The 1980s marked a change in social attitudes in American culture. As the Feminist movement reached deeper into American thinking in the 1980s, a new development began for white masculinity in the United States. Society reshaped its view of the male body and began to objectify men in ways similar to women. In addition to the reevaluation of masculinity through popular culture, changing conditions in the economic climate also played an important role. The 1980s increased affluence for the wealthy and brought increased economic instability to the working-class. The combination of economic struggles and the media’s intensifying focus on the male body created feelings of social and economic vulnerability for white, working-class males. However, at the same time a young New Jersey musician broke into stardom. Bruce Springsteen, a recording artist since 1973, released Born in the U.S.A. in 1984 and gained enormous popularity. Springsteen’s energetic rhythms and sound are accompanied by sincere lyrics of struggle and hope in daily life. White, working-class men identified with the artist, and, in a time of vulnerability, Springsteen emerged as a solid representative of heterosexual masculinity.
Studies in gender note the change in white masculinity that began in the 1980s. The major change involved a new display of the male body in popular culture. Michael Kimmel, author of Manhood in America, states that “feminism empowered women to look at men’s bodies, and those [that] were displayed everywhere.” The word “look” refers to women’s ability to critically view male bodies. While women have often existed as the center of physical sexuality, this role reversal created a new dynamic between the genders. Susan Bordo extensively discusses the popular reevaluation of the male physique and sexuality in her book The Male Body. The difference, Bordo writes, is that “it’s feminine to be on display. Men are thus taught–as my uncle Leon used to say–to be a moving target. Get out of range of those eyes, don’t let them catch you.” Bordo’s focus is directed to the vulnerability that being on “display” creates for people. “Display” is characterized as feminine because women have grown accustomed to being watched and understand how to respond. However, males are not familiar with this response and they therefore become more uncomfortable and disempowered. Part of this difference and imbalance is discussed by gender theorist Judith Butler. She notes the significance of gender roles and their “performance,” or their display in society. As Butler explains,
performativity is neither free play or theatrical self-presentation; nor can it be simply equated with performance. Moreover, constraint is not necessarily that which sets limit to the perfomativity; constraint is, rather that which impels and sustains performativity.
Butler discusses the complicated nature of gender, its artificial base, and its role in society throughout her work. While gender is “performed,” and thereby gives it some sense of individual control, Butler indicates the rigid order of gender and its constraints in this excerpt. Although men become the object of society’s gaze, the significance rests on society’s strong influence on people’s understanding of gender norms.
The objectification of the male body exacerbated the already vulnerable masculinity of the white working-class male of the 1980s. Accompanied by social changes in gender, the economic climate heightened the sense of insecurity for white, working-class men. During the 1980s the Reagan administration emphasized military buildup and economic improvement while cutting taxes, government regulations, and social spending. According to Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, Reagan supporters believed that “business profits, sales, investment, and employment would soar in an economic environment with much more favorable capital investments.” However, the economic shifts of the 1980s affected the distribution of wealth, thereby fostering intense job losses and a widening gap between the poor and the rich. As David Cutler stated in the American Economic Review,
[b]etween 1980 and 1988, average real income per equivalent consumption of the lowest quintile fell from $6,162 to $5,873, a 4.5% decline. Consumption of the upper quintile, in contrast, increased from $26,353 to $28,948, a 9.8% rise.
These statistics demonstrate the growing divide between the wealthy and the working-class. Working-class Americans were directly affected and men’s traditional roles as primary breadwinners were under attack.
