Playlist and Roundtable: We’re Here and We’re Queering Bruce Springsteen

I didn’t think I was saying anything particularly interesting when I told the rest of the Autostraddle family in Slack that I loved Bruce Springsteen. In fact, liking Bruce and others like him is something I try not to bring up around other queermos because, really, I’m convinced that the amount of time I spent at summer camp in New Jersey as a child illegally charging my friends for gel pen tattoos somehow damaged the portion of my brain that allows me to disavow music by men altogether. Instead, I’ve tried to hide my deep love for things like Bruce Springsteen all year, every year until July 4, when I’m allowed to embrace them all in the name of hipster irony and also drink in the street.

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But although probably everyone else on staff is way ahead of me on disavowing men altogether, it did turn out I wasn’t alone! Before I had a chance to delete my confession, I found out that Carolyn was our Springsteen-Expert-in-Residence and that folks from other states, counties, and countries loved my true-blue, New Jersey heart and the Boss in equal measure. Obviously, I decided we needed to talk about those feelings because talking about feelings is a healthy way to go about life. And thus, this playlist!

These are our favorite Bruce Springsteen songs and the stories of how and why we love them. Tune in and drop out and you just may find yourself on the Turnpike. (JK. That would be awful.)


 

Racing in the Street (‘78)

Carolyn: This song sounds like beginnings and hope and hopelessness and having no fucks to give and also being able to drive somewhere really, really quickly. I do not drive but that does not stop me from loving this song. Sometimes you do a thing and you are just doing that thing and dying slowly, even when you like that thing, and sometimes you “come home from work and wash up / Then go racin’ in the street.”

I’m On Fire

Carmen: “I got a bad desire?” This is lesbian subtext in action. When you combine the lyrics of this song, which center around wanting someone so bad that it actually makes you crazy with guilt and fear, with the music video of Bruce driving around feeling emotions blankly for a woman he’ll never be brave enough to pursue, you pretty much have every queer chick’s coming out story in a bottle. Right?

Candy’s Room

Carolyn: I am not sure whether I want to be Candy or fuck her, which is gayest emotion possible. (This version is the best.)

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Carolyn: This song, and the album named after it, is dark and kind of creepy and wonderful.

Julia, Podcast Editor: This song (and the album, but this song specifically) is all about being weird and marginal and finally just saying, fuck it, that’s what I am. It’s a song about going to the dark places in yourself and looking at them straight on, accepting that they’re a part of you as much as the parts you’re less afraid of. I also used to think it was one hell of a breakup song — and it is (“Well, if she wants to see me/You can tell her that I’m easily found”). But way, way, way more importantly, it’s a song about coming into your own skin — and, like dozens of other Springsteen songs, that can be read very easily as coming into a queer skin.

Atlantic City

Mey: This is maybe my favorite song by any artist of all time. It’s like, the ultimate ballad of a struggling femme/butch couple. Lines like “Put your makeup on and fix your hair up pretty and meet me tonight in Atlantic City” and “Put on your stockings, baby, ‘cause the night’s getting cold” are sung with such haunting, industrial romanticism and gritty work ethic that they literally give me shivers. Once, on Kate’s tumblr, someone sent an ask saying that every time they hear the song they think of Kate and Aimee, because it’s totally about them, or maybe I made up that someone sent that ask and that’s just what I think about the song.

Born in the USA

Carmen: This song is gratifying because you can play it at your family’s super-conservative family members’ “GO ‘MURRICAH” events and they’ll have no idea that Bruce Springsteen and all your friends and chosen family hate everything they believe in.

Audrey: I found Born In The USA on tape for a dollar and never looked back. I loved pulling into my high school parking lot with the title track blaring out the windows of my gold ‘98 Cadillac Deville. The song said to me “No matter what happens, no matter how frustrated or scared you are, you are ALIVE!” Today, while I watch the grief and rage of my country simmer from 2,000 miles away, this message is important to me as ever.

Dancing in the Dark

Carmen: I am both tired and bored with myself and have a strong desire to change my clothes, my hair, my face at all times. I consider this the queer human condition.

