Music Matters: Why Feminists* Love Bruce Springsteen

*By “feminists” I mean me.

Not long ago, I got into a conversation on Twitter about why feminists love Bruce Springsteen. Of course I can’t speak for all feminists or even most feminists, but I can certainly discuss my love for Springsteen. And it seems only right to follow talk about Johnny Cash and U.S. politics with discussion of the other oft-misappropriated American blue-collar icon who’s a major influence in my life.

Because yeah, Bruce and Johnny: that’s what the men in my life have to live up to.

(OK, not really.)

I should credit Emma Forrest for reintroducing me to Springsteen as a semi-adult, in her novel Namedropper. But it was really a road trip with my mother, during which we ran out of music we could both stand quickly driving from South Carolina to New Hampshire, and stopped at a Best Buy highwayside to dig for something else.

I ended up with a Best of Bruce and we blasted it across New Jersey, which is the only proper way to drive the New Jersey turnpike. Bruce is the patron saint of the country’s most-abused state, the one that pays the most in taxes and receives the least back.

Most people who’ve embodied the Myth of America are Southern or Western, but Bruce is solidly Northeast Suburban and so am I. His America is one I can relate to, one in which the brickyard-working half of my family mixes with the Ivy League Jewish half, one where my mother’s love for fast cars and my dad’s keep-your-head-down-and-work ethos all meet.

Reagan tried to claim Bruce and I still have a hard time with “Born in the USA” even though I know what it really means. Bruce provided the theme song for The Wrestler and performed “This Land is Your Land” with Pete Seeger at the inauguration, celebrating the broken and laughable while never laughing on the one hand and calling us to remember the best of us on the other. He played the Super Bowl not long after, and then last year he gave a song and an intimate performance to Howard Zinn’s The People Speak.

So what does this have to do with feminism? Again, models for masculinity. Bruce doesn’t ask anyone to give up their pleasure in these sorts of male ideals—he’s the fast-car-driving, football-loving, patriotic guy who even likes pro wrestling. He just asks us to critique them.

War is the most obvious one—again, “Born in the USA”—but his The Rising is the other best response to 9/11 (with Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat) and when he played its title track at the inauguration it gave me chills of something set right after seven years of being oh so wrong. He looks up at that day from the point of view of the workers and the everyday people who weren’t spouting platitudes about “with us or against us,” but focusing on the ways you get by when your way of life is shaken.

And of course, for me, the point is class baby, class. There’s not a lot of working-class points of view that don’t get an airing in a Springsteen song, from factory workers, to highway patrolmen, to migrant workers risking death crossing the border, and even a sex worker or two.

The New York Times this weekend ran a lovely feature on Bruce ahead of the release of a three-CD, three-DVD boxed set, “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story.” The piece closes with this:

“I went back to where I was from, and I looked into that world and those lives, which I understood was only tangentially going to be my life from there on in,” he said, as the fire behind him burned. “But if I was dedicated to it, and if I thought hard enough about it, and if I put in my time, I could tell those stories well. And that’s what I did.”

And that’s it, really. He knew he was leaving behind that working-class world and knew he’d have to work to retain his roots there—but he’s been willing to do that work where many others haven’t been.

And Bruce on women (finally, she gets to the damn point):

He’s been critiqued for his use of the phrase “little girl,” but I love Bruce’s women. From Mary from “Thunder Road” (my favorite) who ain’t a beauty but yeah she’s alright, and isn’t looking for a savior but just someone else to run away for a while on the open road, to Rosalita and Wendy of “Born to Run,” Bruce gives you women who are real, who you (or at least I) can see yourself in.

He explores relationships and feelings in a thousand complex ways instead of writing the same falling-in-love or getting-heartbroken song over again. I don’t have time or space here to list them all, but I think the best I can say, the best explanation I can give, is that Bruce writes of real life, of the tiny moments in it that transcend, yes, but also the struggles and heartaches of everyday existence. That he writes from the point of view of a (now quite wealthy) white heterosexual man but one who understands and loves women as people as well.

I don’t know if I’ve even come close to explaining Why Feminists* Love Bruce Springsteen. But at least I’ve scratched the surface on why this particular feminist does. And if I haven’t convinced you yet, well…

by Sarah Jaffe
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25 Comments Have Been Posted

I heartily approve of this

I heartily approve of this post, and I know exactly what you're saying. You can definitely include me in the group of feminists who love Bruce. I love Bruce. That is all.