Associated with the attack on white masculinity was the decline in union power. This began with the Carter administration in 1979 when the Federal government bailed out the Chrysler Corporation from bankruptcy. As Lichtenstein and other historians note, the bailout initiated the first wave of concessions and damage to American unions and the working-class. The United Auto Workers Union (UAW) was forced to make millions of dollars in concessions which related to their bonuses, pensions, and contracts in order to revive the Chrysler Corporation. In 1981, Reagan waited only three days before he fired 10,000 striking members of the Professional Air-Traffic Control Organization (PATCO). This response demonstrated the Reagan administration’s callous attitude toward the harsh conditions experienced by PATCO members. As Lichtenstein notes, “Reaganomics proved disastrous for American trade unions.” Daniel Mitchell states, “once a few managements were forced to discover their power by the economic slump of the 1980s, other managements were induced to test their own ability to extract concessions.” Working-class men stood directly in the path of layoffs and job insecurity. Without skills, these men relied upon their physical labor as well their unions’ to protect them. As a result, working-class men felt immense pressure in the 1980s due to the limited job opportunities for physical labor.
The United States’ economic initiatives in the 1980s only served to hurt American labor. In 1988 Richard Freeman of American Economic Review wrote, “the United States paid for its employment expansion with reduced growth of real wages and productivity rather than with costless flexibility.” The efforts to boost the economy through tax cuts and lessened restrictions on big business in fact lowered actual gains for employees and created a more difficult market for working-class Americans. Critically, Cutler states that “a ‘hidden prosperity of the poor’ is not apparent in data,” and that trends displayed “continued widening of the income distribution and sluggish decline in the official poverty rate.” In turn, men in this decade faced incredible challenges when they tried to assert themselves in the economic world. Collectively unable to control their financial state and their struggle to support their families, men’s traditional masculinity dwindled. Industries shut the younger generation of men out of employment opportunities due to the emphasis on experience in the industrial workplace. The incredible number of lay-offs and economic problems caused an identity of insecurity. Lichtenstein notes the “depression and alcoholism in the months and years that followed a factory shutdown.” Economic strife directly influenced men’s role and stability in their own families and society.
With the source of working-class male economic success coming from their ability to perform physical labor, unemployment created a sense of complete worthlessness for unskilled laborer. To add to the denigration of white, working-class confidence, and their masculinity, the American media exploited the trend of male objectification. Bordo states, “consumer culture had discovered and begun to develop the untapped resources of the male body.” The development of consumer culture redefined “acceptable” images of men. Through the provocative advertisements of Calvin Klein and the introduction of men’s magazines in 1980s like Men’s Health, the male image entered a new era of examination. Bordo highlights how Klein, “inspired by muscular yet sinewy gay male aesthetics, brought beauty of men in tight jeans–and a bit later, clinging underwear to a mass market.” Unlike older images of men fully clothed, working, and without sculpted muscles, the 1980s introduced a wave of advertisements that emphasized the male physique, particularly hips, buttocks, and genitals. Additionally, designers like Klein experimented with different “male” poses by frequently shooting male models posed in S-curves, a shot usually reserved for female models. The new display of the “masculine” body forced men to examine themselves and created insecurity over gender identities.
The vulnerability the media established with masculinity was intensified by the generally competitive nature of American masculinity. Kimmel notes,
Manhood is less about the drive for domination and more about the fear of others dominating us, having power or control over us… American men define their masculinity, not as much in relation to women, but in relation to each other.
At this point the white, working-class man found himself socially and economically vulnerable. Already vulnerable to the decisions made by upper class politicians and bosses, the body that empowered working-class men to earn their living was also under attack. Photographers and designers gained access to the societal perceptions of masculinity, and the working-class male could no longer live without scrutiny. As a result, not only were working-class men losing their self-worth through unemployment or the fear of it, but the media exposed and critiqued their bodies. By comparing working-class men to models, the media revealed the imperfections of ordinary male physiques and fueled men’s fears of inadequacy and weakness.
Amidst the turmoil of the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen released his most popular album, Born in the U.S.A., in 1984. While Springsteen reached success with his previous albums, Born in the U.S.A. boosted the musician into stardom. However, unlike the catchy beats, showmanship, and gender-bending eroticism of Michael Jackson or Prince, Springsteen offered rock n’ roll with deep meaning that related to many people. As Daniel Cavicchi notes in Tramps Like Us, “all Springsteen fans to whom I spoke had a startlingly consistency that, in the end, being a fan is about a special ‘connection’ with Bruce Springsteen.” The artist’s “connection,” especially with the white, male working-class, derived from the authenticity of his music. Cavicchi explains, “while fans may see Springsteen’s work in terms of his own life, they also relate the mood or content of a work to the circumstances of their own lives.”
