Porch front talkies: Obama & Springsteen
What do rock and roll star, Bruce Springsteen and former President of the United States, Barack Obama discuss when they sit down for a chat? The answer lies in Spotify’s latest podcast program: Renegades — Born in the USA. The podcast plays out often like a conversation between two friends out on the porch: laid back, reminiscent and relaxed. At the core of every episode are the thematic questions that Obama and Springsteen ask each other. The listeners are often rewarded with answers that have stunning editorial clarity as well intricate detail that connect their personal experiences to the universal. Most interestingly, it turns out that they have a lot more in common than one would expect. And it is unexpectedly delightful.
“The interesting thing was…one of the ways I became strongly patriotic was being outside the country.”
— Barack Obama, Renegades — Born in the USA
Although the episodes are usually centered around a particular theme, they do not feel rushed. There are all sorts of rambling and detours before we get to the meat. Specifically, the conversation ambles around personal anecdotes, contextualizing their journeys against the backdrop of American history. Together, their reflections often weave a story encompassing oceans of time and space. For someone like me (who isn’t American), it provides a glimpse of what America was and what America can be. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Obama is well known to be a champion of hope — a sentiment analysis of his presidential campaigns underlines this clearly. And Springsteen is a perfect partner here — he resonates with this emotion both in music and in his own politics.
In the very first episode of the show, for example, our hosts candidly discuss being misfits while growing up and the impact that had on how that informed their decisions as adults. As the conversation pans out, we arrive at a point where Obama reflects on the fact that most leaders are megalomaniacs and the best ones are those who have trained themselves to operate with a sense of empathy. This critical self-awareness shouldn’t come as a surprise and yet it does. The episode ends with a stirring speech from the former President and a riff from the musician — a homage to the skill sets that set them apart from the rest of their peers.
All things said, however, if you look to the podcast episode as a guide or a practical handbook on how to navigate the current tension in American politics, you will be distinctly disappointed. Bruce’s insightfulness and Obama’s straightforwardness bring about a certain degree of debate but that is all there is to it. Instead of expecting advice, the best way to enjoy it is to truly allow yourself to fall into pace with our hosts.
“I spent most of my life as a musician measuring the distance between the American Dream and American reality.”
— Springsteen at a rally for presidential candidate Barack Obama on November 2, 2008
This is not to say that there are no uncomfortable questions. In the second episode, they tackle headfirst the issue of race and racism in the United States. When Bruce Springsteen talks about witnessing racist attacks on his bandmates, some of his closest friends, and the impact it had on him while growing up, he is vulnerable, honest and the narration is punctuated by heavy pauses. It is an emotionally charged conversation, as you can expect it to be and Obama skillfully navigates this difficult but crucial terrain. Finally, they alight upon a thread on what America needs to do to heal itself.
Overall, the show might come off as too long-winded and diffuse for a driven, time-scarce listener — especially at over 45 minutes per episode. Yet, the winning element is that the conversation gives you a powerful new way to look at the world. It has some truly memorable lines, seems unscripted, and is straight from the heart. The conversation is hopeful and poetic. Their viewpoints are hypermetropic and their stories of experiencing America on the ground contrasted against what they see now from their celebrity pedestals come off as earnest and socially conscious. Is this enough to carry a podcast? I am not sure. It remains to be seen. Yet, in this dystopian mid-pandemic world, who does not want to be willingly shepherded into a field of hope?