Last night at Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris, Bruce Springsteen played the clown. He mugged for tens of thousands of cheering fans like the consummate vaudevillian showman he has always been, alongside his more noted profiles as passionate protest singer and existential troubadour. He laid on top of his fans in the front row, nonchalantly accepting their embraces. He pretended to groom himself in front of his own Jumbotron image. He did the James Brown perform-until-you’re-in-a-mock-stupor-and-can’t-stop routine. And, fittingly for the setting, he led the audience in “oh-oh-oh” sing-alongs, reducing his sometimes tortured commentary on proletarian and small-town life to open-vowel soccer chants.
There was a touch of the minstrel in the Boss’s hyperbole – he was performing America for etrangers. I haven’t seen him play “Born in the USA” as a rousing rocker since his first tour for that album; once politicians appropriated the Vietnam Vet plaint as a flag-waving patriotic anthem, Springsteen stopped playing it all together, then resurrected it in searing, troubled acoustic versions truer to its message. But last night, on foreign soil, he rocked the hit for all its nationalist, 4/4 pride — then played the entire Born in the USA album. As if his point might have been lost in translation, he said it again later, as he gathered his band in a shoulder-linked line: “We’re born in the USA.”
This isn’t necessarily the Bruce I like best. I would have preferred to hear all of Darkness on the Edge of Town or Nebraska. Rendering the LP that made him not just a star but a mega-star, he seemed to be indulging precisely in an activity he mocks: reliving “Glory Days.” But the crowd ate it up, and it was interesting to think about what this Americanness meant to them. Granted, there were many tourists and expats there, like myself. But it was a mostly European audience, who intensely identified with Springsteen’s themes of freedom, community, romance, and labor. It’s a hard year on this continent; the Crisis is everywhere, a harsh reality of deep cutbacks and fears of collapse. So when Bruce opened with “Badlands,” I don’t think the crowd was relating to a dramatic geographic eruption of canyons and mesas in the Great Plains – they were digging the tune’s wise rumination on the residue of monarchical class systems: “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ‘till he rules everything.” One young occupier wore painted-on Guy Fawkes facial hair and a T-shirt that said, “The only boss I listen to,” with a picture of Springsteen. (This was a different image than the graffiti on a wall in Barcelona, of Bruce with an added moustache – I say it was a Chaplin ‘stache, but it was probably intended as Hitler.)
In response to the collusion of the governments and the banks, socialism – advocacy of a place for the people at the table — is on the rise in Europe, and Springsteen remains a working-class hero. The French have a love/hate relationship with America. As Springsteen sang, “When I’m out in the street, I walk the way I wanna walk,” I heard envy and desire in the crowd’s roar. French police are a bitch, oppression just a baton away. You don’t get that feeling of individual autonomy after the factory whistle blows.
I’ve seen Springsteen in concert at least a dozen times since 1981; the last time, at LA’s Memorial Coliseum in 2102, was riveting, spiritual, transformative – one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen by any artist. This show was fun, entertaining, but not life-changing. And in a way, that was reassuring. Bruce doesn’t always have to deliver the gospel; sometimes, he can just let the good times roll.