Carolyn: This is the best song for feeling lonely, or hopeful, or going out to sleep with someone for whom you have no and do not want any feelings, or for dancing around in your kitchen in a state of undress with or without company. It is a song for trying or a song for not trying any more, at least not this second. It is a song to make out to or to emphatically not make out to.

Stef: I just really like thinking about a young, bright-eyed Courtney Cox (looking very gay in her sleeveless white t-shirt) being pulled out of the audience to shuffle adorably along with Bruce. We have all been Courtney Cox in this moment, or yearned to be.

Born to Run

Maddie: My dad, the other Bruce from New Jersey, used to listen to a local radio show every Wednesday called “The Boss Hour,” which is EXACTLY what it sounds like. Being subject to this made me rebelliously indifferent to the Boss as a child, but now that I am the ripe old age of 23, I have Boss Hour nostalgia, particularly attached to this song.

The River

Alley: This anthem of feeling stuck in your working class little town in New Jersey really reminds me of my family, as well as the family of my first long term girlfriend I had in college and after. My senior year I even used it in a severely melodramatic digital art piece that I made in an interactive 3-part series called “Family Album.” Plus he’s just so young and handsome in this early album. I always love an early album…

Hungry Heart

Stef: I never really cared about Bruce Springsteen even though I was born and raised in Jersey, and then one drunk night I danced with a cute human being to this song and everything changed. I found out later that Bruce initially wrote this song for the Ramones, which makes zero sense to me. It does lend itself to a lot of extraneous whoa-oh-oh-ohs when you sing along, which is always a nice bonus.

Glory Days

Carmen: Living in New Jersey will forever be remembered as my glory days. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to suburban / exurban / small town life and barbecue pits and slow strolling traffic and walking downtown after class with my friends to get pizza, and that seems a lot less sad if I memorialize it this way.

O Mary Don’t You Weep

Raquel: First, YOU CANNOT BE UNHAPPY TO THIS SONG.

For a long time, this was the only Bruce Springsteen song I knew, filtered to me somehow from a friend and squirming its way onto the list of 27 carefully-chosen songs I placed on my sad little 2006 mp3 player. I listened to it incessantly during my senior year in high school on our school trip to Europe (among other things, it was accompanied on the playlist by “White Room” by Cream and Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” so yeah — I’m a dad). I have memories of listening to this song on the boat we took to England when I first spotted the white cliffs of Dover. (Very un-American?! Oops.) It was both so wrong and so right. I once spurned the Boss, assuming he was the guy your relatives think he is when you put on “Born in the U.S.A.” I’m happy to have been wrong, and I’m also happy I gave an exception to this fantastic cover. It’s joyful, rollicking, and Bruce is just adorable in the video. When life gets you down I challenge you to put this on, jump on the bed, and shake your fist at pharaoh’s army.

I’m Goin’ Down

Audrey: It’s so easy to hear this as a song about oral sex that I’m going to declare it so. “Well you let out one of your bored sighs, well lately when I look into your eyes, I’m going down, down, down, down.” GOOD RESPONSE BRUCE. If your lady’s bored, just start giving her head. Obviously. Bonus points for random bops and boops at the end.

Rosalita

Maddie: My dad’s favorite. Also falls under the I-like-it-now-because-nostalgia category. Maybe I need to develop my own damn taste for Springsteen.

Streets of Philadelphia

Carmen: The intro scene to this movie makes me cry, and a large part of that is that this song as well as the impending tragedy of that film makes me cry.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2zLI11lO3s

State Trooper

Raquel: From the first line, echoing over the insistent rhythmic guitar, this song gives me chills. You can hear his pick clicking against the taut strings. It just keeps building. I am not recommending murdering to this song but if I were scoring a movie, this would be a great song to set murder to, a calculated, revenge-served-cold kind of murder. Maybe it’s the rageful exhaustion of carving out a space for oneself as a quiet, queer child of immigrants; maybe it’s my religious upbringing full of hellfire and pillars of salt; maybe it’s because I’m a scorpio; but at any rate, I’m drawn to this song, to its implications of deep-seated pain and secret deeds. The line “maybe you’ve got a kid, maybe you’ve got a pretty wife; the only thing that I got’s been bothering me my whole life” perfectly encapsulates for me the queer experience, the complicated, angry mess that comes from seeing yourself in opposition to what’s considered “normal.” It’s a song for midnight on the highway, driving away from someone who has wronged you. Sometimes you need a song that fills your ribs with echoes, your eyes with the wild glint of chaos. Sometimes you need to sing along to something that makes you feel dangerous rather than downtrodden. Sometimes you need some wild desperate howling in your life.

