WHAT IS A PROTEST SONG, REALLY?
A Veteran's Wife on Springsteen on Broadway and the Artistry of Dissent

July 27, 2021 - By Lily Burana


Staind frontman-turned-country singer Aaron Lewis
calls out Bruce Springsteen in a chart-busting right-wing
anthem.
Lily Burana, a military wife, says, "Not so fast." 


Does Mary's dress sway, or does it wave? Last week, the long-running debate over the correct opening lyrics to Bruce Springsteen's classic "Thunder Road" appeared to be settled at last. The contentious discourse gripped Twitter earlier this month, when, on July 3, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman shared a photo of the stage at Springsteen on Broadway with the words "A screen door slams, Mary's dress sways." The New Yorker's editor-in-chief David Remnick reached out to Springsteen's longtime manager Jon Landau, who gave the final verdict: It sways.

While I was as emotionally invested in this scuffle as anyone (Team Waves, btw), a more serious Springsteen-related lyrical matter came to dominate my brain share.

At the same time that Waves vs. Sways concluded, former Staind frontman-turned-country singer Aaron Lewis's song "Am I the Only One" entered the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts at #1 (only the ninth song ever to do so), and the Top 100 Singles at #14, without any support from mainstream country radio.

Amplified by airplay on FOX News and SiriusXM's Patriot Radio, the song, already denounced by music industry critic Bob Lefsetz, represents something of a Conservative anthem. Among lyrics decrying the removal of Confederate statues and the gem, If you don't like it (America, presumably), there's the fuckin' door, Lewis—who has no military experience—sings, Am I the only one, willin' to bleed/Or take a bullet for bein' free? As a woman married to a retired career Army officer who has done multiple combat tours, I have thoughts about this.

Lewis also sings: 

Am I the only one who quits singin' along
Every time they play a Springsteen song?
 

Shortly before the song took off like a right-wing rocket, several random knuckleheads tweeted that Americans shouldn't play Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."—a song about forgotten Vietnam veterans—on the Fourth of July.

Seems a lot of good old boys have a beef with Bruce. As a veteran's wife, I've got some thoughts about that, too.


July 3, 2021, St. James Theatre NYC - photograph courtesy of Lily Burana

When the press announced that Springsteen on Broadway would return for a 30-date run as the first full-length show since the COVID-19 pandemic forced venues to shutter in March 2020, I hovered online for three hours and nabbed two tickets. Then my husband, still working for the Army but now as a doctor of education at West Point, had to travel on temporary duty to another Army post. I sent the tickets to my sisters, one who is changing calls as a minister, the other who just got her first set of all-clear cancer scans. My sisters didn't review the show so much as evangelize: You have to go.

In late-night hours, I combed ticket resale sites, feeling hopeless. But I chanced upon a third-row seat, for sale at cost. My fingers paused over the keyboard: I had the time; I had the money (more accurately, I had the credit card). If you believe, as I do, that God can reach you through the radio, then divine providence can surely show up on the Internet at 1:30 a.m.

I clicked BUY.

My librarian mother, herself a veteran's wife, radicalized me into a musico-political fangirl when I was a teen, taking me to see Allen Ginsberg accompanied by guitarist Steven Taylor. Since then, I've seen many sublime performances where politics and heart intersect: Stevie Wonder singing "Saturn" at Madison Square Garden, Mavis Staples rehearsing "If All I Was Was Black" backstage at the Beacon Theatre, Green Day screaming "American Idiot" in Giants Stadium, and hardcore punk shows in more venues than I can count, from the legendary CBGBs to some dump across from the Kmart in Dover, New Jersey. Most affecting was just a few years ago, when two West Point cadets sang the academy's Alma Mater at the annual banquet for Knights Out, the military academy's LGBTQ alumni association, a performance so moving because we who witnessed it saw a unification of worlds we'd feared might forever stand apart.

But Springsteen is a legendary live performer, and after a few cracks about the conjury of his "authentic" All-American everyman persona, he poured out nearly two-and-a-half hours of music and spoken word, weighted with thoughts about the tragic strangeness of the past year or so—the pandemic, the wake of the Trump presidency—which elevated him from entertainer to therapeutic witness. "I am here tonight," he said, "to provide proof of life."


