Wrecking Ball: The Story of the Great Recession as Told by the Boss

The Boss released his seventeenth studio album, Wrecking Ball, last week. Rolling Stone reports that, “Two years ago Bruce Springsteen told [the magazine] that he had just written his first song about a ‘guy that wears a tie.’ The songwriter had spent much of his career writing about characters struggling in tough economic times, but the financial crisis convinced him it was time to write about the people and forces that brought America to this ugly point.”


Image courtesy of Wikipedia


Given Springsteen’s long tradition of campaigning for the masses—during the 2008 election, he hosted concerts to support then-candidate Obama—we ought not be surprised by the images intrinsic to the album. Fat cats, corporate cronies, and Wall Street bankers versus the hard-working man.

The tone and tenor, however, are different in this album—more extreme, more divisive, less hopeful. Anger rages just below the surface, beyond view, but never too far out of sight. The story that unfolds is so dark that in a review of the album Rolling Stone called it Springsteen’s “most despairing, confrontational, and musically turbulent.”

The opening track, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” reminds listeners of Springsteen’s folksy roots. Were it not for Clarence Clemmons’s saxophone that comes rocketing into the fore, it would seem an odd choice—almost too hopeful—with which to start the album.

The picture darkens quickly as Springsteen begins telling the tale of the Great Recession with ballads titled “This Depression” and “Shackled and Drawn.” The lyrics to the latter song further reveal Springsteen’s own misgivings about contemporary politics and economics.

Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bill
It's still fat and easy up on banker's hill
Up on banker's hill the party's going strong
Down here below we're shackled and drawn

The middle of the album continues along the same plane—pinning responsibility for the economic downturn on Wall Street. For example, “Easy Money,” points to the “fat cats” who, apparently, “think it’s funny” when the “whole world comes tumbling down.”

The ballad—indeed the entire album—serves as an odd sort of tribute to America’s working class, recalling better days gone by, all the while indicting those who have a net worth greater than zero. Ironic, isn’t it? Springsteen is reportedly one of the world’s top musicians as ranked by net worth. In fact, Springsteen himself is part of the “one percent”—the “fat cats” that he rails against. Last year, Forbes estimated his net worth at $70 million.

Let’s face it. The Boss has been a top-selling musician for almost four decades but the economic story he paints is one-sided—and, quite frankly, false. There is a lot of blame to go around—and, yes, part of that belongs to Wall Street and to our political leaders. But, part of the cause of the Great Recession rests with the people too, with each one of us who spent more than we earned, and for closing our eyes to the political and economic realities around us.

It’s just that those records wouldn’t sell as well—the masses would rather be placated with a Keynesian “pharmacopeia” rather than be the hard-working man that Springsteen so frequently sings about. And, Springsteen readily obliges with the album’s final offering, “American Land,” in which the Boss attempts to redeem the promise of the American dream with illusory and grandiose images, crowing to the children that “the sweets…are growing on the trees,” while appealing to the adults that “gold comes rushing out the rivers straight into your hands,” and “there’s diamonds in the sidewalk.” The clincher? “There's treasure for the taking.”

Although Springsteen may be a terrible economist and historian, he is a renowned marketer—like a politician appealing to the greatest number of his constituents, the Boss knows how to sell albums. As CNN points out, “even though some of these songs were written before anyone pointed a bullhorn at the banks, [Springsteen’s] smart to make the declaration [that the album was inspired by the Occupy movement]. Whenever America's falling on hard times, his music simply sounds better, his lyrics taking on near-biblical significance.”