If you've been to a Bruce Springsteen concert in the past decade, you've experienced that awkward moment when the calls of "Bruuuce" actually turn into boos.
It's a small, sometimes loud minority among his following who turned on The Boss when he jumped into the political fray to stump for Sen. John Kerry on the Vote for Change tour.
It was a surprising gesture in that Springsteen had always aligned himself with humanitarian causes -- from No Nukes to food banks to veterans -- but he had never thrown his weight behind a candidate.
For his first three albums, he was the young Jersey Shore kid with his engines running. With "Darkness on the Edge" and "Nebraska," he started to delve into the struggles of the working class.
But he didn't talk politics -- not until September 1984, when, during the height of the rousing "Born in the U.S.A." era, President Ronald Reagan told a crowd at a New Jersey campaign stop, "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."
A few days later, Springsteen was in Pittsburgh, where he had visited a food bank in Homestead. Introducing "Johnny 99," a song about an unemployed autoworker who goes off the deep end, he told the Civic Arena crowd, "The president was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don't think it was the 'Nebraska' album. I don't think he's been listening to this one."
Soon after, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he said of Reagan, "I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what's happening, I think, is that that need -- which is a good thing -- is getting manipulated and exploited. You see it in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, 'It's morning in America,' and you say, 'Well, it's not morning in Pittsburgh.' "
The Democrats thought they had the voice of Jersey locked up, but it didn't happen. Walter Mondale claimed an endorsement from The Boss, then had to retract the statement. He didn't endorse him, or Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton or Al Gore.
During the 2004 election, he changed his tune, writing in a New York Times editorial, "Personally, for the last 25 years, I have always stayed one step away from partisan politics. Instead, I have been partisan about a set of ideals: economic justice, civil rights, a humane foreign policy, freedom and a decent life for all of our citizens. This year, however, for many of us the stakes have risen too high to sit this election out."
Having supplied a powerful theme song for 9/11 healing with "The Rising," Springsteen had enhanced his profile as a statesmen. When the Iraq War turned him against the Bush administration -- "better ask questions before you shoot," he had warned on "The Rising" album -- he threw his support to Mr. Kerry, and then to Barack Obama in 2008. He was greeted by massive crowds at the Vote for Change concerts, but there's been a vocal segment of fans feeling betrayed by The Boss' political ventures.
Has it dragged down his career, the way it did when the Dixie Chicks raised their voices against Bush? Hardly. He's still selling out arenas and stadiums, and his last three albums have all debuted at No. 1.
In the extensive New Yorker profile in July, he offered praise for the Obama administration (health care bill, rescue of automobile industry, withdrawal from Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden) along with criticism (including failure to close Guantanamo Bay and "an unseemly friendliness toward corporations"). He expressed reluctance to join another campaign.
"I did it twice because things were so dire," he said. "It seemed like if I was ever going to spend whatever small political capital I had, that was the moment to do so. But that capital diminishes the more often you do it. While I'm not saying never, and I still like to support the president, you know, it's something I didn't do for a long time, and I don't have plans to be out there every time."
Nonetheless, he's back again. In the past week, he's performed at Obama rallies in Ohio, Iowa and Virginia and posted a message on his website, first acknowledging that the circumstances Obama inherited made his first term "a really rough ride," then adding, "But through grit, determination and focus, the president has been able to do a great many things that many of us deeply support."
Springsteen probably doesn't read Facebook comments, but if he did, he may have been surprised by the amount of negative blowback from that announcement.
The Post-Gazette asked for opinions on Facebook, and the responses were divided between: Bruce rocks; "shut up and sing"; didn't like him then, don't like him now; and he has a right to his opinion. One reader called Springsteen an "aging rocker trying to fluff up a waning career by politicizing his music."
"I now turn his music off, as soon as I hear it," wrote David Waugaman.
Peter Reichl wrote, "Anyone who has listened to his lyrics for the last 30 years and couldn't figure which way he leans probably still thinks Born in the USA is a patriotic song."
Sharon Benedetti Warkala took a more opportunistic approach: "If you don't agree with him and it bothers you to hear him exercising his first amendment rights, then stay home ... more tickets for me!"
"To all you who say shut up and sing," said Eddie James, "I suppose it is lost on all of you that for 30+ years Bruce has laid down an aural portrait of America's working poor."
That carries through on the new album, "Wrecking Ball," which explores the ongoing economic crisis on such protest songs as "Death to My Hometown" and "We Take Care of Our Own," which was played immediately after Mr. Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention but seems to be critical of the government's response past and present: "From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/We needed help but the cavalry stayed home/There ain't no one hearing the bugle blown."
In Parma, Ohio, he told the rally crowd, "I wrote this song and posed it as a question.... it's about the idea that the nation can only be measured by its compassion for its weakest."
Thus far on the tour, he has shied away from partisan politics.
"When he does 'Jack of All Trades,' he'll talk about the struggles in America, struggles in the world really, too," says Stan Goldstein, who writes a Springsteen blog for the Newark Star-Ledger. "But it's not so much pro-Democrat, anti-Republican. It's more of 'These are the times we're in. It's very tough out there, people are having a hard time out there.'"
In Virginia on Tuesday night, the E Street Band's first U.S. stop on the new leg, he kept mum on politics, but there's a disturbing report that he did do the "Gangnam Style" dance. That might be a whole new problem for the diehard fans.music