The characters in Springsteen’s music are based upon his own experiences and understandings of the working-class. Springsteen grew up in a small, lower-middle class town in New Jersey without a very supportive family or educational environment. At school he was considered an outcast and never performed well in academics. Bruce Springsteen’s father worked many jobs and often came home from work angry and drunk. Although his father was incredibly critical of Springsteen’s lack of interest in education and his love of music, Springsteen manages to view his father “as an innocent victim of social forces beyond his control.” In spite of a difficult childhood, Springsteen does not necessarily use his music to cast blame. He instead shares the struggles, joy, and hope of the everyday with his audience. Springsteen, at the beginning of his career with the E-Street Band, states that his music should be “fun-dancing, screaming, having a good time, but… I also believed it was capable of conveying serious ideas and that people who listened to it, whatever you want to call them, were looking for something.” The popularity of Springsteen’s style and message rested on his ability to directly relate to his audience. One fan explains:
The fan knows the stories Bruce told… of the fights he used to have with his father… The fan, who might have been in the same situation, or knows somebody in the same situation, or simply understands what it would have been like, is attracted to the music because there is something in the music that the fan can relate to.
Part of this special relationship directly resulted from the turbulent times for the white, working-class man in the 1980s. Springsteen not only shares these experiences in his music, but his music offers a masculine means to address these conditions.
Born in the U.S.A. includes songs of struggle and invigorated hope. Springsteen’s vibrant sound coupled with his heavy lyrics and stories create a strong message that reaches his white, male working-class fanbase. The first single, “Dancing in the Dark,” was popular even before the debut of Born in the U.S.A. The song begins with a swift drumbeat, catchy synthesizer chords, and rhythmic bass guitar in the background. Immediately the song hits the listener with energy and is best heard loud. Yet, while the song’s exuberance calls the audience to its feet to dance, the narrator of the song describes his own troubles seriously and starts by saying,
I get up in the evening
And I ain't got nothing to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain't nothing but tired
Man I'm just tired and bored with myself
Hey there Baby, I could use just a little help
In this stanza the speaker describes his monotonous routine of waking and returning home from his job. Work creates a sense of frustration within the character: “I ain’t nothing but tired / Man I’m just tired and bored with myself.” This discussion of exhaustion allows Springsteen to empathize and relate to working-class hardships and the trials of physical labor. This theme returns in the chorus as Springsteen chants, “this gun’s for hire.” Laborers rely on their physiques for their living, and Springsteen describes the body as a gun for the obvious strength and power it possesses. The last line in the chorus, “even if we’re just dancing in the dark,” represents the narrator’s hope that he can rise out of his current position.
The following stanza describes the narrator’s feelings of frustration and his desire to change his life. Springsteen sings, “I check my look in the mirror / I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face.” These lines comment on the narrator’s own desire to change, yet carry another significant meaning. This emphasis on his outward appearance indicates awareness of how society views him. Because the 1980s were marked by general criticisms of the male body, the situation was intensified for the working-class male who uses his body for work. This line demonstrates the strain laborers experience at this time. Springsteen continues, loud and coarse, with “Man I ain’t getting nowhere / I’m just living in a dump like this.” His proclamation demonstrates his ability to at least address the issue instead of admitting defeat. The stanza finishes softer: “There’s something happening somewhere / Baby, I just know that there is.” This line reinforces his hope and optimism, and it gives himself confidence in time of struggle.
Springsteen calls for urgency and an anticipation to escape. The narrator recognizes his troubled circumstances:
Stay on the streets of this town
And they'll be carving you up alright
They say you gotta stay hungry
Hey Baby, I'm just about starving tonight
I'm dying for some action
I'm sick of sitting 'round here trying to write this book
I need a love reaction
Come on now Baby gimme just one look.
