When I heard that former President Barack Obama and rock ’n’ roll star Bruce Springsteen were doing a podcast called Renegades: Born In The USA, I have to admit that wondering whether either Obama or Springsteen seems like much of a renegade these days was only my second thought.
My first was the famous line about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “He gave her class and she gave him sex.”
You may now chuckle for a moment, after which I will explain my thinking.
Astaire was a virtuoso dancer, a precision craftsman. Rogers was known for playing wisecracking street-smart gals in musical romps like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933.
When they teamed up, his characters were always romantic pursuing hers with an awkward clumsiness that made him sympathetic and relatable. Hey, look, he’s human. Meanwhile, his silken style further enhanced the elegance she already brought to the dance floor.
When Barack Obama was president, he clearly relished moments of civilian fun — singing an Al Green song, shooting hoops with the UConn women’s basketball team. Good guess: They made him feel more like a regular person.
But he was the president, and being the president by definition separates you from everyone else in America.
Sitting down for a chat in a barn studio with a rock ’n’ roll singer takes Obama off the presidential pedestal. Sure, he’s got thoughts on immigration. Now he can also talk about why he loved Motown. He’s downsized, not in a bad way, to something closer to the rest of us.
Bruce Springsteen also separated himself from the general population some years ago, the inevitable consequence of conquering the rock ’n’ roll world.
But as he has made clear in his music, in his public statements, in his autobiography, on his radio show and everywhere else he could, that he would also like to be heard on matters that go beyond singing “Thunder Road.”
Becoming the conversational partner and peer of a well-liked former president gives Bruce that voice.
This is not to suggest Renegades feels like an image-building strategy for either participant. They don’t have to do this. They want to. But a whole lot of their fans are still going to think, “That’s pretty cool,” and when you’re a public figure, you can never have too much cool.
As for content, Renegades plays at times like a mutual admiration society, decorated with endearing anecdotes. Barack and Bruce both note that their wives, Michelle Obama and Patti Scialfa, have also hit it off, with Obama joking that Michelle tells him he could take lessons from Bruce in becoming more self-critical.
At other times Renegades feels like Obama and Springsteen are interviewing each other, which is logical for a relatively young friendship though it tends to produce few revelations.
Listeners who have read their books, heard their interviews, followed their careers or heard Obama’s speeches and Springsteen’s songs already know the biographical details, about Springsteen growing up in a small blue-collar town and Obama’s experiences as a mixed-race kid.
They dwell extensively in the first episode on how they bonded in part because they both spent much of their childhoods feeling like outsiders.
Since the truth is that most people grow up feeling that way, this establishes a solid touchstone. The challenge for Obama and Springsteen lies in the fact they both long ago made it inside and today are hanging out with people like each other.
Obama needs to show he still understands America through the eyes of a community organizer. Springsteen needs to channel the kid who worked all day in his Daddy’s garage and then headed out with his car at night searching for something more.
Early in their conversation they say the right things, albeit things they’ve said before, about justice and freedom and tolerance and compassion. Think Golden Rule.
The jackpot question, of course, is this: Will people who didn’t vote for Obama, or who hear Springsteen as their parents’ music, listen to these podcasts at all? If so, how many will say, “Y’know, he’s got a point”?
There isn’t a lot of that these days. There never has been. Reopening minds, of any pre-existing ideological persuasion, is the hardest work around.
In a way, Renegades parallels the late-night phone friendship that developed between President Donald Trump and talk show host Sean Hannity.
By all indications, they liked each other’s company. Beyond that, a hotline to Trump gave Hannity access to actual power, something talk show hosts do not wield, while speaking with Hannity connected the transactional Trump to ideas.
Obama and Springsteen aren’t strategizing tax-reform legislation. They’re looking at the longer game, reflecting on the America in which they grew up, what has changed and how much more needs to change. Does the arc of history, or at least American history, still bend toward justice?
Both seem cautiously optimistic. They find an encouraging spirit of humanity and decency underneath what sometimes feels like a blizzard of chaos.
And in the end there’s this: The fact Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen got from there to here would seem to offer pretty good evidence that America remains a land of possibility.
(Renegades: Born in the USA runs eight episodes and is available on Spotify.)