Watch the River Rush On: Springsteen’s “Nebraska” and the Deindustrialized Midwest

“Born in the U.S.A.” is Bruce Springsteen’s best-selling album by an enormous margin. However, its predecessor, the eerie “Nebraska,” offers a jarring foil to the blueprint of heartland rock, drawing out the hidden grief of a working class that resided behind the sprightly and sanitized world of the 1980s. Cover image: "Eye of the Pyramid" 1982. Nebraska Sessions. Copyright: Frank Stefanko.

“I remember when his live box set came out. People were lining up to get it. It was a big, big deal,” Professor Theo Cateforis, a rock ‘n’ roll historian and musicologist at Syracuse University, said, reflecting on his time as a student working at his campus record store.

The “Live 1975-85” album to which Cateforis refers is a collection of live performances by the “Boss,” Bruce Springsteen. The 26th song on this first (legal) anthology of the Boss’ live music is a 1985 rendition of “Born in the U.S.A.,” a six-minute, screeching and synthesized version of one of the most misunderstood rock songs of all time.

“Born in the U.S.A.,” however, did not begin as what Cateforis calls a “pumping, anthemic chorus,” but rather as one of 17 songs recorded alone by Springsteen on a TEAC 144 4-track Cassette Recorder in a farmhouse in Colts Neck, New Jersey, between 1981 and ‘82. Of these 17 demo tracks, 10 would go on to become the starkest record of the Boss’ discography — 1982’s “Nebraska.”

“The demo is usually seen as the most direct conduit to the artist and their identity. So, on that level, ‘Nebraska’ is the most Springsteen album,” Cateforis said. “It allows him to bring those characterizations even more fully into focus.”

Through the Midwestern serial killer Charles Starkweather to the out-of-work and deranged “Johnny 99,” the loyal and conflicted “Highway Patrolman,” the violently inclined protagonist of “State Trooper” and the rapturous driver of “Open All Night,” Springsteen embodies the post-industrial delirium of the midwestern United States and north Jersey, gently animating the harrowing stories behind the unemployment crisis and economic collapse of the mid-20th century with vital desperation.

“The Pass” 1982. Nebraska Sessions. Copyright: Frank Stefanko.

“So much of Springsteen’s music is about mobility, cars, highways,” Cateforis said. “Few things are more American than the automobile. That is such a strong part of the identity of our country, both in terms of manufacturing and industry in the Midwest, obviously, but also in the romanticism of escape and freedom.” The “Nebraska” album, however, is unforgiving in its reckoning with the American automobile.

“Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month / Ralph went out lookin’ for a job / but he couldn’t find none,” begins “Johnny 99,” addressing the disintegration of livelihoods accompanying a decline in auto-industrial jobs. 

Rather than the “chrome wheel, fuel-injected” machine of “Born to Run,” the youthful narrator of “Used Cars” depicts a dilapidated picture of his father’s depression and unemployment. The car, Springsteen’s symbol of freedom, confines.

“If you think about the era in which Bruce Springsteen becomes popular,” Cateforis said, “this is the era of de-industrialization in the United States: the shuttering of factories, our eventual move from a manufacturing society to a service economy … there’s all sorts of societal reasons why Springsteen’s music could have a larger resonance for people who are suffering at the time.”

In Cateforis’ mind, Springsteen’s live performances — physically laborious, exhaustive, multi-hour affairs — attract audiences as both the band and the Boss exude a blue-collar work ethic.

Indeed, as the American auto industry crashed, Springsteen ascended. Between 1969 and 1982, the number of manufacturing jobs in the Detroit Metropolitan Statistical Area decreased by 212,190 or 33.5 percentage points. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, from 1973-1986, Bruce Springsteen sold almost 53 million records. In 2020, the number of manufacturing positions in the Metro Detroit area constituted less than 40% of their 1969 value. That same year, Bruce Springsteen had sold just under 136 million records.

“You have the global economy evolving from agriculture to labor, manufacturing-intensive to knowledge-based and services to technology.” Richey Piiparinen, author and founder of the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University, said. “When the global economy went from manufacturing to services, or blue collar to white collar, you have a huge swath of people that are economically dislocated.”