Springsteen reinforces the pressure society cast upon people when he states, “Stay on the streets of this town / and they'll be carving you up alright.” The use of the harsh word “carving” demonstrates the severity of this societal pressure. Springsteen continues to speak directly to working-class struggles and then pushes for action. He hits his loudest note at “I’m dying for some action / I’m sick of sitting ‘round here trying to write this book.” This call for a response is meant to rally the song’s downtrodden listener whose vulnerability prevents male reactions. Additionally, the drums and keyboard thump in the background enlivening the lyrics, causing a full body battle cry.
The song concludes by stirring the listener to continue to hope for change. Springsteen sings the chorus, but interrupts himself to state, “you can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart.” Here, Springsteen calls for the listener to have courage and perseverance that both characterize ideals of masculinity, which Springsteen exemplifies by addressing it to his audience. The lyrics trail off with “even if we’re just dancing in the dark” to reinforce the idea of hope, even if it may only be a fleeting dream. Additionally, the very last line, “hey Baby,” sounds unfinished. Springsteen gives the line as if ready to address another point, but Clarence Clemons enters on the saxophones ending Springsteen’s lyric. The sense of an unfinished sound contributes to the sentiments of hope and energy that “Dancing in the Dark” tries to convey to its listeners. Overall, the song relates to the troubles white, working-class men experienced. Springsteen demonstrates masculinity through his ability to openly address the struggles and continue to have hope for the future.
In addition to the significance of Springsteen’s lyrics and sound, his overall image creates a special appeal. Prior to the release of Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen was thin, wore berets, and physically fit the stereotypical artist and musician physique. However, as Jim Cullen, author of the book Born in the U.S.A., notes that after the video release of “Dancing in the Dark,” “the handsome, youthfully thirty-something Springsteen came to represent a vibrant, working-class, white male heterosexuality in pop music.” Cullen also notes that Springsteen emerged with “perceptibly larger biceps and a much broader chest. The man who refused to have his picture retouched for album covers was now a plausible subject of teen fantasy.” It is significant that, during a time when the male body was under greater scrutiny, Springsteen emerged unblemished. Unlike the devalued male laborer, Springsteen maintained his physique and controlled his own image. Springsteen never represented a physical icon such as that of a male model. Instead, because of his authentic message, his body was celebrated by white, male working-class men who identified with him.
Springsteen’s physical image as well as his music invigorated his audience. His performance challenged the feelings of decline, weakness, and vulnerability which his male working-class fans endured at the height of his popularity. Cavicchi, author of Tramps Like Us, describes the feelings some fans experienced at a concert: “others found that Springsteen empowered them with some sort of energy or philosophical stance precisely at the time they needed support.” At fan J.D. Rummel’s first Springsteen concert, he
couldn’t understand a thing he [Springsteen] was saying, but the energy, the power of that man, his music, and his band were just gripping. Part of me wanted to be up there, part of me wanted to be the star… he is doing something I would like to do… communicate through that passion.
Springsteen’s connection with his male fans demonstrates his ability to empower the depressed and downtrodden. However, his popularity was also associated with the sense of equality he evoked with his fans. Robert Coles, author of Bruce Springsteen’s America, explains, “he’s delivering the message plenty of us carry inside while we go knocking on doors, punching clocks.” Coles continues,
that’s a guy, singing, who’s made it big, who doesn’t want to forget who he is, or was, or could have been, and doesn’t want folks out there, his ‘fans’ they call themselves, doesn’t want them to gloss over things, and forget who keeps thinking a hell of a lot about people in the ‘working life.’
Springsteen’s personal upbringing and sincere message gives him a populist authenticity that attracts fans.
