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Soundcheck by Jeff Miers: Criticism of Springsteen reveals misunderstanding

Most of us agree that fires are things to avoid.

It doesn’t mean we don’t support the people who put them out. It means we are not wild about raging blazes that kill innocent people and put firefighters in harm’s way. Pointing out that we see fires as destructive does not suggest that we are disrespecting folks who make their living battling fires. Fairly simple, right?

Not so fast, hippie.

When it’s Veterans Day, all bets are off. As a country, we have lost our ability to discuss military matters in the language of reason. We are simply not able to distinguish the fire from the firefighter And woe betide anyone who attempts to do so.

Bruce Springsteen faced this reality again following his performance as part of the Veterans Day Concert for Valor on the National Mall last week. Teaming up with Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Zac Brown of the Zac Brown Band, Springsteen tore through “Fortunate Son,” originally penned during the Vietnam era by John Fogerty and tracked by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

No big deal. It’s a song that pays tribute to troops sent off to fight wars created by folks who never seem to fight them, and the class differences between those who do the fighting and those who do the sending is part of the song’s subtext. Playing the tune at a concert honoring soldiers makes sense.

But not in 2014 America, apparently. That’s a place where the nuanced argument has crawled off to die.

People freaked. And by “people,” I mean Fox News, of course, but also the average Janes and Joes who took to the social media pulpit to preach outrage. The crux of the argument against Springsteen – and it was against Springsteen, to be sure, not against Grohl or Brown, who escaped unscathed – is that “Fortunate Son” is an “anti-military” song, and therefore, performing it at a concert meant to honor the troops is at best a slap in the face, and at worst, an act of treason.

Sigh. Really? Have we not progressed beyond this point, even after all this time?

Well, no, said Eric Bolling of Fox News, who went to town on Springsteen, and who also seems to fancy himself as a guy who knows how to pick set lists for artists.

Quoth Bolling: “Springsteen has a collection of hit songs that would fill an evening. So why sing an anti-war anthem? It just doesn’t seem like the men and women who are sent into war to fight for our freedom needed to hear ‘The Boss’ degrade their cause – on Veterans Day, no less.”

One wonders if Bolling has ever really listened to “Fortunate Son.” Even a cursory glance at the lyric sheet should have made it clear that this is a lyric aimed at those who employ social and economic privilege to avoid doing the dirty work. It’s a song about people denying for others what they demand for themselves, a classic drawing of the battle lines between the haves and the have-nots. That the song is clearly, if anything, pro-troops is something Bolling and so many others just could not seem to get their heads around.

The irony here is that, later in the performance, Springsteen performed a harrowing, stripped-down, ghost-infested folk-blues take on his “Born in the USA.” Now there’s a lyric you’d think Fox News would have criticized. This is a song about the death of the American Dream, as viewed through the eyes of a returning soldier. You can’t miss it.

Contrary to the criticism, which suggested a “tone-deaf” reading of the crowd, Springsteen in fact did at the concert on the Mall what he always does when he straps on his guitar and mans the stage: his job. And his job is speaking for those whose voice is drowned out by bloviating.

Springsteen has been doing this for decades. His “Magic” album offers a detailed artist’s rendering of how the W. Bush years looked from the vantage point of a citizen trying to come to terms with a fun house mirror version of American reality. “Wrecking Ball” is a ferocious attack on those who perpetrated the banking scandals that nearly destroyed our country in 2008. Did anyone really think Springsteen was going to channel Lee Greenwood and sing “God Bless the USA”?

As for Fogerty, he wasn’t taking the bait. “Years ago, an ultraconservative administration tried to paint anyone who questioned its policies as ‘un-American,’ ” he wrote in an official statement. “That same administration shamefully ignored and mistreated the soldiers returning from Vietnam. As a man who was drafted and served his country during those times, I have ultimate respect for the men and women who protect us today and demand that they receive the respect that they deserve.”

Well said. But it was columnist Susan Milligan, writing for U.S. News and World Report, who most successfully captured the true theme of all the outrage.

“The war itself and the health and welfare of the troops are separate things,” Milligan wrote. “If we accept the premise that opposing war means disrespecting the troops, we will unfairly demonize those who make enormous sacrifices. Or we’ll put ourselves in a position where no war can be prevented, protested or stopped.”

Springsteen knew this when he took the stage on Veterans Day. His willingness to exercise his American right to protest should be as celebrated as the veterans he honored by doing so.


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