“On the surface, Bruce and I don’t have a lot in common” says Barack Obama in the opening episode of Renegades: Born in the USA. “He’s a white guy from a small town in Jersey, I’m a Black guy of mixed race origin born in Hawaii… he’s a rock and roll icon and I’m.. not as cool.”
Obama was perhaps being overly modest in his self description but the 44th President was correct to highlight the differences between the musician whose most successful album declared he was born in the USA and the politician whose Americanness was consistently questioned by his opponents, among them his White House successor. Later in the podcast, Obama outlines what the two men share, suggesting they have both been “looking for a way to connect our own individual searches for meaning and truth with a larger story of America... on parallel journeys trying to understand this country that’s given us both so much.”
But the journeys have not always been parallel: Springsteen endorsed Obama in 2008 suggesting that the then senator “speaks to the America I’ve envisioned in my music for the past 35 years”. Obama returned the compliment claiming he was only running for President because he could not be Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen performed at campaign rallies for Obama and the President in turn ended up inspiring Springsteen to perform stripped-down versions of his songs in his Broadway residency. Listening to the podcast and reading the new book, which includes the transcripts of their conversations, it is clear that the connection and friendship between Springsteen and Obama is about more than a mutual desire for the reflected glory that comes from proximity to power and fame.
One may be a songwriter and the other a politician but Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama are both gifted storytellers who have crafted a story about themselves and their nation. Their personal stories were both shaped by difficult relationships with their fathers – one was mentally ill and the other absent – which shaped their adult lives and which became central themes to best-selling memoirs. They are both palpably decent men who have married impressive women with whom they have raised families. They have both engaged in a degree of self-mythologizing to sell themselves and their stories to the world for political and creative ends. They have both argued that their own personal stories embody a larger American story. In sharing and telling their own narratives they have both been hugely successful in their differing fields with fans across the world.
The irony is that they are both deeply thoughtful, somewhat shy individuals whose chosen fields require them to enthuse huge audiences. The expectations of their supporters and fans is also outsized compared to their contemporaries. When one recalls how much hope and faith was placed in Obama during his first Presidential campaign it is tempting to believe that for his most ardent fans he represented something far beyond mere party politics.
Similarly with Springsteen, whose millions of fans – myself included – would consider the suggestion that he is just a musician to be bordering on blasphemy. I am now 50 and have been an ardent fan of Springsteen’s music since I was 16. In that time I have repeatedly turned to his lyrics for inspiration, reassurance, solace and wisdom. That is also what many have turned to Obama for while in power and, perhaps even more so, during the Trump Presidency.
In a time when the nation was riven by division, Obama, like Springsteen, offered Americans and the wider world a reminder of another nation. Obama went from commander to consoler-in-chief. Like Springsteen, he is an optimist who has articulated a vision of how great America can be, even if it does not always live up that promise. These are some of the themes explored in Renegades. The podcast was released in February 2021 as Britain was about to mark the first anniversary of the lockdown. We had all been stuck at home for months, unable to meet friends or attend concerts. I remember feeling culturally and socially starved and so the arrival of the podcast was deeply welcome. I would listen to each new episode while going for a long walk usually in the evening. It would be cold but hearing Bruce and Barack talk about race, fatherhood, identity and belonging, I was warmed by the feeling I was among my people. I felt that again when reading the book: like the best Springsteen song and the most uplifting Obama speech Renegades reminds us that despite the hardness of the world and the challenges that demand to be faced there still exists the promise of better days.