Springsteen not only discusses hope and struggle in his music, but includes masculine themes of male bonding. While increasing homophobia in 1980s America led many to a hyper-consciousness about male relationships, Springsteen navigates through these ideas in order to offer heterosexual norms. E. Anthony Rotundo notes the importance of “boy culture” in the understanding of masculinity. Rotundo explains that courage, loyalty, commitment, mastery, skill, and independence are the foundation of male relationships and boy culture. Cullen notes that
few artists have premised their careers on male bonding to the extent Bruce Springsteen has. That in itself is less important, however, than the high degree of self-consciousness that has accompanied Springsteen’s depictions of same-sex friendships, and its evolution over time… for him they have been a matter of lifelong concern.
Boy culture plays a significant role on multiple levels in Springsteen’s understanding of masculinity. Springsteen’s close relationship with his band members demonstrates his loyalty and trust in them. Most working-class, labor intensive jobs involve teams of men who are forced to depend on one another. This working relationship must be close knit in order for success. Therefore, the E-Street Band’s replication of this labor dynamic and Springsteen’s support of close male relationships creates a stronger relationship with the fans.
In a sense, Springsteen creates his own image of masculinity through his appearance and music. Cullen notes that Springsteen defines “manhood as a form of emotional investment and risk-taking, [and] a willingness to participate in the building of something larger than oneself.” Because Springsteen not only discusses close relationships in his music but also demonstrates this closeness with his bandmates, Springsteen’s masculinity possesses strong emotional qualities. However, these emotions do not effeminize the male; instead, these strong relationships act to protect the working-class man from the outside world.
Included in this understanding of emotions is the woman’s role in masculinity. Part of the performance of masculinity is the act of having a woman; marriage thus becomes a public display of heterosexuality and normalizes ones participation in society. In the song “I’m on Fire,” also on Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen expresses masculine sexuality. The song opens with a light keyboard and a methodic tap of the snare drum. Springsteen’s pick-work with his guitar creates a delicate string sound that resonates throughout the song. The delicate guitar is coupled with a softer vocal sound of Springsteen. While his singing is subdued than on other tracks on the album like “Glory Days” or “No Surrender,” the coarseness of his voice make it clear he is a man and in control. Springsteen plays with the understanding of male sexual desire with the contrast of his sound and his sexualized lyrics. The first stanza reads,
Hey little girl is your daddy home
Did he go away and leave you all alone
I got a bad desire
Oh, oh, oh, I'm on fire.
This is a provocative statement softened by a childish question which serves to establish the narrator’s dominance. He first demonstrates dominance by calling the woman a “little girl,” and asking if another man–who would be in charge of her–has left. This line does not act as a question; rather, because the third and fourth lines flow into one another, the phrasing becomes an assertion. “I got a bad desire / I’m on fire” refers to his sexual arousal and need to be with a woman. This assertive statement of sexuality reinforces Springsteen’s evocative masculinity. Additionally, the controlled tone of his voice and the instruments demonstrate an emotional restraint valued by popular understandings of masculinity.
The song clearly notes its sexual character in the following stanza: “Tell me now Baby is he good to you / Can he do to you things that I can do / I can take you higher.” Here, the drive for masculine competition is demonstrated by this comparison of sexual prowess and promotion of his own pleasurability. In addition to the sexual desire, the narrator expresses an emotional need for a woman. The narrator describes his state without a female companion:
Sometimes it's like someone took a knife Baby
Edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley
Through the middle of my soul.
The simile of a valley in his soul represents a huge sense of loneliness. While this idea is in fact a type of vulnerability, in this situation it is acceptable because it perpetuates a heterosexual norm.
