Whiteness on the Edge of Town: Bruce Springsteen and the Racial Politics of Heartland Rock

Postwar Faculty Colloquium
Denton, TX
March 22, 2019

This paper argues that the heartland of heartland rock is not a place but a race. It is Seymour, Indiana; Gainesville, Florida; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Freehold, New Jersey. Heartland rock is a regional form without a region, having less to do with the Midwest or the postindustrial East than with the presence of salt-of-the-earth white men who left the heartland to serve in Vietnam and now live on the dark edge of town. The men of heartland rock––John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, Bob Seger, and Bruce Springsteen––found their white roots in the generation-defining war by transforming the Vietnam vet into the folk hero of white America. The veteran hero of heartland rock songs––Petty’s “The Criminal Kind” (1981) and Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), for example––enabled white rockers and their fans to situate themselves at the heart and the edge of postindustrial American life. The vets of Mellencamp, Petty, Seger, and Springsteen songs learned to do as their fathers had done, to defend the nation, make an honest living, and teach their children to do the same. But war denied them that promise. Although most heartland rockers held left-liberal political beliefs, conservatives claimed the music as their own for its vision of a hard-working, white America that had sacrificed for the good of the nation and yet, they argued, found themselves cast aside amid the civil rights, feminist, and antiwar movements and the growth of a wasteful welfare state. Heartland-rock musicians wrote songs that lent themselves to nostalgic, regressive white racial politics but they have also labored, with some success, to counter that narrative. From the soundtrack of the Vietnam War to the soundtrack of the new patriotism, from “Who’ll Stop the Rain” to “Born in the U.S.A.,” rock and roll chronicles the articulation of a new form of whiteness through songs about defeat in Vietnam and defeatedness at home.