Jersey friends Bruce Springsteen and Jon Stewart recently sat down, in a virtual format, for a friendly discussion on everybody’s favorite topics, where everyone agrees 100% of the time, all the time: music and politics. The pair are pretty much in agreement so those looking for a street fight won’t find it here. Nevertheless, it is an illuminating conversation.
It’s all part of the lead up to Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You album release tomorrow. The chat can be heard on ‘Letter To You Radio’ on Apple Music Hits, a five-part series that concludes tomorrow with Steven Van Zandt popping in for a discussion on recording Letter To You.
Listen live for free and check out all episodes on-demand: apple.co/_SpringsteenRadio.
Jon Stewart and Bruce Springsteen on music and politics
Bruce Springsteen: Any thoughts, Jon? Musicians in politics?
Jon Stewart: It suggests that they are separate entities.
Springsteen: Oh, that’s interesting.
Stewart: As though that you have to be intentional about being political with your music. But I’ve always thought it goes hand in hand. It’s how you process the political moment without necessarily… And so much of what you do is not just politics, but class and class is apparently, a political topic as well. At any time your music you write about, you reflect the human condition. Do you think about it as explicitly political or does it just-
Springsteen: I’ve really never sat back and said, “All right, I’m going to make a political record or a record that deals specifically with this topic.” I think I worked the other way ‘round, which is from the inside out. I wait to see what is gestating inside of me and I slowly develop a concept around that idea. It may ultimately end up having political implications because I do believe that popular music and the thrust of popular culture is a bit of a freedom movement in that it encourages people to open up who they are to search for more personal freedom to search. It’s a search for identity. It’s a search for your own conceptual expansion, the expansion of your own ideas, all of which, for me, have always had political implications to me.
Elvis and Woody Guthrie were equally as political figures, if Elvis perhaps not being more so, as far as altering consciousness and changing the way we see the world and the lay of the land. So that’s kind of the approach.
I let the music do the talking and fall where it may like people, particularly, says, in a record like Nebraska, which people… So I was Reagan era and he must’ve been thinking about then. I was thinking absolutely nothing about that whatsoever. I had no ideas of… And I was simply trying to tell good, American Gothic stories about subjects that I was interested in at that moment. And I suppose what you’re saying about the class aspects of my writing, which really just came from my own background, and it was just a completely natural subject for me. So once again, it wasn’t something that I thought about or conceived of, or conjured in some intellectual way.
Jon Stewart and Bruce Springsteen on the predicament of “Born in the U.S.A.” being played as an anthem to patriotism
Stewart: Here’s something that I want to talk to you about, your background. Working class, Freehold, Cold Water Flat, in this moment is aligned with more explicitly Republican politics. And so, what gets imposed on your music are different political interpretations that may not be… You’ll watch Trump’s supporters play “Born in the U.S.A.” as an anthem to their patriotism. Maybe, not maybe, but clearly not particularly understanding the moment that it was written for. Is that a strange moment for you?
Springsteen: I would say that’s the predicament of pop music, particularly mainstream pop music in that you record it and you perform it and it goes out there and then people use it to do their laundry to, which is good. Or they use it completely upside down and ass backwards as to what you might have thought you were trying to communicate. I suppose if I had any thoughts about this, it would be like my job is to write well and it is my listeners job to listen well. And beyond that, we’re all on our own to a certain degree, particularly with that song whose multiple interpretations has kind of dogged me since I wrote the thing and which I’ve interpreted many, many times in different ways myself, so that’s a confounding piece of music.
Stewart: In comedy we call that the bucket of blood laugh, where you make a joke and you are ironic and you look in the crowd and you see some people laughing at the sarcasm or the irony or the satire and others are taking it in a literal direction.
Jon Stewart and Bruce Springsteen on being defined by politics
Stewart: Do you feel like as politics has infiltrated every moment of our lives and become more explicit, that your people try to define you in a different way? Do you find yourself surprisingly controversial or that people’s response to you has changed because of that?
Springsteen: I would say that people develop a particular take on who you are, which may be true or not true in the sense that our group right now is if you look where we’re very, very popular, we’re kind of a blue state group. Not necessarily completely intentionally. We have places in the South where we’ll have great shows and do well. But in general, and whether it’s because of our political stance over the years or not, we have developed into a bit more of a coastal and a bit cosmopolitan and that’s just the way it’s desired. Whether that’s a direct result of our politics that people have, because I have stumped four different politicians in the past, and whether that’s a result of the particular political stance we’ve taken or just something in the nature of our music, I would say pre- any political involvement we were always essentially more popular in the same places in the Northeast corridor, the West Coast, down south in your Dallas, Austin, Houston, Phoenix and there was a bit of a carving out of the middle. And we tended to attract a bit of a lesser audience in the middle of the country. I don’t know if that’s a result of a political position or just a result of the nature of our music and where it came from and what it addressed because there is an element of what people would describe probably as Heartland music to what I do.