He argues that economic displacement trickles down into the individual and the communities as systematic failures, becoming stress, mental illness and sickness — the debilitations with which “Nebraska” brims.

“Down Home” 1982. Nebraska Sessions. Copyright: Frank Stefanko.

Over three decades after “Nebraska” was released, Michael Luongo, a freelance journalist and Purdue University instructor raised in the same town as Springsteen, witnessed the continued tensions of economic dislocation while teaching at the University of Michigan.

“It’s full of very wealthy, liberal white people who really don’t understand. I mean it’s just down the road from Detroit, but it’s just so disconnected from Detroit,” Luongo said.

Luongo was, in 2016, struggling to pitch publications his story that the de-industrialized states would vote red instead of blue.

“When I tried to explain that Hillary is not going to win Michigan or Ohio … because of NAFTA, editors would say ‘well, NAFTA’s 25 years ago, why do people care about that?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, aren’t you familiar with what NAFTA did to the middle of the country?’ and I tried to explain it in terms of [Springsteen’s ‘My Hometown’],” he said.

NAFTA, which established a free-trade zone between Canada, Mexico and the United States, would further already-prominent unemployment issues in the Midwestern United States with the offshoring and outsourcing of labor industries such as the auto industry. The song “My Hometown,” from “Born in the U.S.A.,” mentions the closing of a textile mill that Luongo placed in conversation with NAFTA and the greater de-industrialization of the Midwest.

Luongo’s article, which CNN picked up following Trump’s victory, claims an “empathy gap” between the coastal U.S. and the Midwest. 

“2004, where you’re seeing, well, ‘Bush got us into all of these wars, the economy sucks. How on earth could people actually vote [for Bush]?’” he said. “It’s the same issue, we don’t understand the middle of the country. And again, we don’t understand the middle of the country with the current elections.”

According to Luongo, another gap, not of empathy but of ideology, has emerged between Springsteen and his fans. 

Springsteen, since 2004, has openly campaigned for Democratic candidates John Kerry, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. His music has been similarly impacted by this politicization.

2003’s “We Take Care of Our Own” directly criticizes the Bush administration’s large-scale failures, particularly in handling Hurricane Katrina: “From Chicago to New Orleans / From the muscle to the bone / From the shotgun shack to the Superdome / There ain’t no help the cavalry’s stayed home.”

In contrast, the 1982 song “Nebraska” remains inconclusive about the source and solution of its narrator’s problems: “They declared me unfit to live / Said into that great void my soul’d be hurled / They want to know why I did what I did / Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” “Nebraska” proffers the question of suffering, but attempts no obvious answers.

“What If” 1982. Nebraska Sessions. Copyright: Frank Stefanko.

While the work of Springsteen’s later career has become increasingly politically outspoken, “Nebraska,” handling the same social detritus, remains chiefly personal and empathetic. Regardless, despite his dogmatic differences from those he writes about, Springsteen’s empathy, like in “Nebraska,” stays unwavering.

“Over the years, over the decades, he has evolved,” Frank Stefanko, longtime photographer and friend of Springsteen, said. “But the person behind all that, the organism that is Bruce Springsteen, has never really changed. He’s still that guy … it’s just gotten really polished.”

“Nebraska” however, is unpolished to the extreme. Never intended to be released, Springsteen recorded the demos in hopes of avoiding the costly extended studio sessions that had plagued his previous two albums. But when Springsteen attempted to render studio recordings, he could not replicate the sound or feel of the originals. 

Coming off his most successful record to date in “The River” and poised to release his most successful record ever in “Born in the U.S.A.,” the Boss chose to release the soft, whispering anxiety of the 10 unproduced demo tracks.

“A lot of people characterize ‘Nebraska’ almost as if it’s a folk album,” said Cateforis. “That, when you kind of strip it, of all the production elements that would rear their head on ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ you’re left with … someone with whom you can identify, and he can identify with his subjects.”

While Reagan busts unions, Bruce is left without his, alone and isolated with a cassette deck as the river rushes on, so effortlessly.

A previous version of this story noted that Michael Luongo was born in the same town as Springsteen. This story was updated on May 28, 2024 to correct that Luongo and Springsteen were raised in the same town, not born in the same town.

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