Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen met in 2008 when the legendary rock musician performed on the campaign trail for the young senator as he sought to become president.
Eight years later, Springsteen received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House from then-President Obama for his contribution to US culture. The pair have since remained close friends.
When the pandemic and renewed Black Lives Matter protests gripped the US — the Capitol insurrection wasn’t far away — Obama approached “the Boss” with the idea of reflecting on the state of the nation in a podcast that revives their own coming of age in the USA.
These self-styled outsiders fulfilled the American dream to reach the pinnacles of their chosen field.
Yet in ‘Renegades: Born in the USA’ — the podcast and now the book — they explore a nation’s struggles and contradictions that belie the 1950s’ cliche of picket fences and apple pie.
“Where Bruce and I sort of overlap is that sense of it was necessary to revise the story (of America), to make it inclusive,” said Obama in an interview with CBS on Sunday.
“People have got to recognize the country for what it is, its faults, its blessings,” Springsteen added as the two sat again in solemn conversation.
Speaking to the German broadcaster ARD this week, the 44th president called his counterpart “a great chronicler of American life, a storyteller that captures a lot of its contradictions.”
“In our own ways, Bruce and I have been on parallel journeys trying to understand this country that’s given us both so much,” writes Obama in the introduction of the book that looks likely to replicate the success of the Renegades podcast, which was the most listened-to globally on the Spotify platform.
“[We were] looking for a way to connect our own individual searches for meaning and truth and community with the larger story of America.”
During their intimate podcast series, the two covered everything from racism on the campaign trail and the civil rights movement, to Watergate and the vision of the founding fathers. The dialogue was conducted in Springsteen’s recording studio brimming with guitars and amplifiers, and another inevitable theme is music — from Bob Dylan , to hip hop and the impact of Black musicians like Aretha Franklin and James Brown.
Renegades made good
Coming from very different backgrounds, the duo might appear to be worlds apart. Barack Obama, by virtue of his name and skin color, was the ultimate outsider growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in Hawaii.
But as the two often discuss, each were raised with largely absent fathers and struggled to fill that void.
“When I was young I felt voiceless, I felt invisible, but I fought to find out where I belonged,” said the New Jersey-raised Springsteen in the interview with CBS.
Born in 1949, the budding musician’s first guitar was bought by his single mother with a bank loan. Yet he rose quickly from obscurity to become a stadium rock superstar and the bard of American working-class life.
Beyond the mythical America depicted in his breakthrough 1975 album, Born to Run, the Boss was also a trenchant critic of the US and especially the Vietnam War.
That theme was played out in his biggest hit, ‘Born in the U.S.A.'(1984), the story of a disabled war veteran who is sorely neglected yet loves his country. As Obama and the singer-songwriter discuss, the song revealed the tension in America that also drives the podcast and book that borrowed its title.
Race and the white resentment of the Trump era again emerge, not only in terms of the racial divisions that Obama had to overcome, but Springsteen’s own attempt to bridge this divide when performing for decades with Black saxophonist Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band — and against whom the Boss leans on the iconic front cover of Born to Run.
From podcast to print
Published on October 26 globally, Renegades: Born in the USA brings to life the intimate conversations that filled the podcast in a fully illustrated book format that includes rare photographs from the authors’ own collections. Added to the mix is rare archival material including Springsteen’s handwritten lyrics and Obama’s annotated presidential speeches — including his iconic “Selma” speech at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches.
As the duo revisit marriage, fatherhood, masculinity, civil rights and their love of the open road, each keep coming back to one key theme: Can a fundamentally divided America ever be united?
As Springsteen writes in the book’s introduction, the challenge now is to deal with “the destructive, ugly, corrupt forces at play that would like to take it all down.”
“This is a time of vigilance when who we are is being seriously tested,” he wrote.
This article first appeared on Deutsche Welle. Read it here.
Featured image credit: Reuters