Land of Hope and Dreams
Inside one of the world’s most successful rock stars
beats the heart of a social justice crusader.
By Jeffrey Martin '04, '05 (M.A.)
William Wolff, Ph.D., spends a lot of time listening to and thinking about music. Posters decorate the walls of his office. Vinyl albums await their chance on a turntable. Speakers play folk rock at just the right level to provide a soundtrack to his work.
But Wolff isn’t a musicologist. He’s an assistant professor of communication studies and teaches classes in social media and community engagement, digital storytelling and communication theory. Wolff is also an expert in rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking and writing.
He combines his expertise with his passion by studying one of the greatest living rhetoricians:
Wolff is the editor of Bruce Springsteen and Popular Music: Rhetoric, Social Consciousness, and Contemporary Culture (Routledge, 2018), a collection of scholarly essays, looking at the ways that Springsteen presents himself and his music to the world, from a diverse set of disciplines including gender studies, theology and communications.
Wolff argues that since the 1980s, Springsteen “has employed what Aristotle called epideictic rhetoric — a form of rhetoric where a person consciously attempts to influence an audience’s beliefs and actions on cultural issues. In Springsteen’s case, in response to his observations of a world overrun by corruption, duplicity, war, loss of decency and unfairness.
“Look further than the lyrics: Think about his public statements,” Wolff urges. “Think about album packaging and liner notes. Think about which songs an artist chooses to sample, remix and make new — such as when Springsteen borrowed Blind Alfred Reed’s 1929 song ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live,’ which was about the Great Depression, and in 2006 remade it into an indictment of the Bush administration’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. With Springsteen, we study how these forms of media are communicated to reinforce a particular view of the world and enact change.”
“As long as there’s an imbalance between the wealthy few and the struggling many, Bruce Springsteen will have more reasons to sing, play and assert his view of America.”
William Wolff, Ph.D.
One song that illustrates the difference between intention and inferred meaning, Wolff says, is the title track on Springsteen’s massively successful 1984 album Born in the U.S.A.
“It’s very clearly a protest song, pointing out the effects of the Vietnam War and United States’ treatment of veterans,” Wolff explains. “But because of its thundering, radio-friendly presentation, people misinterpreted it as a patriotic anthem and used it for reasons he never intended. George Will wrote in The Washington Post that it was a ‘cheerful affirmation,’ and Ronald Reagan mentioned it in a September 1984 speech, which Springsteen decried from the stage in Pittsburgh the following day. It wasn’t how the song was intended to be heard and may be why he has now chosen to play a stripped down, haunting, guttural version on stage during his Springsteen on Broadway show — so he can leave no doubt in the matter.”
While Springsteen occasionally engaged in this kind of discourse during the height of his commercial success, Wolff says it was “Streets of Philadelphia” that set him on a new path.
The song, written for the 1993 film Philadelphia, which presented life with HIV/AIDS in a way mainstream films hadn’t before, was Springsteen’s “first push since signing with a major record label to consciously make music with a social and political purpose and inspire change in others,” Wolff says. “That led to his 1995 folk album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, which featured the stories of laid-off factory workers, migrant farmers, drug runners, vagrants — those left behind and forgotten who often pay with their lives.
As he grew more comfortable with his rhetorical method, Springsteen incorporated more intentional messaging into his songs and albums. In 2012, he released Wrecking Ball, a pointed attack against financial corruption. Wolff calls the record “his angriest, most politically overt album. In the final song, ‘We Are Alive,’ Springsteen calls forth voices from the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which left nearly 100 dead; from the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, which left four black girls dead; from the migrant workers crossing the southern border who died on their journey; to encourage those fighting for justice and solidarity to ‘stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.’”
Beyond the messages contained within the songs themselves, Springsteen has also made a point to exercise his ability to persuade when he’s outside the recording studio.
“His public statements clearly have an epideictic purpose and are meant to inspire action in others,” Wolff says. “The day after the global Women’s March in January 2017, he performed in Perth, Australia. From the stage, he publicly stated his support of women’s rights, immigrant rights and racial justice. He reinforced the message by going into a five-song set that started with ‘Lonesome Day,’ which expressed the despair that people felt, and ended with ‘Land of Hope and Dreams,’ which lifted people up with resilience.”
Wolff notes that, while the book captures academic thought about Springsteen’s post-9/11 work, there is a wealth of material to study from his career and as he continues to make music.
“As long as there’s an imbalance between the wealthy few and the struggling many,” Wolff shares, “Bruce Springsteen will have more reasons to sing, play and assert his view of America.”