When A Song Means The Opposite Of What It Says

Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care Of Our Own” has all the hallmarks of an American rock anthem: pulsing beat, churning guitar riff (with just a hint of keyboards behind it), and feel-good chorus:

We take care of our own
We take care of our own
We take care of our own
Wherever this flag’s flown
We take care of our own

Upon first hearing, you think the song is Springsteen at his patriotic best, paying homage to the way Americans support those in their midst who have fallen on hard times.

Think again.

When you give the lyrics a close study, you see he’s saying the exact opposite.

Look here:

From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We yelled “help” but the cavalry stayed home
There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown
We take care of our own
We take care of our own
Wherever this flag’s flown
We take care of our own

The “own” we take care of, according to Springsteen, is not America en masse; it is instead people just like us. Rather than celebrating American altruism, the singer laments this country’s class-conscious protectionism.

For the people in charge of politics and resources, “our own” doesn’t include those who ended up at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. That’s why the calvary “stayed home.”

Think what you want about Springsteen’s understanding of what actually happened in New Orleans in 2005 — and I have serious misgivings about his diagnosis — but recognize what he is doing in this work of art: using the form of an upbeat rock anthem to camouflage the anger of social critique.

It’s daring. It’s risky. And whenever singing along with the song makes you feel proud to be an American, Lee Greenwood-sytle, it is devastatingly effective in its irony.

Here’s the song itself:

This isn’t Springsteen’s first foray into a musical form and lyrical chorus that actually run counter to his song’s intent. Remember “Born In The USA”? Remember the chorus that made you want to put the flag up in front of your house? Remember Ronald Reagan using it at campaign appearances in 1984, lauding Springsteen’s patriotism?

The President probably wouldn’t have done so had he heard the bitterness in the narrator’s reflections about the war and its aftermath:

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said son if it was up to me
Went down to see my v.a. man
He said son, don’t you understand

I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone

Here’s that one:

I believe his assessment of the Vietnam legacy has much more to offer us than his views on the Katrina rescue.

Yet his ability to capture the power of irony in modern rock and roll is beyond debate.