We’ve partnered with Spotify to take an in-depth look at their latest podcast: Renegades: Born in the USA with Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen
“When I first saw you, you spoke to a broad sense of American hopefulness”. That’s Bruce Springsteen part way through the second episode of the new Spotify podcast Renegades: Born in the USA. He’s in conversation with his “ol’ buddy” Barack Obama – whom you may have heard of – and they’re discussing the theme of hope.
Hope is the archetypal Obama trope. It was arguably the word that carried him to the white house under a Shepherd Fairey mock up and his first book, Dreams From My Father, encompasses all of that ambitious idealism that the former US President wanted to bestow upon the nation when he took up the reigns.
It’s also the one thing that America seems entirely devoid of right now. While a new light is on the horizon with the ascendency of Joe Biden, the previous administration, and its climactic insurrection of the home of American democracy, has laid bare the vast rifts in American society, making them appear insurmountable.
Renegades: Born in the USA feels like an attempt at assuaging some of that despair. Yes, it’s two very wealthy, very powerful people talking from a place of security and privilege, but the pair themselves came from nothing, struggled through adversity, poverty, and prejudice to become two icons of the modern era. They are the living embodiment of the American dream and proof that the dream still flickers out there in the darkness.
Over eight hours, recorded on the same day, Obama and Springsteen swap stories from the road about family and their upbringing and frequently riff on the modern American struggles of race and poverty. It’s like sitting in on a fireside chat with two wizened sages reflecting on their lives over a glass of whisky or two. It’s comfort listening at its finest.
Watch the trailer for Renegades: Born in the USA
Obama seems to steer the conversations, introducing the episodes and cutting between topics while Springsteen, who is a far better musician than an orator, grapples in gravelly tones with the difficult subject matter at hand. Obama has spent his entirely life thinking, reading, writing, and putting into practice policies to correct the ills of the nation. Springsteen has spent his entire life singing about those same ills and you get the feeling that music is his natural comfort zone while speaking is obviously Obama’s. It’s sweet and at times touching to hear the anecdotes they share but ultimately it grounds you in the present, taking stock of work that has been done and the work that is to come.
At the start of the podcast, Obama speaks to the somewhat incongruous nature of the pairing of himself and rock and roll legend Bruce Springsteen. The pair are apparently old friends who met on the campaign trail before Obama’s first election where it was taken as a given that ‘Born in the USA’ is not a pro-American anthem. While their initial recounting of their friendship and their shared experiences growing up as “outsiders” in America is somewhat stilted – as any unnatural relationship primer would be – they quickly slip into the flow of things when discussing music.
Music is the great unifier and no more so than between these two. Hearing Springsteen recount his struggles over coming to terms with the fundamentally different experiences of being Black in America versus his own is fascinating. His own E Street Band just so happened to be half Black and half white, and the resultant controversies that this caused in their earlier years are eaked out with knowing commentary from Obama.
Obama is always eager to centre politics in the every day and makes mention of the fact that Black music is always political. There are moments when the hairs on the back of your neck raise, such as when these two legends rattle off their favourite protest songs as the familiar refrains echo underneath them.
Songs like Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, Dylans ‘Maggie’s Farm’, and Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’. Obama makes the point that Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ is also a protest song, and hearing him say that Sam Cooke’s ‘A Chage is Gonna Come’ can still reduce him to tears is both a spine-tingling truth and a nod to modern masculinity. After all, who doesn’t well up as Cooke’s soulful voice mingles with those rising strings?
Cooke sings that “there’ve been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long / but now I think I’m able to carry on,” and the words very much echo the sentiment of the podcast. “Im not willing, and I know that you arent either, to abandon the ideal,” Obama states. “The ideal is worthy. But, the ideal, this more perfect union of ours, is far from where the reality has been. There are some who argue lets just get rid of the ideal.
“I think you need a north star, you need some place to point to. But I also think you cant get to where you want to go if you dont know where you are. First thing is to get your current coordinates.”
Springsteen replies to this that he has been “shocked”, like so many of us, to find that our present coordinates are far from where we actually are; “I thought the marching in polo shirts with tiki torches was over!”
“You thought we werent debating Nazism any more?,” Obama laughs in reply. It’s a hard truth revealed to many of us just how much work there still is to do in the eternal struggle for peace and justice. While the pandemic, the climate emergency, and the death of George Floyd and the resultant protests that followed have pushed many of us into retreat and survival mode, Obama’s unwavering belief in the power of the human spirit is reassuring.
“I believe in the upward, forward trajectory of human kind. But I do not believe that it is a straight and steady line,” he states. “The arc of the moral universe is long, it bends towards justice but not in a straight line. You can bend down and that’s been true throughout our history”. The fact that this line is a paraphrase of Dr King gives some weight to the gravity of the situation that we find ourselves in while also reminding us that things did and will get better.
The podcast and the conversation between Obama and Springsteen is a balm for the modern era. While the title is a slightly cheeky rebuff of the birtherism conspiracy, it digs deep to put the human back into these often esoteric debates around race and politics. While there are on grand answers (so far), the conversation here pumps empathy into the debate and holds up the power of music to connect us as a significant factor in healing. It’s a calm, measured brushing away of the rubble of the Trump era without ever mentioning the former President and a rousing set of battle stories designed to inspire and encourage the next generation.
While we wait eager for the next installments of the podcast, above all else it is simply refreshing to hear a stable, authoritative voice debating rationally the problems we face today. For all of Obamas faults, the man is a spectacular speaker and it’s very comforting to know he is still out there putting in the work to make America great for all of it’s people.