[Note: I'm pleased to inaugurate this new section of "Anthems for a New Generation," with David Simon's in-depth contribution. Visitors who would like to guest-blog an anthem are invited to contact me about their song choice. This could be a very constructive addition to the site, so thanks to David for prompting it with his fine essay!]
Bruce Springsteen is at once an obvious choice and a too obvious choice to contribute a song to this list of anthems. "Thunder Road", "Born to Run", and "Hungry Heart" are anthemic to their core. "Glory Days" ought to be the official anthem of the onset of middle age. And while "Born in the U.S.A." is not the patriotic anthem many took it to be, Bruce himself was hard-pressed convince George Will, apparently believed Springsteen would give his blessing to have Ronald Reagan could adopt it as a campaign theme in 1984. And the way that Springsteen belts out "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" (with more than a little help from the E Street Band), what you get is less of a carol and more of a Christmas anthem.
For me, however, Bruce's single greatest anthemic contribution is "Into the Fire," the second song on his 2002 9/11 response album The Rising. Across the album's 14 songs, Springsteen evokes a spectrum of emotions, each of them specifically identifiable, and most of them searing. (Some of the song titles: "Empty Sky", "You're Missing", "My City of Ruins"). Even "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)" and "The Fuse" manage to evoke a strange, powerful sexual confusion in the wake of the tragedy, deftly identifying the tension between "now more than ever is the time for intimacy, because life is too short and unpredictable to deal with the walls we build" and "I'm too fucked up to handle intimacy." (Line from the latter: "Devil's on the horizon line / Your skin and I'm alive.")
Yet it is in "Into the Fire" in which Springsteen unleashes the themes of sacrifice and surviving. The song -- and with it, the entire album -- begins with the chilling identification of the subject matter: "The sky was falling and streaked with blood." With a spare, countryish guitar accompaniment, Bruce's voice curls around this line, pained not far below the scratchy surface.
The vocals quickly drift toward a more sorrowful tone, and the lyrics take a turn for the personal: "I heard you calling me, and then you disappeared into the dust / upstairs, into the fire (x2)/ I need your kiss, but love and duty were calling somewhere higher / up the stairs and into the fire." Not just any stairs, and not metaphorical stairs: up the stairs -- and we all know what he's talking about. (Meanwhile, kudos to Springsteen, surely one of the most masculine men on the planet, for pulling off the presumptive perspective of a working class New York female.)
The stanza ends with a prayer-like incantation: "May your strength give us strength / May your faith bring us faith / May your hope bring us hope / May your love bring us love." This will become the crux of the anthem, but not yet. For now, it is a poignant plea from a survivor to a lost loved one for light to come from tragedy.
Then, with an orchestral crash, the song turns. Springsteen sings the second stanza faster and more aggressively. The lines are arguably no less personal ("You gave your love to see in fields of autumn red and brown / you gave your love to me and lay your young body down"; meanwhile, "I need your kiss" becomes "I need you near"), but the chorus changes from a private lament to a public pledge, sung with a harder, less wistful edge. A third verse -- "It was dark, too dark to see / you held me in the light you gave / you lay your hand on me/ then you walked into the darkness of your smoky grave" -- offers a perspective switch: what we initially think is the image of the firefighter leaving home -- for the last time -- before dawn to start the morning shift becomes that of someone rescued from inside the burning towers, and watching his/her rescuer go back for more.
Either way, four more recitations of the chorus turn lament into exaltation. The performance offers inspiration drawn from devastation. The song finds strength -- and faith, hope, and love -- from the courage of those who sacrifice their lives in the name of public duty. While the words may strike some as religious, they are equally identifiable in secular terms (as was the case with many of the anthems of the old generation). The faith the rescue workers had was a faith in their nation, and in its principles and identity. The hope (not yet the mantra of a certain galvanizing presidential campaign) was a hope that they could save lives through their actions. The love was a love not necessarily given to a specific object, but to humanity.
It's undeniably a powerful song. But what makes it a "progressive"? The first reason requires the embrace of a particular strand of "progressivism" (although it arguably ought to be the predominant one). The song evokes the spirit of an enlightenment-informed definition of progressivism -- i.e., public service instead of an anarchical rejection of it. With Ayn Rand-devoted Tea Partiers seeking to delegitimize any and all common efforts to serve the common good, I hope it is not too out-of-fashion to uphold that state as an instrument for realizing a better society. In "Into the Fire," the men and women who died going up the stairs of twin towers were public servants. They weren't seeking glory or self-aggrandizement. They weren't Randian self-interest maximizers. They were acted out of the duty to the state erected to protect and (as it says on the squad car doors) serve that society. In one song, and throughout the album that followed it, Springsteen establishes two key tenets -- or perhaps merely aspirations. First, that his country can be redeemed by the faith, hope, and love of its people, and second, that sacrificial heroes of 9/11 provide an enduring example of how to make that happen.
