- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2004

In a much-snickered-at column in 1984, George Will wrote of Bruce Springsteen: “I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’”

The column was one more example of a square conservative — one who confessed he didn’t know what marijuana smells like — not catching, or ignoring, the bitter irony of the Boss’ signature antiwar anthem.

The same year, the Reagan campaign had tried to usurp the song by playing it at rallies. Mr. Springsteen balked. But, beyond that personal protest, he stayed above the fray. He didn’t, say, campaign for Walter Mondale.

That’s changed.

In this year’s contest, Mr. Springsteen not only allowed his recordings to serve as campaign-rally anthems, he actively and overtly campaigned for a candidate — right down to the wire. He helped raise millions of dollars to get out the Democratic vote and appeared with Sen. John Kerry at key battlegrounds such as Madison, Wis., Miami and Cleveland. He did what Bob Dylan would never do: become a willing instrument of a political party; a hack; an apparatchik.

Will it hurt him with Republican fans, or possibly make him even more popular?

In the short term, Mr. Springsteen’s politicking has been a great PR blitz. He’s been on the front page of major newspapers and headlined one of the highest-profile tours of the year — not bad for an artist whose last studio album came out more than two years ago.

Politics has made Mr. Springsteen timely in the same way that the September 11-infused “Rising” LP made him timely, and culturally relevant.

However, to borrow the spinmeisters’ standard of leadership, “The Rising” saw Mr. Springsteen as a uniter; coming out so forcefully and actively for Mr. Kerry makes him a divider. And that’s where trouble may lurk in the long term.

Like fellow Kerry-booster Howard Stern (and unlike Bush-basher Eminem), Mr. Springsteen has a lot of Republican fans, and he knows it.

On his last tour, which stopped here twice in two years, Mr. Springsteen prefaced his nightly public service announcements by nodding to the GOP-leaners in his audience. “We like that,” he would say of the bipartisan crowds, noting he believed Republicans and Democrats alike have misled the country into war.

Such concessions might not have won over New York City cops furious at “American Skin (41 Shots),” Mr. Springsteen’s attack on the shooting of Amadou Diallo, but they provided space for disagreement.

That space may have gotten a lot tighter.

In the chat room of Mr. Springsteen’s official Web site (www.brucespringsteen.net), there’s a section for conservative venting called “Bruce Stay Out of Politics.” A writer by the handle of BruceFanforBush bemoans “the hundreds of dollars I have spent to help Mr. Springsteen build…wealth and popularity, only to have him use it against me politically. Shame on you, Bruce.”

“As a Springsteen fan of over 25 years, I am appalled by his campaigning for one of the candidates,” wrote another.

A sympathetic fan posted in response, “Bruce Springsteen is not stock on the N.Y.S.E. You are quite free to burn, sell or throw away your stuff.”

Thinking demographically, Mr. Springsteen’s core fan base — at least here in America, but more on that in a moment — is in the post-industrial, blue-state rump of the Northeast. While he has fans in the heartland and the upper Midwest, his biggest draws are in New York City, Boston, New Jersey and Philadelphia.

But he isn’t nearly as popular on the liberal West Coast, particularly the latte enclaves of the Pacific Northwest, where tales ofRust Belt decline, drag racing and boardwalk fortunetellers sound like ethnic folklore.

So he theoretically stands to gain fans as well as lose them. In America, Mr. Springsteen’s headfirst dive into partisan politics may prove to be a wash.

In America, that is.

There’s Europe, don’t forget, where Mr. Springsteen is nearly as colossal as he is here. In a 2002 interview to promote “The Rising,” Mr. Springsteen told “Nightline’s” Ted Koppel that fully two-thirds of his audience is in Europe.

Europeans, whose anti-Bush sentiments are virulent, will not hold Mr. Springsteen’s politics against him. They’ll consider him all the more heroic.

Consider the Pope. At the height of the church’s child-molestation scandal, critics complained of the pontiff’s hard-line rejection of reform. What they failed to notice was that liberal American Catholics are a trifle compared to the growing ranks of conservative Catholics in Africa.

The Pope was thinking globally.

Could it be that Bruce Springsteen, too, while campaigning locally, was thinking globally?

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