Whether the American energy expands or contracts, it permeates Springsteen’s songs. Then again, many of Springsteen’s characters are pure victims of American injustice— usually working-class victims. “Johnny 99,” “Atlantic City,” and “Born in the U.S.A.” all feature this type of victimized protagonist. “Atlantic City” shows off another dimension often included in Springsteen’s songs— the sense that “marginal” characters are often included, not just on-the-run characters (as in “Hungry Heart”), but small-time hustlers and criminals. These characters always seem to signify the American dream gone so badly awry that any real or final freedom is irretrievable. Part of the reason “Atlantic City” works is that it’s effectively layered— Atlantic City is a place that’s also a symbol. Sudden wealth, chance, surprise windfalls, rags to riches, boundless materiality— all the cheaper aspects of the American ethos. But these songs are angled away from satire or any kind of comedy— Springsteen’s touch is extremely serious (unlike, say, Randy Newman’s). The songs represent the evanescence of the American dream. The implication is that conscientious Americans have (if a choice is available) to take the side of the underdog. For every American who wins the American sweepstakes, a hundred don’t.
The protagonist in “Dancing in the Dark” is an interesting exception— he may live in a dump, but he’s a writer who writes books. That alone takes him out of the working class— that he’s a (presumably higher) artist. Like Chrissie Hynde’s “Middle of the Road,” it’s a song about being in your thirties (as Springsteen was when he wrote and recorded it); old enough to be exhausted with experience, young enough to still be intoxicated with possibility. The “Badlands” protagonist is an angrier variant of this, even if the specific situation in “Badlands” is never defined. That lack of definition is, in itself, American— it has boundlessness in it. A song like “State Trooper” is at the other end of things— it’s tight, constricted, and narrowly focused. The situation is simple— a man in (we assume) an illegally obtained car is driving down the New Jersey turnpike in the middle of the night. He delivers a monologue specifically to the state trooper he imagines (truly or falsely) is following him: “Maybe you got a kid/ maybe you got a pretty wife/ the only thing that I got/ been botherin’ me my whole life.” Even a blue-collar figure (the cop) gets to be privileged here. This America is both bottomed and flattened out; beyond desperation and into emptiness, boundlessly hollow.
The scope of Springsteen’s songs, where America is concerned, is vertical— from the bottom of “State Trooper” to the top of a song like “Rosalita,” where the protagonist is backed by promises that could be fulfilled on every level. Every tinge of America or American ideals falls somewhere along that vertical axis. To the extent that America in 2011 resembles a vertical chain of abuse, the Springsteen chain is edifying to return to. It shows us the full range, from the ideals to the emptiness, and in a vivid, accessible way.