The Promised Land

Julia: “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man / and I believe in a promised land.” I think I developed a lot of gender confusion via listening to Bruce (and Led Zeppelin, and all the other dad-rock you might latch onto as a young dyke), or at least listening to this stuff brought that a little closer to the surface for me. You want to be strong, you want to be heard, you want to be better, you want to not feel like you’re yelling at a wall all the time. I listened to this song a lot in high school and in college and I felt that way. I feel more ambivalent about it now, thinking that you need to be dudely, hard-edged and tough, to find your promised land. This song is still really important to me, though. I think we all want to tell somebody that we’re not what they thought we were.

Thunder Road

Carolyn: I read this song as super butch/femme and will entertain no arguments to the contrary. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to run away with someone worth running away with. Also love this: “So you’re scared and you’re thinking / That maybe we ain’t that young anymore / Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night / You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright / Oh, and that’s alright with me.”

Jersey Girl

Carmen: I mean, this is my theme song, and fuck the haters. I hope Geneva listens to this playlist, hears this song, and thinks, “Oh my God I’m in love with a Jersey girl.” Also, I totally owned Jersey Girl merchandise when it was a thing and I will take that pride to the grave.

 

Carmen is the Digital Editor at Ms. , Managing Editor at Argot, a Contributor at Everyday Feminism, and Co-Host of The Bossy Show. She previously served as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor, and Social Media Co-Director at Autostraddle. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 924 articles for us.

47 Comments

  1. Since getting satellite radio(6 months free for buying a new car) I started to listen to E Street radio. I’ve become partial to his album Greetings From Ashbury Park and the song Spirit of the Night.

  2. I swear so much of Bruce’s discography sounds queer as hell to me. Maybe it’s just the universal human condition. I have pretty much nothing in common with Springsteen but something about his songs lit me up inside when I was younger, and I could spend hours with my eyes closed, breathing in the Born To Run album.

    This is a list of brilliant picks. Undeniably. But the song which always evokes the strongest feelings in me is “Backstreets” — I just tried for 10 minutes to isolate the shortest section of lyrics which spoke to my queer teenage heart and I can’t. It’s the way he sings it as much as anything else. The piano.

    I love this list. I love it so much.

    • YES. Backstreets is hands down my favorite Springsteen song ever. I can’t even understand half the lyrics and yet it still evokes the strongest emotion in me. His scream-singing at the end makes me feel alive. The whole album is fire really.

      Also, super happy Candy’s Room is on here. So so good.

  3. i can’t even begin to describe how happy i am to read this incredible discussion on a very glum day.

    i have so much love for the boss. my mum has always been a superfan and as i’ve got older we’ve bonded over our mutual adoration. high point in our relationship was seeing him in manchester and dancing and crying and being absolute babes together.

    the butch/femme dynamics in thunder road and atlantic city in particular are so spot on! ugh and i’m going down.. as well as being excellent when imagining the sexual connotations it’s also such a perfect description of a feeling that is so hard to explain.

    has anyone seem mumford and sons covering i’m on fire? serious bummer, they managed to remove just about every ounce of sex and soul from that song.

    i really could talk about bruce forever. mildly hysterical at hearing that you all can too.

    thanks team!

  4. This is wonderful. Springsteen is the music I grew up on. I’m pretty sure intense exposure to my dad’s classic rock albums are a moderately substantial part of reason I’m the little gay lady I am today.

  5. Thanks for this – always thought I would have to stay in the closet about my love of Bruce.
    ‘So Mary climb in … It’s a town full of losers & we’re pullin’ outta here to win’ Thunder Road Reminds me of the first time I completely lost it for a woman… & makin’ out in a big old Pontiac ’cause neither of us had our own place yet.
    I’ve been listening to Bruce since I was a baby butch in high school (& had no idea I was gay)
    More recently, lost it for a grrl playing a duet of Hungry Heart with her, sounded cool, her on a uke, me on a guitar… hmmmm ‘Lay down your money and you play your part’

  6. So this is officially a safe space to say I love Bruce? Thank you, Jesus.

    Icebreaker suitable for any situation: the red bandana in his back pocket on the “Born in the USA” cover indicates anal fisting recipient

    Write that down. Could come up on Jeopardy!