This is great. I feel like

This is great. I feel like you just explained to me why I love his music, because I could never really articulate it myself. At least not as well as you did here! Thanks!


You can add yet another tried and true feminist to the ranks of Bruce lovers. I am from a Northeast US blue-collar white family, and my dad made sure to raise me on the The Boss. To me, the best thing about Bruce, outside of complex lyrics and awesome riffs, is his ability to show that to be working-class and white is not necessarily to be politically conservative, especially on social issues. The working-class, as a group, has totally been co-opted into conservative policies, and so many people think that we blue collar people are uneducated, anti-gay, anti-feminist, etc. I think a lot of this is because so much working-class pop culture focuses on more of a rural, small town version, and plays up conservative politics found in these regions and states. The urban, factory element has been relegated to the "past," but they and their children (like me) still exist, and some of us vote Democrat and believe in ending oppression. Rah Rah Country Music that promises to "stick a boot in your ass because that's the American way" does not represent all blue collar voters. The Boss gives the liberal blue collar element a voice, and for that, he is invaluable.


I don't have a problem with

I don't have a problem with the use of "little girl", but as a feminist what do you think of the words to "Fire"?

I mean I'll be perfectly blunt, it sounds like he's describing the actions of a date-rapist here. Which is not to say that topic shouldn't be addressed in song, but there's really no indication in these lyrics that it's negative.

A few thoughts on "Fire." 1)



Meant to type "An overlooked song Springsteen wrote...

...about a woman" in my last comment,sorry!


Chiming in heartily on being a die-hard Bruce feminist fanatic for all the above reasons. I've seen him seven times and counting and just cannot wait for the next tour or album. I agree that his appeal comes from his ability to be "masculine" and also so deeply and intensely emotional and raw, writing lyrics about cutting the pain from his heart, etc etc.
And let's not forget that even if "Working on a dream" wasn't as bleak and mind-blowing as the previous two albums, it contained some of the most lovely odes to happy marriage I've ever heard in pop music: "we laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the greys."
Patti is a lucky woman.


she's lucky, but so is he. She turns a blind eye to his 'playing around', she even wrote a song about iy 'play around', it's on youtube. I guess it's great for Bruce, lovely wife at home who lets him scout New Jersey gyms for younger redheads

Love it

Now I'm going to go listen to hours of Bruce.

Thank you for this!

I've nodded along with your comments about Bruce and Johnny Cash as models of masculinity, and thank you for pointing to some of the women in his songs. I feel like Bruce, particularly, gets appropriated as the symbol for a lot of male musicians and fans, but the influence he's had on female artists isn't explored as much, and that's partly because we don't seem to see as many women writing about him. So thanks again for saying this, I love it!

I love this post, and I love

I love this post, and I love the Boss. God, how much do I love the Boss.

I read an interview with Kaia Wilson once of the Butchies, and she said something to the effect of, if she had to sleep with a man, she thought it would be Bruce Springsteen. As a queer-identified woman, I've always thought that Bruce Springsteen had some sort of queer sexuality, or at least a queered version of masculinity.

He makes great music. He is sexy as hell. I love Bruce.

This post makes me happy.

I love this post and a bunch of the comments on it. I've been a fan of Bruce ever since Born to Run came out, when I was something like 14 years old; when I finally saw a Springsteen/E Street Band concert (on the Darkness tour, when I was 17) it was a truly life-changing experience. Yes, I was already getting empowered by listening to female musicians (Patti Smith in particular, but also Heart, Bonnie Raitt, etc.) but, more than any other musician, Bruce's music was what made me feel like <i>yes, I can do something with my life, I can raise my voice and say things</i>. If that ain't feminist, I don't know what is.

And yes, I had a problem with the whole "little girl" thing for a while there. But if you notice, a lot of times when he sings a "little girl" song in concert nowadays he leaves out the "little" - "Racing in the Street" is one example; he usually sings "and drove that girl away" now. I've seen & read interviews where he openly admits he did not understand how to write about men and women until fairly late. I think that's part of the example he sets - maybe you don't understand other people now but you can learn to understand them and you can learn to treat them with respect.

