Badlands is the opening song to Bruce Springsteen’s album Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978). This intense marching rock song is also one of the milestones of Springsteen’s discography. The song owes its relevance not only to its musical impact, accompanied by a live performance among the most incisive, but above all to the centrality of its lyrics. A song of anger and hope that fits like a bridge between the dreams of Born To Run and the maturity of Darkness On The Edge Of Town and The River. Badlands is also one of the most played live songs by Springsteen. It is in fact fourth overall after Born To Run, Thunder Road and The Promised Land, which incidentally (but not too much) are the songs mentioned in this article for their connection with Badlands.
DISILLUSIONED BUT STILL ALIVE
After the dream of escape in Born To Run and Thunder Road, in Badlands we find a young man who understands that life reserves bitterness and requires awareness and much more effort to get to something good. This new awareness at first stuns him (“I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand”). The man is still dreaming, but wakes up in the night with the fear of not reaching his goal. He reacts (“I don’t give a damn for the same old played out scenes… I want the heart, I want the soul, I want control right now“). Now he wants to get to the heart of the matter and regain control of his life. He discovers the fatigue of work in the factory and in the fields and understands what moves the world: “Poor man wanna be rich, rich wanna be king and the king ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything“. A truth he wants to face, instead of escaping: “I wanna go out tonight, I wanna find out what I got“.
Love, faith and hope
In Badlands Springsteen expresses the values on which he thinks existence should be founded. The second part of the second verse represents one of the highest moments of the entire Springsteen narrative. Almost recalling the three Christian theological virtues – faith, hope and charity – but modifying them and giving them a completely secular meaning, Springsteen solemnly declares in what he believes so that the victory coveted at the end of Thunder Road can be reached. He believes in the love that has been given him, in the faith as the trust in himself and in the people who accompany him in life. And he believes in hope, an element that will remain central in Springsteen’s narrative, as a symbol of vitality and as an engine for everyone to roll up the sleeves, even after the defeats.
The goal of dignity
If it is true that the protagonist of Badlands is nothing but the guy of Thunder Road, now more mature and disillusioned but always aspiring to a better life, what actually changes is the goal. No more the escape for a thunderous victory, no more the sun to walk towards, like in Born To Run. People must find the strength to live and fight in those badlands with dignity, without being crushed. Here the protagonist of Badlands, which looks so much like that of The Promised Land, understands that the American dream is not a fairytale, nor wealth and success, but a decent job, a home and a family. This is the meaning: the promised land is neither to become rich nor to become king and, even less, to reign over everything. It is just to know what you have got and chase what you need for a dignified life.
Infamous places to face
So escape is no longer the solution, also because it is often not possible. Sometimes we do not have that chance, sometimes something holds us back in our “badlands”. They are wastelands, infamous places to face, but they are the places where often people is condemned to live, from which they can not always escape. A message that becomes clear, if we read together the end of the first verse and the entire chorus. “You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come, well don’t waste your time waiting. Badlands, you gotta live it everyday, let the broken hearts stand as the price you’ve gotta pay. Keep pushin’ ‘til it’s understood and these badlands start treating us good.” Here’s the essential message! The same one that launches the protagonist of The Promised Land: “Gonna be a twister that blows everything down, that ain’t got the faith to stand its ground.”
Rock is alive
Bruce talks about a goal, a desire for life. There is another couple of lines of Badlands that stands at the top of his narrative. “For the ones who have a notion, a notion deep inside, that there ain’t no sin to be glad that you’re alive“. In the deepest sense of the song, this verse fits with the general meaning. The goal of a life is not wealth or success, a fortune that few achieve, but the happiness that is brought by experience, by what you can give and receive, while leading your own existence. But this verse becomes decisive even if referred to the evolution of Rock. In those years Rock risked dying and its prophets with it, heroes destroyed and dying. If Rock had praised drugs and excesses, even going so far as to idolize death (see Jim Morrison), Springsteen instead praised life. Not a metaphysical or religious journey. Not something mystical, not even extrasensory, but an earthly life. His entire career has focused on achieving a better place on earth. This is his notion of promised land.
A HYMN AND A PRAYER
From a musical point of view Springsteen wanted to give Badlands a character of solemnity, as if the strong proclamations enunciated by the protagonist (easy to see the same fiery and angry Bruce of those years) were accompanied by a sort of hymn. Like the hymns, in fact, Badlands does not have the rhythm of the classic ballad, but the marching beat on the snare drum for the entire duration of the song. After the unmistakable opening roll, comes the musical riff that offers the musical theme of the song, played by piano and guitars. The central solos are entrusted to the electric guitar of Springsteen himself and Clarence Clemons‘ saxophone. After the solos there is a moment of sound attenuation, in which the vocals simulate a prayer. Then, in crescendo, they lead to the third verse and the last chorus. In the live versions, Springsteen gave additional emphasis to the song with a musical introduction, consisting of three full chords in a solemn incipit, which often also opened concerts. A solemnity that was also obtained with the lengthening of the most “religious” moment of the song when, after the solos, the vocals come together in an almost sacred moment. It is on that part that the crowd around the world has inaugurated a variation on the musical theme, also used at the end of the song to call Bruce to a revival of the finale. Badlands has always been, undoubtedly, one of the highest moments in Springsteen concerts.
The title Badlands was borrowed by Springsteen from a 1973 film by Terrence Malick, without Bruce actually seeing it. In reality the link between the film and the Springsteen narrative is not represented by Badlands but by the song Nebraska that, just like Malick‘s film, freely deals with the vicious story of Charles Starkweather, a serial killer who killed eleven people in the 1950s, accompanied by teenager Caril Ann Fugate. The American Badlands are wild and arid territories in South Dakota (now National Park), not far from Nebraska and Wyoming, the States in which Starkweather’s misdeeds occurred. In Springsteen’s song, however, the word Badlands does not refer to those wild western lands but to those cursed places where people often happens to live in, where they have to fight to live with greater dignity.
Next Review: Adam Raised A Cain – 29 January 2024