July 3, 2021 - Photograph by Lily Burana

Bruce played "American Skin (41 Shots)," inspired by the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo, and—take that, boys!— "Born in the U.S.A.," rendered in chilling reserve. The performance of these songs unearthed in me a deep wellspring of grief and despair for the future of this country. I lament that so many Americans are content to cast their lot with conspiracists and faux-patriot fabulists. I lament that any call to accountability for the wrongs in this country is dismissed as "wokeness" and "cancel culture" run amok. And I lament people cloaking their anti-democratic propaganda in the colors my husband labored for years to defend.

After more than a year without so much as a chord to go on, the starved audience all but vibrated, dying for musical communion, and Springsteen delivered during "The Promised Land," stripped to the bare wire of lyrics, guitar, and harmonica. When he sang Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted, I had that spine-tingling sense that he was singing right to me. Of course he wasn't, but this is why we seek out live shows. There is simply no substitute for the alchemical magic of being there. The woman next to me quietly wept. Hope had reentered the room. My heart was wrecked.

I'm glad that live music is returning to New York City and the lights have come back up on the Great White Way, if only at a single venue, but I didn't expect a spatchcocked vital organ to be the cost of my first show back.

As a veteran's wife, I consider "Born in the U.S.A." as crucial a recording as "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday or "If I Had a Hammer" by Pete Seeger or Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos." Remonstrance is a foundational American value. If we can't nest protest inside patriotism, then who are we? The reality of military service should not be denied. I have watched my husband Sharpie his blood type on the cover of his Kevlar helmet before deployment; I've tucked his dog tags on a chain inside my shirt for luck. Now, over a decade as part of the West Point community, we see our friends' children graduating, a new generation merging into the Long Grey Line. With the war in Afghanistan trickling to an unheralded close, the death of Donald Rumsfeld, and hundreds of thousands of troops and their families left shaken by years of cyclical deployments, an era is passing into history as a new one ascends. What might their protest songs be?

And queer troops, no longer threatened into hiding, what will they have to say? Though Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed in 2010, it is only in the past year that I've seen rainbow colors and pride flags spread like wildflowers on housing and vehicles around post. Perhaps it's part of the COVID reemergence—an essential affirmation of self. I can only hope a queer military anthem will soon rise from the ranks.

Saber-rattling songs like  "Am I the Only One" are nothing new—remember Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)," which warns any opposition We'll put a boot in your ass/it's the American Way? In the lyrical schism between the Good Old Boys and the Blue Collar Poets, what's at stake is the claim to who voices The True American Experience™. But we should consider that the conflict here is between two white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied male artists, and the true American experience too often means being denied such a massive platform for your message if you stand outside that anointed demographic circle.

"There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good," said Reverend William Sloane Coffin. "The bad are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover's quarrel with their country, a reflection of God's lover's quarrel with all the world." 

Popular singers have the reach to publicly evaluate what it means to hold dear God and Country. Most of us, lacking the talent and the audience, must devise other means. We have, instead, our flags and our fandom, each imbued with its own subtle artistry of dissent.

In the name of protest, we can show up for truth. And the truth is, the closest I've come to God and the most I've ever loved my country is when I've been crammed into the nosebleed seats, pressed up against the stage, or hemmed in at the edge of the pit. With not much more to offer than the humble homage of our presence, we buy the T-shirt and we take the ride.

There's a war for the American identity raging—in popular music, it currently manifests as dissonance around what constitutes a proper patriotic anthem: songs about the less-than-rosy aspects of our country sung in hopes of advancement, or paeans to an ossified, terrified nationalism that seems intent on not letting progress breathe. I know which side I'm on.

I pledge allegiance with my ticket money. This is the flag of my faith. Long may it wave.

Before becoming a military spouse, Lily Burana was a columnist for the seminal punk zine, Maximum RocknRoll. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and numerous other publications. She is the author of four books, including I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles (Hyperion), and most recently Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith (W/Harper). Follow her at @lilyburana on Twitter and @lily_burana on Instagram.



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WHAT IS A PROTEST SONG, REALLY? A Veteran's Wife on 'Springsteen on Broadway' and the Artistry of Dissent

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