Bill McGarveyMarch 29, 2021
Bruce Springsteen, left, appears with former President Barack Obama during their podcast, recorded at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey. (Rob DeMartin/Spotify via AP)

Dear Barack and Bruce,

Can we talk? 

It’s about this Spotify-exclusive podcast series you’re now doing. Let me just say right up front that I’m a supporter. By that, I mean I support each of you separately of course, and have long before this. 

Barack, I donated to your campaign when you ran for president (twice!). Bruce, over many years I’ve contributed —via album sales and concert tickets—to your own campaign to be The Boss. An office that apparently doesn’t have any term limits, as you seem to hold it in perpetuity.

I was intrigued when I first heard about this eight-episode series. It sounded like a compelling listening experience: a former president recording intelligent, long-form discussions on a range of issues with a thoughtful American musical icon. It also seemed like an interesting way for Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions, to launch Barack in a different role as an interviewer/host. 

A pair of world-famous, multimillionaire Baby Boomers calling themselves “renegades” is really cringeworthy. Sorry gentlemen, you are the establishment.

Now that I’m just over halfway through listening to the series, though, I have to confess that there are some real problems here. Let’s just start at the top with the name: “Renegades: Born in the USA.” Ouch. Really? Guys, come on, please. A pair of world-famous, multimillionaire Baby Boomers calling themselves “renegades” is really cringeworthy. Sorry gentlemen, you are the establishment. The only thing that could have made this worse would have been if you’d spent the first episode tooling around in a sports car and getting tattoos. (Unfortunately, the sports car ride actually takes place in Episode 4. Ugh.)

Mr. President, given your relatively new arrival on the media mogul landscape, my guess is that you and your team might have to take the blame for this naming issue. How did you settle on the title? When you were brainstorming ideas, was anyone under the age of 50 in the room with you? You may have been a master of political oratory and messaging in your past life; but this is a different beast and you’re in a different role now. This has all the earmarks of your Beer Summit in 2009: earnest and well-intentioned while at the same time stilted, unnatural and deeply awkward.

I have a sneaking suspicion that when the Springsteen folks learned about the title “Renegades,” they rolled their eyes, bit their tongues and deferred to the Obama team (“Well, he is the former president”). You really might want to consider taking some media tips from your friend from the Jersey shore.

As you tell us in Episode 1, “Outsiders: an unlikely friendship” (wince), Bruce truly has become a good friend over the past few years. It’s difficult to think of another reason why he would partner with you on this maiden podcast voyage, as he certainly doesn’t need the exposure. The whole enterprise is rather off-brand for him. By way of comparison, a recent documentary revealed that Bob Dylan and Jimmy Carter have been close personal friends dating back to when Carter was Georgia's governor. It was an interesting revelation about a friendship that was clearly important to both men but remained private. Given his cautious approach to exposure in the past it's baffling why Bruce wouldn’t want to treat your relationship similarly.

I have a sneaking suspicion that when the Springsteen folks learned about the title “Renegades,” they rolled their eyes, bit their tongues and deferred to the Obama team.

Over the past 45 years, Springsteen and his camp have proven themselves to have very finely tuned media instincts. They intimately understand, control and protect their brand and rarely make missteps. Springsteen the troubadour and storyteller has been an extraordinary amplifier of his own creative voice since the mid-1970s, when he first connected with his longtime producer, manager and friend, Jon Landau. Since then, his commentary on all his songs and albums has been couched in authorial language. He’s been speaking of his song catalog in terms of writing “characters” and “story” since “Born to Run” in 1975.

It is an approach that has imbued his work with a sense of literary status and coherence that is unique in the world of popular music. He not only creates the content; he also provides us with the critical apparatus with which to frame and evaluate it. Over decades it has been an effective tool that enables him to transcend the role of simply being a mere pop songwriter releasing his next batch of songs. It positions him instead as America’s bard of the quotidian—even when the material might not entirely reflect the coherence or cohesion he projects onto it. No doubt Landau—who made his original mark on the music business as a record reviewer for Rolling Stone—was helpful in that shift. There is a lesson for you here, Barack. You need to find your own consigliere who can effectively help you in these post-presidential media efforts.

“The political comes from the personal,” Bruce explains early in Episode 1. It is a mantra that has served you well throughout your songwriting career, rooting social and political commentary in the lives of the people you write about, not abstract theories. It is a powerful device underpinning some of your best work. But how is that artistic perspective not seriously compromised when the explicitly political is no longer an abstraction, but is sitting across from you in your home sharing shots of whiskey and recording the conversation?

It is one thing to go out and stump for a candidate in an election, trying to throw whatever clout you might have behind a better vision of America—out of a choice of two. It is quite another to write about the impacts of banking and savage capitalism, murderous foreign policy and immigration injustices—all of which you’ve done with great sensitivity—and then have a series of heart-to-heart talks with the person responsible for bailing out big banks at the expense of working Americans, for expanding drone warfare and for a draconian deportation policy.

