Music

Pop Psalms: Bruce Springsteen's "Badlands"

Roger Nelson

In the popular mind Bruce Springsteen is a big-stadium-anthem-rocker. With his fist raised high, his neck muscles strained, and his voice a husky holler he leads the faithful in full-throated sing-alongs. His guitar is both prop and clarion call. The opening chords of a handful of songs signal the ritual of thousands raising their voices in unison. It is an expression of exuberance and hope and deep longing.

One of those anthems is “Badlands,” the first song on side one of 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. There’s a machine-gun drum opening, then a catchy hook that rides a guitar slide into the chanted opening lyrics:

Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland
Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man
I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand
But there’s one thing I know for sure. . .

What follows is a series of confessional statements about the nature of the world. And night after night, in concert venues all over the world, for better than 40 years, millions of people have sung and yelled along with Springsteen those essential truths about life, work, politics, and love. Those affirmations culminate in these lines:

Well I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the faith that can save me
I believe in the hope and I pray that someday
It may raise me above these


Badlands, you gotta live it every day
Let the broken hearts stand as the price you've gotta pay
We'll keep pushin' till it's understood
And these badlands start treating us good


For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive
I wanna find one face that ain't looking through me
I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these
Badlands. . .

What’s lost in that description is the rock-and-roll theater and learned responses of the audience. What’s lost is the interplay between Bruce, his bandmates, and the energy of a sold-out crowd dancing, bouncing, and singing with unrestrained joy. I’m not a hand raiser in church, but I’m a believer who can’t get his hands up high enough when Bruce is leading us in “Badlands.”

Underneath many of Springsteen’s anthems, there is a longing for some expression of healing that is just over the ridge, just out of reach, just around the bend in the road. We live in these badlands, but together we seek after a love, a faith, a community that will raise us into being more fully who we’re intended to be. In Bruce’s words, it’s about “going someplace where there is community and fraternity and spiritual sustenance.”

I’m not a hand raiser in church, but I’m a believer who can’t get his hands up high enough when Bruce is leading us in “Badlands.”

In the Bible, a number of the psalms are entitled songs of “ascents.” They were sung by worshippers as they made their way up to Jerusalem for the annual feasts. I like the image of a caravan of Hebrews coming from all over Galilee and the West Bank marching toward Jerusalem singing lyrics like:

I lift my eyes to you,
to you who sit enthroned in heaven. . .
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt.
We have endured no end
of ridicule from the arrogant,
of contempt from the proud.

Or:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.

For both Springsteen and the psalmist, there is a tension between the angst and anger in the living of these days and the hope of a saving grace, wherein we trade our brokenness for laughter and our grieving for joy. We may not know that reality today, but joined in song with our fellow pilgrims we catch a glimpse of it. There is also, in both anthem and psalm, the recognition that our healing will come in spite of or outside of our efforts. There is the confession that we need some other power, some other reality, some other God to raise us up, to show us mercy.

Springsteen has been transparent in these last few years about his own faith and what it meant to grow up in the bosom of the Catholic church. While his lyrical imagination has long been littered with images from scripture and church tradition, he has only recently begun to reflect on that intersection. When asked about how his faith informs his writing he offered this:

“I reference my Catholic upbringing very regularly in my songs. I have a lot of biblical imagery, and at the end of the day, if somebody asked me what kind of a songwriter I was, I wouldn’t say I was a political songwriter. I would probably say a spiritual songwriter. I really believe that if you look at my body of work, that is the subject that I’m addressing. I’ve addressed social issues. I’ve addressed real-life issues here on Earth. I always say my verses are the blues and my choruses are the gospel. And I lean a little heavier on the gospel than the blues. So, I would categorize myself as ultimately a spiritual songwriter.”

“Badlands” is one of those spiritual songs. It rings with a great gospel chorus, not unlike a “song of ascents.” And whether at 16 or 60, it has helped me lift up my eyes and sing a song of joy.

Topics: Music