I was wrong.
In my review of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album, I (too hastily) assessed “We Take Care of Our Own” as being a “misstep,” “vague” and open to “misinterpretation and misappropriation”. But since then, this review by Robert Christgau has illuminated “We Take Care of Our Own” for me. And yes, as Christgau says, it is protest music of the highest order, about this particular moment in America.
At the time of my review, I didn’t catch the irony of that repeated phrase, “We take care of our own,” or the internal struggle Springsteen’s narrator is having with himself. On one hand, he’s asking, Is this not the America where we pull together, where all Americans, regardless of race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or political affiliation, recognize that the uniqueness of our country, and its strength, lies in “a more perfect union”? But then there’s the other America, where a city like New Orleans could be abandoned in a time of crisis, and homes have been foreclosed, work has dried up, an entire class increasingly left to fend for itself. “Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy? … Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?,” he sings.
So the narrator of the song is left with a mantra — “We take care of our own” — whose meaning is at once bitter and battered-hopeful, as his mind swings between consideration of these two Americas. At the time I wrote my initial review, I didn’t hear the layered meaning. But I do now. So I was beyond delighted when President Obama, the music-critic-in-chief, ended his towering acceptance speech in Charlotte with “We Take Care of Our Own” swelling up as the signature of this campaign. Unlike Paul “I’m a big Rage Against the Machine Fan” Ryan, you can be sure that Obama listens to both the music and the words of the artists he professes to admire. And “We Take Care of Our Own” could not have been a more apt song to end the Democratic convention, in which the gloves came off and the President, the Vice President, Bill Clinton, and countless others on the podium, hammered home a vision of and plan for America that was the polar opposite of the strange, narrow, negative one the GOP presented at Tampa. “We Take Care of Our Own” lays out both of those visions: a more perfect union, strong in its diversity, including a healthy middle class, vs. the Romney/Ryan version, in which, if you are not rich, white and male, you truly will be left to take care of your own.
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2012