A lot of what I address is actually the central country issues. It’s a remaining conundrum and I’m glad we have audiences wherever we have them. And we seek to have them everywhere. Well, obviously, the most unusual thing is our largest audience, of course, is in New York where there’s a greater interest in the American idea than there is in America, for one reason or another. And why that is, and it’s been like that for American musicians for a long time, your jazz musicians, your blues musicians, your soul musicians always found a greater home over there. And now we have probably at least two thirds of our audience is throughout Europe. We have a much bigger audience there.
Jon Stewart and Bruce Springsteen on Letter To You and capturing times
Jon Stewart: What surprises me about what you do is the relevance of it as you move forward as an artist. Even Letter to You, listening to that, it’s an incredibly relevant and not necessarily political, but socially relevant and culturally relevant and not explicitly political, but your process seems to be introspective. But also, you’re processing the world around you. It seems like you never stop asking those questions. You continue to and part of those questions will inevitably be political.
Springsteen: The key to retaining your vitality is retaining your curiosity and if you can’t be curious about the times we’re living in right now, you are not curious my friend. So… And I think that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve evolved into more of what I would call a spiritual songwriter than anything else, that much more so than a topical songwriter or a popular song writer, or I believe that my work has moved it. That’s how I would describe myself at this point.
I think that there’s something in Letter to You that speaks to the spiritual condition of the times and that’s where its relevance lies. I’m not really entranced so much by topical music. I found a lot of it ends up feeling too stilted or too ideological. And when I have written topically, I’ve taken care to write very carefully, as in, say, with “American Skin,” which I wrote 20 years ago about the Diallo shooting. I was very careful to flesh the characters out and to make sure I had real, living, breathing people in there and not just soapbox characterizations of a political point of view. But right now, I think Letter to You, it’s a record of its times without being topical. It’s a record of our spiritual times at the moment.
Stewart: Got that “Last Man Standing” vibe.
Springsteen: Yeah. Where there’s a moment there where it is when you get that feeling, you look to what’s important.
Stewart: To me, tidally, in this moment, it is. It’s such a record of peeling away all the superficialities and getting into a more existential feel of what matters to you, you know?
Springsteen: Yeah. I think once you reach my age, that’s what you’re writing about and that’s your subject is you have a limited amount of time. You’re not messing around with anything unless it’s something that you’re deeply concerned about and you feel can have a deep impact on your listener’s experience and that’s what I’m here to deliver to my fans and listeners and friends.
Once again, it’s what interests me. It’s what satiates my curiosities. It’s the parts of life that I’m interested in at this point. And other things then tend to take care of themselves where you end up sitting politically or socially in your community and in your country. Those things at this point, they’ve already been established in what I do, for better or for worse. And I don’t feel like it’s something I need to address directly every time I come out or anything.
Jon Stewart and Bruce Springsteen on optimism
Springsteen: I like realistic optimism, is what the moment calls for. We just don’t have a choice. I mean, look, I don’t know if I’ve lived through as dark a time as we’re… Sort of feels like we’re on the brink of at the moment. But if you look at somebody like John Lewis who passed away just a month or so ago, if he can hold onto his optimism, I can hold on to mine for a while.
Stewart: That’s beautiful.
Jon Stewart and Bruce Springsteen on playing an Obama Rally
Stewart: Let me ask you, what was it like, you got to a certain place, a certain status where you were invited into the explicit political world. People, presidents and governors wanted you there to either rouse or to do that stepping behind the curtain and seeing politics for what is, was that a shock to you? Was it seeing how that operates as you had imagined?
Springsteen: I had what I would say limited access, in that the campaigns that I got involved in usually were in the final stages and I had some fascinating experiences and I would say particularly with President Obama. Because I played one afternoon where the bill was myself, the President and Jay-Z. I was playing acoustically and Jay had a band and the audience was filled with people who knew Jay-Z and didn’t know me, or knew me and didn’t know too much about Jay-Z, or there was grandma and grandpa and the heads of all the local unions there and they were there for the president. And it was this amalgamation of an audience that was fantastic to play to because there were people of… It was multi-generational, multi-racial, all different classes.
Jay-Z is fabulous, and I do my best, so it was just a great experience. And the thing that I had, I realized I had going for me, was some of the biblical language that I used was recognizable to a part of the audience that might normally not recognize me or what I did. “Promised Land,” “Land of Hope and Dreams.” And I found myself communicating through my immediate language to an audience that was new and there.
I had that experience several times on the road with President Obama in different cities where you simply were playing for a huge cross section of America, which is something that I always aspired to, but we never quite got to in the E Street Band outside of these mass events, such as political rallies or the super bowl. That was a great experience. I had some access to the President and I also campaigned for John Kerry when he ran. And it was in general, I had, like I said, I wasn’t there for a long time to see the inner workings of everything, but I personally had a really fulfilling experience just as far as the audiences I got to play to, which were different than my own.