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Book Review: Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen connect as 'Renegades'

'Renegades: Born in the U.S.A.' is a generously illustrated volume containing the transcripts of the conversations Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen shared in their podcast of the same name.
'Renegades: Born in the U.S.A.' is a generously illustrated volume containing the transcripts of the conversations Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen shared in their podcast of the same name.Crown

by Jay Gabler

December 09, 2021

A lot of truths are spoken in Renegades: Born in the U.S.A., but there’s a real whopper in the first chapter title: “Our Unlikely Friendship.” Sure, there are some important differences between the white rock star from Jersey and the Black politician from Hawaii, but anyone who’s spent any time listening to both men understands that a friendship between the two was very, very likely indeed.

The poignant undercurrent of their conversations in this book - the printed version of their Spotify podcast - is that their shared American values are starting to seem more and more foreign. Although Springsteen’s several years older than Obama, they both gained professional traction during the last decades of the twentieth century, the post-Vietnam era when America’s political divisions started to widen into the chasm we gaze upon today.

Looking back on Ronald Reagan’s infamous appropriation of his song “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen has a nuanced observation. The conventional wisdom among Springsteen’s liberal fans has long been that it’s a pointed protest song with ironic bombast that was mistaken for substance by knee-jerk patriots. Today, Springsteen acknowledges that despite the song’s critique of U.S. policies and pop culture, its patriotism is real. It demands, he says, “that you hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at one time, that you can both be very critical of your nation and very proud of your nation simultaneously.”

Neither Barack nor the Boss have any trouble holding contradictory ideas, or unpacking them at length. That’s why their pairing was a natural fit, and their conversations so substantive. Just the fact that they want to have sustained, wide-ranging conversations about important topics is a shared source of pleasure - for both men and for those who choose to listen. As Obama observes in perhaps the book’s most eye-opening chapter, on masculinity, American men aren’t necessarily conditioned to converse.

“Michelle always points this out,” Obama says, “that she can talk for ten hours with her friends…and I talk a lot with my male friends, but, after about an hour, I kind of run out of stuff and then we’ll turn on a ball game or we’ll play a ball game, so there is some activity.”

There were definitely no ball games playing in the background when Obama and Springsteen sat down in the Boss’s home studio in New Jersey in summer 2020 to record the conversations that became the basis for their podcast and, now, book. The project was Obama’s idea; even when you’re Bruce Springsteen, you can’t really pitch a podcast to a president. Springsteen was surprised, but his wife and bandmate understood the appeal immediately, he writes in an introduction. “Are you insane?!” said Patti Scialfa. “Do it! People would love to hear your conversations.”

When they landed earlier this year, in podcast form, the episodes didn’t make huge waves, because there were no juicy revelations or big surprises: listeners heard two accomplished, reflective men having extended, reflective conversations. The conversations were important, though, and (as Obama correctly sensed) it’s good to have them documented both in audio and print form. In addition to the episode transcripts, Renegade the book features song lyrics (from Springsteen) and speech notes (from Obama), along with a wealth of historical and family photos.

The men started out talking about their childhoods. As Springsteen puts it in his introduction, “Hawaii, New Jersey…pretty different; absentee fathers…pretty similar.” They return to the subject of their fathers in the chapter on masculinity, with Springsteen making the trenchant observation that if there’s one person whose lived experiences have been the basis for his songwriting, it’s not himself but his father.

Both men have already examined their relationships with their fathers at length, in their earlier books. Still, after decades of therapy it seems Springsteen has set the bar for self-awareness. “Michelle was very pleased about the insights you had about your failings as a man,” Obama tells Springsteen as they reminisce about when their families met. “After we would leave a dinner, or a party, or a conversation, she’d say, ‘You see how Bruce understands his shortcomings and has come to terms with them…in a way you have not? You should spend some more time with Bruce because he’s put in the work.’”

It’s work that’s ongoing for both men, but they don’t just have their family relationships to weigh, they have their relationships with the millions of people who’ve flocked to their rallies and concerts. (Some of those occasions have been shared, which was the initial basis for their friendship; Springsteen supported Obama’s first, successful, presidential run.) As they discuss, they’ve both long since passed the point at which their fame was, ultimately, about themselves; both derive their success from the way they channel the hopes and aspirations of voters and ticket-buyers.

For some younger readers (or listeners), their brand of idealism might seem dated. Images of the two men riding side-by-side in Springsteen’s convertible might read as symbolic, even glib…but both understand the importance of symbolism, particularly when its basis is deeply felt. Race is a recurring point of discussion, and they talk at length about Springsteen’s relationship with the late Clarence Clemons.

Obama points out that the first version of the E Street Band was 50/50 Black and white; Springsteen notes that the band’s very name came from the home address of Black keyboardist David Sancious. After Sancious and drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter left, though, they were replaced by Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg, leaving Clemons as the only non-white member of the E Street Band. Hardly a groundbreaking level of representation, but Springsteen says that both he and Clemons were acutely aware of the power it held for the two to stand side by side on the world’s largest stages; some of their fans, most of whom were white, looked up and saw the America they wished would be more prevalent. Others, surely, felt more challenged - and, one hopes, constructively so.

The former president does not reciprocate with any reflections on eight years of sharing an administration with the current president, beyond noting that he’s glad his guy won in 2020. He and Springsteen leave room for some shared musical appreciation, agreeing that there’s not likely any time soon to be a White House filled with as much amazing music as Obama’s was; a complete list of the artists who performed from 2009 to 2017 reads like a better version of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee roster. Springsteen’s name, needless to say, is on that list; an intimate storytelling show he performed as a thank-you to Obama’s White House staff became the basis for his Tony-winning Broadway show.

Those who’ve already devoured A Promised Land and Born to Run have doubtless already dropped their North Pole notes asking for Renegades. For those who like the cut of these guys’ jibs but haven’t been ready to dig into those dense volumes, Renegades might be an apt starting point. Of course, you could always just listen to the podcast, but then you’ll just have to imagine what Barack and the Boss look like riding with the top down, searching for their promised land.

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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