  7. Longtime reader. Finally registered an account because 1. I’m wearing a Bruce Springsteen tank top right now, and 2. I needed to scold you all for not including anything from Tunnel of Love! Ain’t Got You, Tougher Than The Rest (“the road is dark, and it’s a thin, thin line/but I want you to know I’ll walk it for you any time/maybe your other boyfriends couldn’t pass the test/well if you’re rough and ready for love, honey, I’m tougher than the rest”), Two Faces, Valentine’s Day, and the title track (“fat man sittin’ on a little stool takes the money from my hand while his eyes take a walk all over you/hands me the ticket, smiles, and whispers ‘good luck’/well, cuddle up, angel, cuddle up, my little dove/and we’ll ride down, baby, into this tunnel of love”)!

    Also, shout out to both Tegan and Sara’s and Tori Amos’ covers of “I’m on Fire.”

  8. I love Bruce Springsteen. I especially love I’m on fire,
    Reno, Devils and Dust, Ghost of Tom Joad, and Nebraska albums.

    He is an incredible songwriter and has accompanied my life with his songs. I imagine he is a pretty cool guy.

    I love his kind of depression depressed songs from Nebraska and Ghost of Tom Joad.

  9. I’m On Fire. It’s just so… It’s just so hot in so many ways!

    And I’ve never seen him play it live, so I can never not so quietly die. Annie Clark, if you’re reading this and wondering about songs to cover, this is my suggestion.

  10. Ok I don’t normally comment, but I have a lot of love for Bruce that I don’t normally get to express in queer spaces so thank you so much for this! And I apologise for the novel that follows.

    Bruce Springsteen is my dad’s favourite musician (to the extent that he flew to Melbourne from NZ to see both shows he played there recently, two nights in a row). A big part of that is that my dad grew up in a place very similar to what Bruce describes in his music, but I think another reason is what someone said up-thread, that the boss has a way of describing the human condition that rings true for a lot of very different people.

    For example, I listen to a song like Badlands and I think about being a teenager who didn’t feel comfortable in their own skin and was desperately trying to figure out why. I tried to think of one lyric from that song that demonstrates it, but the whole thing, for me, I just read as a kind of mantra to keep carrying on and struggling through to figure out where you belong. “Keep pushing til its understood and these badlands start treating us good”

    On the other hand, I know my dad listens to a song like that and hears himself as a teenager trapped in this small town with no future and no belief in himself but a lot of frustration with the world. Bruce Springsteen’s music celebrates things like small triumphs and going hard for what you want, even if you fuck up, without glorifying the fact that life is really hard for a lot of people.

    It’s that kind of juxtaposition of songs where he talks about love and car racing and youth alongside the songs which talk about being born without privilege or being a victim of your vices or just trying to get by and make a living. In fact a lot of these contrasting things are combined in all his songs, which is why they are so bittersweet and relatable.

    Example? Racing in the street:

    “Some guys they just give up living / And start dying little by little, piece by piece / Some guys come home from work and wash up / And go racing in the street”

    A line like that could be taken as a bit glib, but the mournful way he sings it and the sensitive instrumentals make it apparent that he’s not glorifying street racing or partying hard or whatever for its own sake, but instead pointing out that sometimes its all you can do to keep holding on to life. All his songs are kind of like that – they acknowledge the hard and sometimes immoral things that people have to do to survive and celebrate those that keep going despite everything. Its really fucking great and I love him.

    Also I just scrolled up and realised Carolyn said pretty much the same thing in the article about Racing in the Street but I’m gonna leave it there because it’s really hard to sum up why i love bruce springsteen and that last paragraph took me ages to write haha.

