Modern relevance of the ‘runaway American dream’
On Aug. 25, 1975 in a last-ditch effort to make it big in the world of rock and roll, Bruce Springsteen released “Born to Run,” the title track of his third studio album.
The track itself was on limited run during the tail end of the previous year, with various radio hosts discovering and playing the track on five o’clock rush hour drives. In true John Green fashion, the track blew up slowly then all at once, becoming one of the biggest hits of the Boss’ career.
That said, this track is twice as old as many of Cameron’s incoming freshman class. The Berlin Wall and communism still loomed over the German landscape. The United States was still frozen in the Cold War.
Lots of things have changed since the release of this then-seminal song – itself a vital piece of Americana at the time. So why write about it now, fourty years and a month later?
It could be because this song is still a favorite among the listeners of the time and those who view the era of music as a sort of gilded age in American popular music. It could be the fact that the wall of sound technique mixed with a glistening sax solo keep it alive.
Or, more likely, it could be just as relevant now as it was back in mid 1970s America.
As previously stated, many things have changed in the 40 years since “Born to Run.” But one thing has not, and the answer is obvious from the song’s opening lines.
“In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream.”
Put into context, the concept of the American dream has gone through a metamorphosis since James Truslow Adams described it in 1931. He asserted that “each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
In short, if you work hard enough at what you do, you will be able to achieve the goals you wish. This mindset served as a potential solace when the Great Depression roared through the 1930s. As America climbed out of the deficit en route to relative prosperity in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the working class was climbing in places like Detroit and Springsteen’s home state New Jersey.
However, as Joshua Zeitz of “The Atlantic” wrote, the era of “Born to Run” was filled with individuals waking from that dream.
“A brutal combination of commodity supply shocks, loose monetary policy, and federal deficits—the latter, a hangover effect from the Vietnam War—created both sky-high inflation and unemployment,” he said.
“The resulting phenomenon, which economists dubbed ‘stagflation,’ interrupted a quarter-century of seemingly boundless growth and prosperity,” Zeitz added.
Monetary instability, deficits, inflation, unemployment – and all in the shadow of a seemingly endless war: does any part of this sound familiar?
In 2007, the United States was in the midst of one of its worst recessions since the Great Depression. Unemployment was at its highest in 30 years. The conflict in the Middle East was omnipresent in American society. The U.S. Dollar was fluctuating in its strength. Many Millenials felt the repercussions of it as they hit their adolescent and emerging adulthood years.
So when Springsteen sang about “tramps like us,” he might as well have been talking about us, too.
Is that to say that the American dream is dead? In theory, it is not necessarily dead.
But, as “Atlantic” writer Joe Pinsker writes, America’s youth are starting to lose hope in it. Citing researchers Carol Hostetter, Sabrina Williamson Sullenberger and Leila Wood, Pinsker concludes that the new “American Dream 2.0” is not so much of an upgrade, rather a “meritocracy with an asterisk.”
“In this version of the American Dream,” the researchers said, “anyone can go to college IF they have the resources, are ok about going into debt, can somehow get the coveted scholarship, are willing to go to community college or come from a family of means.”
So maybe we are living in an era when the American dream is slipping away again, no matter the iteration. At least Zeitz thinks so.
“Americans still grapple with the same concerns that animated a young Bruce Springsteen,” Zeitz said. “The place and condition of one’s birth continue to define the outer boundaries of possibility. All of which makes the music as meaningful as it ever was.”
Which brings the point back to “Born to Run,” celebrating its ruby anniversary on American airwaves. Springsteen sang of his desire for a girl named Wendy and the hopes of hitting the highway “jammed with broken heroes.” The closing lines of the song still speak to the romantic optimist in us all.
“Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide,” he sang. “Someday girl I don’t know when we’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go.”
Where that place is, we may not know. Maybe that place is a better American dream –maybe even a better America. All many of us know is that there is something inherently wrong going on that makes the concept of American exceptionalism seem less of a fact and more like a dream from which we all unpleasantly woke.
“Baby, this town rips the bones from your back,” he said. “It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide wrap. / We gotta get out while we’re young.”
But when we get out, what comes next?
We paint a brighter future with what we have. It may be tough, but we can take that American dream, fix it up and make it ours. Maybe then, as Springsteen sang, we can all walk in the sun.
“But till then, tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”