By Tommy DeSeno
Hello Bruce. I grew up in Asbury Park.
We’ve met a few times. Not in any way you’d remember. Just a fan running into you at Asbury’s bars. I have a picture of us meeting at The Jeffersonin Asbury in the early 80’s. I was a teenager working the boardwalk and racing Asbury’s “Circuit” in the 70’s. One of the kids “huddled on the beach in the mist,” if you will.
Before I address your metamorphosis from lyricist into political pundit, which I won’t begrudge you if that’s what you wish for yourself, I’ll tell why your songs were so important and meaningful to small town folks like me.
Your lyrics poignantly made known that small town life can be lonely. And hard. If you are without prospects and uninspired, small towns can be a struggle. You find yourself the only soul on a street or a mile stretch of cold boardwalk. Everywhere else on TV seems cosmopolitan and exciting. Your local economy is always receding. Media ignores your town, so you feel unconnected to the world, wondering if anyone knows you’re here.
You know what you did, Bruce? You told our story. You sang about us. Despite the commercial success of Born to Run, that song is an outlier of yours. Your discography isn’t about some Hollywood pipedream of getting out. You recognized the struggle to get through next week, then the week after, until you are buried right where you were born. Far more people have to find happiness doing that than chasing dreams.
Hearing our small-town story told by you Bruce created comradery across America. We got to say, “Look, we aren’t extraordinary, but now we can see each other, and the world sees us here too.” It was affirming and glorious. In Asbury Park, where much of your small-town imagery is from, there is an indestructible connection to you. In the times we met, I should have thanked you for telling our story, Bruce.
Love of your songs never required a political position. You were a safe haven from that contest. You were universal and unifying. Unfortunately, over the last decade Bruce, you’ve traded your universality for political partisanship.
I understand the draw to it. It’s a bug that comes with fame, particularly actors and singers. Your lot is encouraged to speak of politics, yet you may not know any better than a laborer talking at a lunch counter. The advantage celebrities have over the rest of us is a microphone and a media that will recite what you say. But if the celebrity isn’t particularly insightful, it’s microphone abuse. It can even be dangerous.
We see actors and singers exemplary in their craft, we love them in their craft, then they stammer, pause and struggle when speaking about politics. Punditry is a talent like acting or singing. Not everyone is good at it.
Just look at your Jeep commercial “The Middle,” played during the Superbowl. Your intent was to unify and bring political sides together. So, did you wake up the day after wondering why it didn’t work? Why on the Internet are the sides you were trying to unify now fighting over “The Middle?” Who rejects a call for unity?
I’ll give you the answer. Pay attention Bruce, because I am good at this.
When the White House changes parties, there is a right and wrong way to call for unity. The wrong way to seek unity is to insist that the other side first admit that they were the problem; that they were why we hadn’t unified in the first place.
In “The Middle” you started outwell, then you framed the fight between “freedom and fear”and “darkness and light.” I’m guessing you think your side is freedom and light and the other side is fear and darkness? You think anyone is agreeing to that before “unifying” with you? I promise everyone on the other side sees you as the problem. Did you admit to fear and darkness when the other party won in 2016? All I recall on that inauguration day was “never” this guy, protests and threats. Not unity. Each side thinks, as you do, that they are the middle and the other side extreme.
Let me tell you the right way to seek unity, Bruce.
There is no middle, nor should there be. The “middle” is utopian pablum. American politics is a tug of war that no one should ever win. Sometimes one side pulls hard and we go too far left or right, then the other side pulls harder and we go back. It’s that struggle that keeps America from extremes, not some mythical “middle.” When one side wins a tug of war, the other side is thrown to the ground, defeated and apart. In political terms, that leads to oppression then revolution. May America’s tug of war never end.
I don’t expect you to give up your issues for a “middle” or “unity” (you didn’t in 2016), nor should you expect it of others now. I wouldn’t want that for you. I’d rather recognize you and compete for your interests than create a world where yours are cancelled. You saw me in song in the 1970s. I’m returning the favor and seeing you now, Bruce.
Unity is living with differences, not destroying them. You can’t have diversity without differences, can you?
I’m not giving you the old “shut up and sing.” You have the right to speak. Just make sure you have something helpful to say. You can influence the whole world when you’re wrong, so be careful.
I’m not one of those who will throw away your music. Avoiding art for politics is as ridiculous as an artist alienating his fans for politics. Art is more important than politics.
Tommy De Seno is a lawyer, political writer, and currently resides in the Smithsonian as the last conservative from Asbury Park.