  11. such a good list! mey, I’m super glad that someone else considers “atlantic city” a favorite too!

    admittedly some of my other faves are from his more recent albums: I really like “into the fire” from the rising, and the title track from “wrecking ball” (I especially turn to “wrecking ball” when I need a confidence boost).

    also also: my partner reminded me: his cover of “because the night”?! AAHHHH so much butch in his version!

    AAAAAANNDDDD there’s also this: melissa etheridge, plus bruce wearing rainbows! so much queer, it needs to be here:

  12. “Dad rock” is definitely a genre of music I still listen to, though I got my love of it from both my parents. It takes me back to my baby gay days of being an awkward, bookish, Lord of the Rings obsessed 12 year old trying to play soccer and dress like a scruffy boy. My Mom is who gave me my related love of ’80s pop and hair metal and all the ladies of the ’90s (especially Melissa Etheridge).

    Now I’m rocker chick obsessed (Joan Jett, Heart, Halestorm, etc.), but I did have a resurgence of Bruce Springsteen love, listening to “Dancing in the Dark” over tinny Village Inn speakers, ignoring my boyfriend,fantasizing about the waitress, and slowly realizing my gayness.

    Now I happily re-imagine every song on the classic rock station as a butch-femme anthem. z

  13. I loved Bruce since I was a small child because, like, many people here I could share that with my dad. Bruce is all tied up with learning to ride my bike while my dad left to go one of his concerts. That and making peanut butter and bacon sandwiches shortly after my little brother was born listening to Born In The USA. He’s obviously so much more meaningful now and I love that my affection for his music is something I’ve carried with me most of my life.

  14. Also, I’ll Work For Your Love is my current favorite Bruce song. It perfectly encapsulates how I feel about every girl I’ve ever crushed on “I’ll work for your love / What others may want for free / I’ll work for your love”.

  15. I too have a life long love of the boss. My Dad’s best friend was the fan coordinator for our city. My first concert, I was 11, it was during the Rising tour, my Dad and his friend took all 5 of us kids out of school for the day so we could get a good spot by the stage. When it came time to go in, we were right up against the stage with a wall of dads behind us making sure we didn’t get crushed. Somewhere out on the internet exists a picture from that show taken from backstage, looking out onto the crowd, with all of us kids barely tall enough to see above the stage, with Bruce playing right to us. That was a great night.

  16. I am currently, right in this very moment, trying to figure out how much Springsteen I can play at our big gay wedding reception without it just becoming completely excessive and probably dancefloor-emptying because nobody else seems to share my love except Future Wife.

    So this post is exceptionally relevant to my life.

  17. This post is 100% relevant to my interests. (I was pre-cognitively conditioned to love Bruce: my mother was listening to “Born to Run” while literally giving birth to me. I named my cat Clarence Clemons Jr. I got my first and only concussion ten minutes into a Springsteen concert, but stayed for the whole thing anyway.) But you left out my favourite Bruce song, “New York City Serenade”–violins to break your heart! “so walk tall / or better don’t walk at all”–AND the gayest Springsteen song of all time, “Backstreets,” which is about lost/illicit/hidden love between the Bruce-character and some dude named Terry:

    “Blame it on the lies that killed us
    Blame it on the truth that ran us down
    You can blame it all on me it doesn’t matter to me now.
    When the breakdown hit at midnight there was nothing left to say
    But I hated him
    And I hated you when you went away.”

    And he’s all wailing about HIIIIIIDING ON THE BACKSTREETS with his buddy Terry, who lies “like an angel on [his] chest / just another tramp of hearts crying tears of faithlessness” and I mean, COME ON. It’s so gay.

    So gay that I once quoted a line from “Backstreets” during a conversation with my mother and she said “is this you saying that you’re gay” and that’s how I came out!

  18. But nobody’s mentioned Dessa’s cover of I’m Going Down yet??????????????

    I guess I just have a hard time remembering that not everyone’s quite as intensely gay for Dessa as I am tho.

  19. YES i’m so glad someone else heard “i’m on fire” and thought “hey, this is the lesbian experience to a t.” i’m waiting for a female cover that doesn’t change the pronouns to male and then i can die in peace. also, yes to dad rock. i was raised from early childhood on a steady diet of dad rock, joni mitchell, and indigo girls on the radio while helping my parents with diy home improvement projects. somehow they are still surprised that i turned out gay.

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