The Springsteen Jeep ad debacle: A cancellation drama in three acts
For many of us who grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s, Bruce Springsteen was our home state hero. We worshipped him (though not always knowing why) in those six nights he would occasionally play at the Meadowlands, but more commonly, anywhere after dark with the radio or cassette player blaring, driving or parking in the lot outside of the Seven-Eleven with friends or on a date or sometimes alone. In my town, it was the parking lot of Laneco shopping center where the Pizza Como was open late. "The Promised Land." "Dancing in the Dark." "The River." Those songs reached for something real and poetic, and we all felt it. They still fill me with longing for my teenage years in New Jersey as nothing else can.
Today, at 72, Springsteen seems like a grizzled Titan from the age when music lived on vinyl records and FM radio. It isn't his fault; American culture exalts the new and abandons the old (The man who wrote "Glory Days" and "One Minute You're Here" knows this all too well). Also, the fate of Titans is unpleasant. In Greek mythology, they were defeated by their own children in a ten-year war and then imprisoned in the lowest bowels of the earth. It is the fate of Titans to be destroyed by the future. Much to my dismay, I watched something like this happen to Bruce Springsteen in February of this year.
First, there was the Super Bowl ad, in which Springsteen, who has never before endorsed anything, delivered a heartfelt but ill-timed message of national unity in the form of a Jeep commercial. A month after the January 6 catastrophe at the Capitol, there was Springsteen decked out like a cowboy pleading about the need to find “the middle” in American life all the while summoning the spirit of Woody Guthrie. There are shots of a horse, a train, a diner, an icy river, a white jeep, a flag flying from a front porch, and a chapel in Nebraska where Springsteen lights a candle and looks to be praying, though it is difficult to tell. The critics came at him from all sides, some accusing him of selling out but many more denouncing him for being out of touch with the real America.
Then came the cancellation of the Jeep ad on February 10, not for crimes against artistic integrity but because news broke that Springsteen had been arrested two months earlier for drunk driving. The corporate brain trust at Jeep responded with gutless sanctimony: they pulled the ad. The statement (and there is always a statement) read: “It would be inappropriate for us to comment on the details of a matter we have only read about and we cannot substantiate. But it’s also right that we pause our Big Game commercial until the actual facts can be established." The only big game in sight, however, was Springsteen, who wisely said very little as he was being swatted around by strangers on the Internet.
This new media drama had one more act to deliver: On February 24, Jeep's corporate brain trust received new facts. Springsteen had been fully exonerated by the police and court. His blood-alcohol level was well below the legal limit. The Boss was now free and clear, like all of those people on Facebook posting their COVID vaccination selfies. Jeep released another statement. The ad went back up, and everyone returned to the business of trading on Springsteen's fame.
What are we to think of this whiplash canceling and un-canceling of the Jeep ad? Are we supposed to be relieved that Springsteen is not, in fact, a drunk driver (though who among us is without sin?). Should I feel vindicated that my home state hero was not felled by cancel culture, at least not this time? I did think this, but I was also feeling sadness and disgust. None of this was Springsteen's fault.
It was two more sentences from the February 10 statement that really elevated my blood pressure:
"[The Jeep ad's] message of community and unity is as relevant as ever. As is the message that drinking and driving can never be condoned."
What's so awful about that? Maybe it is the ease with which global corporations now speak for us, as if it was ever Jeep's place to lecture Americans about national unity or drunk driving in the first place. Having lost a friend long ago to drunk driving, I will always support the messaging from SADD or MADD, but it is a bridge too far to also hear it coming from CLADD---Corporate Lawyers Against Drunk Driving. The final stage of corporations assuming the rights of individuals is that they have now begun to act like us in the public sphere---naïve, opinionated, and preachy---and we in turn have begun to talk like they do---sloganeering and priggish. Drinking and driving can never be condoned. I recognize the basic grammatical structure of that sentence because I have read thousands of others just like it on social media. Swap out the phrase "drinking and driving“ with any number of other social evils and you will recognize it too. My Twitter feed is filled with this kind of bumper-sticker public moralizing that would also fit well in a corporate press release.
I was also upset because the cancelation drama disrupted a more substantial debate over the ad itself. I was surprised by the man I saw in it. Springsteen seemed small to me, sort of hunched over with an owlish expression on his face, like a man who is not quite sure of himself anymore. His vision was small as well. I support the critics who complained that the ad promotes an out-of-touch, feel-good ideal of American unity---the America of Springsteen's hopes and dreams rather than the real America that almost lost its democracy to fascism on January 6. It was obvious to me that he intended to echo the first three verses of Woody Guthrie's most famous song, "This Land is Your Land." You can hear it in "we just have to remember that the very soil we stand on is common ground" and then later, "we will make it to the mountaintop and through the desert." But if you actually listen the entire song, you will hear Guthrie stick the knife in, suggesting that poor people have a right to what is on the other side of the "No Trespassing" sign. You will never hear anything like that in a Jeep ad, not even one voiced by Bruce Springsteen, because the price of selling out is that you must leave your most radical, truthful self at the door.
Given the facts of January 6, the most appropriate Woody Guthrie reference would have been "This Machine Kills Fascists," from the bumper sticker he plastered on his guitar when he performed during World War II. Guthrie was OG antifa, an ardent and laser-focused anti-fascist. He wrote and sang songs supporting the American war effort such as “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave" and “Reuben James,” a ballad in memory of the 115 U.S. sailors on a destroyer sunk by the Germans. He wrote explicitly anti-fascist songs such as “Tear the Fascist Down" and "You Fascists are Bound to Lose." He performed songs in tribute to the soldiers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group of American volunteers who fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and in the early 50s, he wrote a series of anti-Franco songs condemning the Spanish dictator that were never published.
I expected to see a Titan in the Jeep ad---a fierce warrior who understands this awful moment in American history---but instead, I saw a man who has already been defeated by the future. There he was, shilling for a big car company during the Super Bowl, not a full-blown sellout exactly because it was his first time, but also not exactly a man of the times either. We'll probably never know why he chose to break his career-long advertising fast, but the reason is not really important. Springsteen's message---however genuine and heartfelt---was quickly dwarfed by the arbitrary power to destroy reputations, careers, ideas, works of art, and the ordinary joe who has a bad day and says, tweets, or posts something stupid. These days, the message, whatever it is, will be dwarfed by the drama of cancelation. I recognized this phenomena in myself when, in the week between the canceling and un-cancelling of the Jeep ad, I felt a twinge of anticipation to know what would happen next to Springsteen‘s reputation. I enjoyed the voyeuristic pleasure of toying with a celebrity's fate in my mind. Is this a small taste of what the frenzied mobs felt in 1793 Paris as they clamored to see who would be dragged out to the guillotine next? Is it a nobleman or a bishop? Maybe it will be someone I know?
Maybe it is enough to say that I resent how we are all being jerked around by the new gatekeepers of morality and aesthetics in America---that un-appointed tribunal of public relations specialists, tech entrepreneurs, software engineers, keyboard warriors, and hysterical instigators of online mobs who now wield so much societal power. These are revolutionary times for sure, and Titans will fall or fade away, but I dislike the style of their revolution, which demands that we tremble in the face of cancel culture while at the same time smothering each other in sanctimony. It was sad to see Springsteen sell out, but it was sadder still to watch him run down in the street by the out-of-control cancel culture bus. I am just thankful that the wounds were not fatal in his case.