Your talks are loosely structured around broad themes such as race and class, but the general tone feels like a New Yorker Festival event, where the conversation touches on a few key themes but is generally very relaxed and casual. At least that appears to be the intended format; relaxed and casual are not exactly default settings for either of you. In general, Barack, you are intense, cool and analytical, which makes your attempts at sounding like a “regular guy”—asking Bruce about his “geetars” or calling him “dude”—all the more uncomfortable. 

Bruce has his own intensity and depth of insight, but they are generally leavened with characteristic earthiness. It is when you move beyond that personal approach and engage in broader political questions that you are out of your depth.

For those with little familiarity with your backstories, “Renegades” offers an interesting fly-on-the-wall perspective of personalities and life experiences. We get glimpses into Obama’s sense of otherness during his childhood as a biracial child being raised by his white mother and grandparents in Hawaii. Bruce, your own sense of internal alienation since childhood—attributable on some level to being raised in part by deeply eccentric Irish-American grandparents—is also well told. 

For those with little familiarity with your backstories, “Renegades” offers an interesting fly-on-the-wall perspective of personalities and life experiences.

Listeners more familiar with either of you might find it interesting to listen in on two people like yourselves who invariably dominate any room they’ve entered for many years. Your conversation yields some interesting nuggets that a traditional interviewer might not elicit. “How was the power balance inside the band?” Obama asks you about your work with Clarence Clemons in a discussion on race. “Clarence, on the one hand, is an iconic figure in the E Street Band, but he is also still a side man and you are still the frontman.” 

“I’ve never written a song that told a bigger story than Clarence and I standing next to each other on any of the 1,001 nights that we played. He lent his power to my story, like I said, the story that we told together, which...was about the distance between the American Dream and the American reality.” Much of your conversations on “Renegades” attempt to tackle the vast distance between that dream and reality.

You speak movingly about the depth of your 45-year relationship with Clarence and its inherent complexity owing to race. “The only thing we never kidded ourselves about was that race didn’t matter,” he says. “We lived together. We traveled throughout the United States, and we were probably as close as two people could be. Yet at the same time, I always had to recognize there was a part of Clarence that I wasn’t ever really going to exactly know...it was a relationship unlike any other that I’ve ever had in my life.”

But as the conversation turns toward reparations, Bruce, your insight runs up against its limitations trying to make the leap from the personal to the political. “How do you hold the same country that sent man to the moon with being the same country of Jim Crow?” You ask, seemingly oblivious to the fact that what you’re seeing as a contradiction might actually be a deeply submerged synergy instead. 

How is it that you have been such a keen observer and chronicler of American life but you miss the fact that for centuries the American story has been defined by an obsession with technological dominance, firepower and superiority over and above the welfare of people? It is practically axiomatic that profit, productivity, property and progress are the American metrics of choice, not human flourishing. It is a narrative we choose not to acknowledge because its implications would be too vast; but how else do we explain that a nation with such vast military strength ranking 37th in healthcare among WHO member states, just above Slovenia and below Costa Rica. It is people who serve economies and technologies in the American reality, not the other way around. 

It is moments like these that make “Renegades” such a squirmy mess.  

“Part of what I tried to do in my political career,” Obama comments, and “part of what I’m trying to do post-politics is... tell a story that is counter to the story that has been told that says, ‘The American Dream is defined by you ending up on top of that pyramid that’s gettin’ steeper and steeper, and the more people below you, the better off you are.’” 

One of the many problems “Renegades” poses is that it transforms the storyteller into the policy analyst while the policy wonk attempts to tell a story. Mr. President, on one level it is difficult to take issue with the story you want to tell and the American narrative you want to counter.

Word to the wise: Next time you take a joyride in Bruce’s Corvette, do yourself a favor and steer clear of any tattoo parlors.

On another level entirely, it is impossible not to see it as a distraction from the mind-numbing reality that one of the people talking about class, poverty and race in this conversation actually sat in the Oval Office for eight years and had the power to affect meaningful change, while the other has spent the majority of his time writing songs alone in a New Jersey farmhouse. 

In politics, bad policies have tragic consequences. Fortunately, the world of media is ephemeral and the consequences are limited. Poorly conceived podcasts are like bad songs, albums or movies made by otherwise talented people. We generally only remember the artist’s great work and are quick to forget failures. We cherish Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” and we don’t blame him for 1996’s “Jack.”

“Renegades” will almost certainly not show up in either of your career highlights, Mr. Springsteen and Mr. President. Perhaps it should just be thought of as an ill-considered attempt at stretching both of your boundaries? Maybe it’s a lesson learned on the limits of friendship in public forums? Whatever the case, I’m glad you guys found each other, but word to the wise: Next time you take a joyride in Bruce’s Corvette, do yourself a favor and steer clear of any tattoo parlors.

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