The final stanza reiterates the narrator’s sexual drive and affirms his masculinity. Springsteen sings “At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet.” While a listener could argue that the narrator awoke from a nightmare, I interpret this line as the narrator experiencing a nocturnal emission. When one takes the rest of the lyrics which address his sexual desire into account, this interpretation fits Springsteen’s strong sexual desires. Additionally, Springsteen lightly sings the final lines, “Only you can cool my desire / I’m on fire.” The lyrics literally climax with this stanza and the narrator describes his physical response to waiting for sex. Although other men could criticize the narrator’s inability to perform his masculine role, the narrator is fueled by fervent sexuality as he reiterates “I’m on fire.” As mentioned earlier, the 1980s had stripped working-class men of their identified strength through the media and economics. Springsteen’s affirmation of his passion emphasizes the potency he still possesses. Additionally, the song ends with Springsteen singing, “woohoo” in song-like high notes. The use of a higher register demonstrates youth and energy that emphasizes the narrator’s sexual readiness. Therefore, Springsteen displays masculinity through his potent but frustrated sexuality throughout the song. The frustration humanizes Springsteen and creates a commonality with his audience, while his emphasis on strong sexuality demonstrates his strength as a man.
Bruce Springsteen’s stories of working-class hardship and strength gave white, working-class men a means to address the antagonisms of 1980s life. The change in economic policy under President Reagan adversely affected white working-class men in the United States. While the unskilled laborer’s body once represented the symbol of working-class pride and strength, men lost self-worth because of the instability of their jobs. These circumstances were coupled with a popular culture which was reevaluating the male body and its place in society. While working-class men had developed muscular physiques in order to work, in the 1980s these men became objectified and “stared” at by society. At this nadir for many working-class men, however, Springsteen presented tales of an uncompromised and authentic working-class masculinity. Robert Coles explains, “I know he’s our kind of ‘boss,’ like us, ‘a regular guy,’ we say, and not some boss who owns the tracks, you could say, and won’t let you go there, anywhere, without ‘the big nod.’” Nicknamed “the Boss,” Springsteen became the working-class leader for his fans. Springsteen’s fiery voice, energetic sound, and genuine lyrics demonstrated a secure, empowered masculinity to his many white, working-class male fans in the midst of their time of need.
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Miller, Debby. “Born in the U.S.A (1984.)” review, Rolling Stone. (July 19, 2002).
Mitchell, Daniel. “Union vs. Nonunion Wage Norm Shifts.” American Economic Review. (May, 1986).
Springsteen, Bruce. Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia Records, 1984). Tracks 6 and 11.
 Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 222.
 Susan Bordo, The Male Body. (NY, NY: Ferrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999), 173.
 Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter. (NY, NY: Routledge, 1993), 95.
 Nelson Lichtenstein, Who Built America? (Boston, Mass: Bedford / St. Martins, 2000), 710.
 David Cutler, “Rising Inequality? Changes in distribution of income and consumption in the1980s.” American Economic Review. (May, 1992), 548.
 Lichtenstein, 694.
 Lichtenstein, 724.
 Daniel Mitchell, “Union vs. Nonunion Wage Norm Shifts.” American Economic Review. (May, 1986), 252.
 Richard Freeman, “Evaluating the European view that the United States has no unemployment.” American Economic Review. (May, 1988), 294.
 Cutler, 548.
 John Bound and George Johnson, “Changes in the structure of wages in the 1980s: an evaluation of alternative explanations.” American Economic Review. (June, 1992), 383.
 Lichtenstein, 695.
 Bordo, 18.
 Ibid., 171.
 Ibid., 5.
 Daniel Cavicchi, Tramps Like Us. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 40.
 Ibid., 121.
 Eric Alterman, It ain’t No Sin to be Glad you’re Alive. (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1999), 2.
 Jim Cullen, Born in the U.S.A. (Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), 147.
 Alterman, 19.
 Cavicchi, 40.
 Bruce Springsteen, “Dancing in the Dark.” Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia Records, 1984).
 Springsteen, “Dancing in the Dark.” Born in the U.S.A.
 Cullen, 120.
 Cavicchi, 53.
 Ibid., 53.
 Robert Coles, Bruce Springsteen’s America. (New York: Random House, 2003), 103.
 Ibid., 100.
 Cullen, 123.
 Ibid., 123.
 Cullen, 124
 Ibid., 142.
 Bruce Springsteen, “I’m on Fire.” Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia Records, 1984).
 Coles, 101.