He doesn't write songs about vague concepts. He tells stories about human beings, people with names and jobs and cars and triumphs and failures. Ultimately, that's why his music does what it does, I think; he sings about these characters with such respect and compassion, whether they are 9/11 firefighters in NYC or sex workers in Reno or exhausted factory workers or supermarket checkers or barefoot girls sitting on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain. Part of the message of his music is to respect people for whoever they are, because they're all trying to follow their own dreams ("just like those guys do, way up on that screen"). And if that's not directly feminist, well, it's pretty darned compatible with a feminist world view. It's a revolution you can dance to.

Anyway, thanks for this post. It pretty much made my day.

I love The Boss too! I never

I love The Boss too! I never had a problem with him using 'little girl,' I don't think he uses it to diminish the woman he's singing about, I just see it as a term of endearment. I also wanted to say that the 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' album got me through three years of call center hell.

I was a Reagan-era kid, and

I was a Reagan-era kid, and it's hard for me to disassociate Bruce Springsteen from his fist-pumping, arena rock image. It was all too tied up in bombast and melodrama, and I was just discovering alternative rock, and The Boss didn't fit into the image I was trying to fashion for myself. (I was about eleven or twelve, by the way. I was a pretentious little kid.) I came from working-class, family living barely above the poverty line, not unlike something out of a Springsteen song. And though I couldn't articulate it then, I didn't want to be confronted with it, especially by someone selling millions of records. It was only years later, sitting in a car during a thunderstorm listening to <i>Nebraska</i> that I "got it."

You said it!

I've been trying to explain my love of B.S. for a couple years now, and I think you really captured it with this explanation: "Most people who've embodied the Myth of America are Southern or Western, but Bruce is solidly Northeast Suburban." Thanks.

Bruce hates football.

<p>Bruce hates football.</p>

I'm right there with you, Sarah

Hey, Sarah: I just wanted to thank you for this post! I understand what you mean when you say "I don't know if I've even come close to explaining Why Feminists* Love Bruce Springsteen." I can't really explain my slight infatuation, either. But I'm glad that someone has finally acknowledged Bruce as someone more than strictly a representative for the working class or Middle America. There is indeed a raw sort of tender affection in his lyricism that always brings me back to earth when I listen.

I too hail from Jersey originally, but feel that "Bruce" is iconic for more than his portrayal of living in what some refer to as "the armpit of America." (Those evil idiots don't know WHAT they are talking about; some of us surprisingly aren't orange from spray tans). To me and many others, he is in a small way a piece of each chapter in my life. If you can think of it, worry about it, laugh about it, or need to find hope, Bruce has a song for that. I would like to recommend two books about Bruce that added to my understanding of him and of the cultural construction he has come to stand for: * "Greetings from Bury Park" by Sarfraz Manzoor and "Two Hearts" by Dave Marsh. If you haven't yet read them, enjoy! Thanks for shedding a new light on my man Bruce.

Bruce in Darkness

Bruce Springsteen photographer reveals details behind dramatic cover photo of new Darkness box set:


thoughtful and well written tribute to a man that, i believe, speaks to us all...if we take the time to truly listen with an open mind. pay attention to the lyrics of “land of hope and dreams”, and you’ll understand that bruce frederick joseph springsteen excludes no one from his journey…not even governor wrecking ball, who is a diehard fan. as a firmly entrenched hetero male, i can say unequivocally that i too love BRUCE!

My personal criteria . . .

On which I often judge a person is whether they "get" Born In The USA" or not. And the smartest people the world over love Bruce. (of course a lot of not so smart people love him too, and that's fine).

I think one of the things that makes Bruce a real feminist, even allowing for the "little girl" wording, is how he really has insight into what makes women in different situations tick. From the girl who is pushing that baby carriage at her feet, to the one who has a brilliant disguise, to the one who is laughing in the kitchen with her friends from home, he knows women, and with just a few words pulls all the essentials of the emotional scene into focus.

And that's why I love Bruce.

I totally agree with

I totally agree with everything that you just said! I love his in-depth lyrics, that are almost written like ballads! I think he is amazing, and you can include me in your grouping of 'feminists'- LOVE him~! And lucky enough to be going to see him live next year when he comes to New Zealand! xx

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