The second reason why "Into the Fire" is, for me, a progressive anthem, requires a minor digression:
After 9/11, an unfortunate battle of the anthems -- of the national kind -- emerged. For me, that awkward, atonal poem by Francis Scott Key (from a war, now 200 years ago, that we effectively lost) became suddenly and unexpectedly relevant. "Does that star spangled banner yet wave" even after the British kicked us in the teeth and burned down our capital? Yes, yes it does -- o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave. The United States took the Brits' best hit and somehow emerged spiritually intact; arguably, much stronger for it.
Admittedly, after 189 years, the theme had grown a little quaint. Perhaps racial divisions, unfettered economic liberalism, and, by the end of the twentieth century, a culture of consumerism has undermined the spiritual intact-ness. Singing "The Star Spangled Banner" was for right wing politicians appealing for the commitment to both. If you were progressive, the national anthem was a thorny reminder of unreflective patriotism run amok. (And damned hard to sing at that.)
But then the United States got kicked in the teeth again. When those towers went down, all of a sudden the poem of resilience in the face of an assault -- an assault that took an awful human toll, but was ultimately one waged against the things, for better or for worse, America stood for -- had deep, resonant meaning. So some cowardly bastards figured out how to turn an airplane into a bomb and used it to take down America's tallest buildings and kill thousands of Americans (as "we all" were that day). Among the myriad reasons they might have had for doing so, the fact that they did because they had no respect for the openness, the freedom, the community -- the lives, dammit -- that made the country what it was. So yes, a statement about American resilience, well, that was relevant in way I had never dreamed it could be on September 10, 2001. What's more, the national anthem started to make us ask ourselves just what were those values really were -- not just those values that led some zealots to fly planes into buildings; but more importantly those values that led hundreds of police and firefighters to charge into those buildings as they were collapsing into dust. (The subsequent betrayal of those values gave rise to Springsteen's equally masterful follow-up, Devils and Dust, as well as his public support for the Kerry campaign in 2004.)
But a funny, terrible thing happened on the way to the re-discovery of the national anthem. "God Bless America" became the signature post-9/11 tune. For many, the lesson of 9/11 was apparently that one needed to respond to religious fanatics by claiming that God loved us more than them. (Never mind the implication that we might now be playing the game of religious fanaticism ourselves.) Congress took the lead, assembling on the steps of the Capitol on the evening of September 11. I've got practically nothing to add to George Carlin's take on the phrase, except to say that his objections are amplified tenfold when the phrase makes the transition from political tagline to ostentatiously warbled pseudo-hymn.
And so it was. At least as the battle of the anthems played out, we rejected the opportunity to rediscover what it means to be a nation of ideals, and just went with a literally "Holier than thou" boast/taunt that actually defied one of the core principles (religious freedom) on which the country is based.
For me, then, "Into the Fire" succeeds as the progressive alternative because it picks up upon the themes of resilience -- and of implicit reverence for founding values established by redeemed-but-rejected national anthem. Indeed, "Into the Fire" even elucidates the meaning behind the "the Star Spangled Banner's" admittedly convoluted language. What's more, as with its star-spangled antecedent, it is a heckuva lot better than the alternatives. These were mostly supplied by Toby Keith-inspired country artists, rousting up some good ole boy mischief as if this were about being goaded into some global bar fight in which the good guys win because they are better cowboys. They're laughable in comparison to "Into the Fire" -- but sadly they received exponentially more airtime. (For what it's worth, Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" strikes a nearly identical chord as "Into the Fire." But with all due respect to Alan Jackson, gimme Bruce.)
"Into the Fire" encourages one to rededicate oneself to a life -- to a society -- based upon principle, upon ideals, and upon dedication to fellow man (and woman). And what could be more progressive than that?
Song available on Bruce Springsteen, The Rising (2002), track 2.
Full lyrics here.
Two live performances of the song by Bruce Springsteen:
Toby Keith (skip to 1:54 for the money verse).
Daryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten":
Bill Maher as "Kobe Teeth":