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Disclaimer: It’s outright absurd to be writing a blog post about Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska in the year 2013. It’s such a widely respected, acclaimed, revered, and eminently American album. Nebraska is so deeply and deservedly entrenched in its canonical place that it feels as though nothing less than an extensively researched, heavily notated dissertation could even begin to do it any sort of literary justice. So, Mr. Springsteen, please pardon the brevity.

Bruce Springsteen had been reading the stories of Flannery O’Connor soon before beginning to write the material that would comprise Badlands, and it shows. Through these songs flows a bleak, though not hopeless sense of powerlessness in the face of a starkly American strain of fatalism. The protagonist of title track “Nebraska”, based on real-life murderer Charles Starkweather, cites unrepentantly the existence of “a meanness in this world” as explanation for his crimes.  Self-proclaimed lack of culpability is a theme that runs through Badlands, and key lines are repeated in multiple songs. Criminal protagonists in “Nebraska”, “Johnny 99”, “Highway Patrolman”, and “State Trooper” all refuse to repent; this theme is eerily paralleled in the religious (though arguably also Nietzschean) song “My Father’s House” with the line “Shining ‘cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned.” Springsteen was of course raised Catholic and has cited his religious upbringing as a strong influence in his work.

One gets the sense that Springsteen’s protagonists are not so much asserting their innocence as they are eschewing personal blame in the light of the insurmountable social and economic conditions that would only grow more rigid with the incipient domestic plague of Reagonomics. The classic Springsteen protagonist could be viewed almost as a martyr. Rather than repent to lessen his sentence and save his own neck, this protagonist instead (particularly in “Johnny 99”) states honestly and plainly the conditions leading to his predicament, leaving himself at the mercy of the judge and jury.

One achingly poignant line that is featured in two songs (“Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99”) “debts no honest man could pay”, cuts to the heart of what Springsteen seems to be really about, especially with Nebraska. The working people who populate his world have the odds stacked against them, and can only work so many hours for low pay before they’re pushed to the fringe, out of money, options and patience. The “gates of hardened steel” that surround the “Mansion On The Hill” are a clear metaphor for the sadly apocryphal state of the American Dream and the absence of social and economic mobility. The vastness of the country and its massive geographical features also shape the fates and psyches of these people. When, in more than one song, the plea to “deliver me from nowhere” is offered, it seems to be used both literally and figuratively.

There are a few lonely beams of redemption shining down on this dark landscape. “Reason to Believe” marvels at man’s ability to sustain hope in the face of adversity, bereavement, and loss. “Atlantic City” touches upon the possibility of reincarnation with the line “But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” And, though excluded

from the comforts and carefree festivities behind the hard steel gates, the people down by the mill nonetheless enjoy hiding in the “tall corn” and beholding the “beautiful full moon rising” above the mansion on the hill.