The Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama Podcast Is Just Two Guys Talking About Hope

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The eight-episode series, which is now available to hear in full, is largely too formulaic for its own good, though a few spontaneous moments slip through.

Springsteen and Obama recording at the rock icons home studio in New Jersey
Springsteen and Obama recording at the rock icon’s home studio in New Jersey. Photo by Rob DeMartin.

Bruce Springsteen has always been a storyteller. From early on, he peppered his live shows with anecdotes that were carefully rehearsed but deeply felt. There was the one about the day he got called in for the Vietnam draft. The one about the dark and stormy night he met Clarence Clemons. The one about the road trip through the desert with the sign that read “Thunder Road.” Recited in a scratchy whisper as his E Street bandmates set the scene, these moments helped define his mythology. They also shaded in the bold lines of his songwriting, which was often more archetypical than autobiographical, inviting as many people as possible to see themselves in his words.

An active curator of his own narrative, Springsteen has been tapping into this gift more than ever lately. It’s led to some rewarding work, like his memoir and Broadway show, along with some more curious projects, like a Super Bowl ad for Jeep that had him reaching for that same heart-tugging wisdom in a far less inspiring arena. Renegades: Born in the U.S.A., a Spotify-exclusive podcast he co-hosts with former president Barack Obama, threatens to fall into the latter category on premise alone. Each of the series’ eight episodes runs between 40 minutes to an hour and is structured around themes like the American dream, race, and money. The format encourages these two incredibly famous men, who have maintained a friendship ever since Springsteen played a campaign event in 2008, to tap into their most agreeable, media-trained personas. Near the end of the final episode, Obama suggests they close on an empowering note. After all, he says, “I’m the ‘hope’ guy.” Springsteen laughs: “I thought I was… but you’re better than me.”

He has a point. While Springsteen has spent decades imbuing his music with hard-won reasons to believe, Obama, who released this podcast through his and Michelle’s media company Higher Ground Productions, has built an entire brand (and won multiple elections) on the idea. In truth, Hope Guys might have been a more fitting name for the podcast than Renegades, as the pair alludes to issues like the Trump presidency and police brutality without resorting to anything resembling anger or opposition: For much of the series, their tone is all pensive, distanced reflection, zooming out as swiftly as possible to agree that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.

Because the themes are so heavily telegraphed, and because both hosts have such ingrained muscle memory in telling their own life stories, Renegades can occasionally feel like a series of excerpts from their respective audiobooks synced up like a greatest hits playlist. To his credit, Springsteen repeatedly tries to burst through the monotony, only to be diplomatically steamrolled: When Obama asks how he feels about the claims of cultural appropriation against Elvis Presley, one of Springsteen’s life-long heroes and cautionary tales, Springsteen’s thoughts are quickly snuffed out by Obama’s somewhat anodyne point about the importance of learning from all cultures. Agreed, Springsteen chimes in, but Pat Boone doing Little Richard was pretty bad.

After generally sticking to the script for the first few episodes, the duo eventually loosens up and finds a more natural groove. Once they do, it is actually refreshing to hear Springsteen, 12 years Obama’s senior, play the anti-authoritarian sideman. When the conversation turns to formative memories of American pride, Springsteen steps back to recall how he actually felt in 1969: a long-haired, self-proclaimed rebel, playing in bar bands up and down the East Coast. “Fuck the moon landing!” he snaps at the former president, cracking himself up. These are the moments you come to a podcast like this for: thoughts hashed out in conversation, something alive and interactive, actual insight into how someone’s mind works.

 

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