerts that Springsteen put on in the ’70s were penultimate moments in the live rock and roll experience,” says Cross, who founded the Springsteen fanzine, Backstreets Magazine, in 1980. Cross first undertook the publication by passing out some 10,000 copies of it on October 24, 1980, when the Boss performed at Cross’ hometown Seattle Coliseum in Seattle for The River Tour. (The publication halted earlier this year, in part due to Springsteen’s ticket prices. More on that later.)

Not only does Cross highlight Springsteen and those ’70s shows, but the writer also makes a point to emphasize how essential Springsteen’s E Street Band was to those live shows. “The band has an incredible amount to do with why Springsteen was so successful,” Cross notes.

“Their shows in the ’70s were moments when you really felt like live rock ‘n’ was being created right in front of you and the genre of what rock was was still developing,” he continued.

Famous for his multi-hour shows, Springsteen would growl and sweat, backed by myriad skilled players (like drummer Max Weinberg and sax player Clarence Clemons) who could match his energy, handle the pace and duration, and rise to the level of exultant energy.

“Very rarely do any of us look at a concert,” Cross says, “and feel the genre of rock and roll developing. What we feel [today] is the nostalgia of what rock once was.”

For Springsteen, Cross explains, his job was to make rock and roll in real-time. To cook up a new stew each and every night no matter how long or how much work it took. In so doing, fans got to see his star power while also wondering what new spectacles could happen live, in the moment. “There was an incredible amount of creativity,” Cross says. “And the songs in that context meant a lot to me as a kid.”

Cross says he was seeing something of a new kind of rock and roll opening up before him. Springsteen—he was something new altogether. “That’s what brought me into it,” Cross says.

So, Then What Happened?

In later years, though, after his first successful handful of albums like Born to Run, The River, Nebraska, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen’s albums weren’t as popular. They dipped in sales, sometimes majorly. But, as Cross notes, Springsteen was always able to rely on his live shows and his E Street Band for strength. But in 1989, he split from his longtime group. And Cross calls the breakup “in some ways a betrayal of what I believed in.”

Prior, the populist Springsteen had talked often about the idea that “nobody wins unless everybody wins,” Cross says, but then he dropped his backing band. And more recently, Springsteen, the purported artist of the people, has allowed for exorbitant ticket prices, some of which hit upwards of $5,000 per ticket. That, says Cross, “was one of the biggest mistakes Springsteen ever made and [it’s] one that lost him many fans.”


Nevertheless, Springsteen remains an icon today, even if he is not “bulletproof,” as Cross notes. One of the reasons is that he’s outlived many of his peers. Another is that he’s kept a focus on long and lustrous live shows. That, says Cross, is “his selling point” and “what kept him alive as an artist and the only reason he had a career for quite a time,” even when his LPs weren’t selling well.

To wit, Cross says that on Springsteen’s most recent tour, tickets for the shows were all electronic—no physical copies. So for someone like the writer who has been following Springsteen for decades, that proved a problem because Cross had kept all his ticket stubs for all the shows he’s seen. Another type of betrayal, albeit minor.

But to show just how big Springsteen is, there is a company that will reproduce fake ticket stubs for those who want them. “Some company is selling reproductions of tickets for, like $25 because people want to have that ticket stub,” says Cross. “And they’ve sold thousands and thousands of them.”


In the end, Springsteen has built up such equity with his fans and in the world of music that no matter what he does from here on out, he will still be regarded in a good light more often than not.

But what would American rock music be without Springsteen? Of course, that’s an impossible question to answer. He is simply of it (thanks largely to his live shows), no matter how you slice it.

Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

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