Why have millions of people worldwide felt these words (and their accompanying music) represent them?—so much so that they’ve stood on their chairs in concert arenas and sung along to them at the top of their lungs:
“Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run!”
I believe the answer is in what Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by American poet and critic Eli Siegel, shows is the deepest, most urgent desire in every person: our desire to like the world honestly; that is, with all the facts present. That can seem like a tall order considering how frequently we meet obstacles and difficulties in life. And it can be especially hard at this time as a heartbreaking war has broken out in Eastern Europe and Covid-19 has upended our lives in so many ways.
Aesthetic Realism shows that, even so, the world itself can be liked, because it has an aesthetic structure: the oneness of opposites. That is what every successful work of art illustrates. “In reality, opposites are one;” Eli Siegel stated, “art shows this.” In its musical structure, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run is a thrilling oneness of obstacle and release, heaviness and flight, repulsion and attraction, enmity and love—and, as such, we can learn from it happily.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that it is easy to make sense of where we’re against the world and where we’re for it. But Aesthetic Realism shows greatly that when something corresponding to these opposites can be heard as one in music, we feel, however unconsciously, it’s possible to make sense of them in ourselves.
In a wonderful semester of the class The Opposites in Music, taught at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation by Barbara Allen and Dr. Edward Green, we studied notes from a 1975 class taught by Eli Siegel in which he discussed his essay “Questions for Everyone” in relation to music. He took up, for example, Question #3: “Have I sometimes felt that I hated everything?” He said music comments on this question because it consists of elements that are different from each other and, however harmonious they may be, they are opposed to each other as well. “Hate,” he said, “arises from the fact that things are different. Everything can be in a state of enmity.”
Born to Run is an exhilarating expression of the desire in people to break free of everything that stops us from truly being ourselves—those stultifying restraints coming from both outside and within ourselves. The music is an intense relation of high-spirited energy in a battle with something terrifically muddy and weighty. Listen, for example, to the opening: a quick series of drum beats and a heavily descending bass give way to a pulsating organism of struggling sound. The bass plays one relentless note over and over, a piano pounds out a rhythm on a single chord, the saxophone and other instruments drone out a thick blanket of inert sound, while drums, electric guitar and glockenspiel try with all their might to break free, with that familiar “Born to Run” anthem-like figure, spiritedly rising and descending against that thick wall of sound. Listen:
As the verse begins, we hear a slow, metallic strum of a guitar chord, and it’s like we’ve come to a clearing in the forest (though the bass still reminds us of thickness, difficulty). In the opening words, Springsteen represents people’s furious objection to an economic system that tells us, “Your whole life will be used to make profit for someone else.” And, as in many Springsteen songs, the attempt to break free is expressed in terms of hot-rod race cars:
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream.
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.
Then, on the words “Sprung from cages,” there is a sudden, wonderful uplift as piano and glockenspiel play exhilarated, up-and-down arpeggios, and the bass, which before was so heavy, is now dancing—positively lyrical. Still, the uplift and exhilaration are felt in the context of weighty opposition: that low, buzzing sound like molasses, which tries to push the singer back, even as he struggles against it. Then, at last, the first glimpse of triumph shines through on the refrain: “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run!”
The terrific push for freedom continues in the second verse, as the singer asks a girl, Wendy, to join him. Then a grunted count of “1-2-3-4!” propels us into an inspired saxophone solo played by Clarence Clemons and, just as it reaches its height, the accompanying music suddenly turns darker for the middle section of the song. The fight between restriction and freedom is not resolved. No escape yet.
Sitting in my room in my family’s house in Yonkers, where I played this record hundreds of times in the late 70’s, I did sometimes feel I hated everything. But I didn’t have a beautiful enmity, as art always does. Mine was sloppy and it was ugly, because its purpose was to despise the world itself and see it as unworthy of me, which, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, is contempt: the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” I used the fact that my family could be confusing to look down on people generally and see them as not worth knowing. And I felt people were out to trip me up or make fun of me. My mode of counterattack was to have a running stream of mocking thoughts about other people in my mind. But I didn’t know that this was the reason I despised myself so much.
In Aesthetic Realism Consultations, I came to see how contempt was hurting my life, and I’m so grateful to say I changed and became far happier than I ever imagined I could be. Aesthetic Realism enables one to look at a feeling of against-ness, outrage, even hate and ask, “Is my objection on behalf of greater justice, beauty, kindness, or is it for the glory of my narrow ego?” We can learn to have these opposites—for and against—in a way that makes us proud.
In Born to Run, there’s a sense throughout that the ferocious anger it expresses has within it a belief in a beautiful, likeable outcome; and the music sustains that. Still, the hate is unmistakable. “When people want to get away,” Eli Siegel said in the class I’m quoting from, “there is some hate.”
In the brooding middle section, the accents now land on the 1st and 3rd beats, giving a sense of struggle, incompleteness, yearning. The words describe teenage frustration—an agonizing relation of inertia and restlessness—with images of the New Jersey shore:
Beyond the Palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard.
Girls comb their hair in rear-view mirrors and the boys try to look so hard.
The amusement park rises bold and stark;
Kids are huddled on the beach in the mist.
I wanna die with you Wendy on the street tonight in an everlasting kiss!
This is melodramatic, but I take it as a saying that one sincere moment is worth a lifetime of fakery.
The band now goes into a wrestling match of epic proportions, with one force trying to take off, and another force struggling to hold it down. Finally, the taking-off contender is beaten to the ground in what sounds like an unbreakable stalemate—and then something mighty happens: there is a terrific release. This is the moment near the end of a Springsteen concert (at least the ones I attended in the 70’s), when all the house lights come on in the gigantic arena and we see the whole crowd and ourselves at once and realize—this song is us! Right here! Right now! It happens on these words:
The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.
Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide.
Together Wendy we can live with the sadness, I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Oh, someday girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go and we’ll walk in the sun…but till then…
Tramps like us, baby we were born to run!
I have been amazed to see that this recording is a compound of struggle and freedom all the way from the first note to last. Even in this triumphant last section the highway’s “jammed” and “there’s no place left to hide.” It doesn’t present an easy answer, but it does present a fight—even a feeling of hate—as having a pleasurable, beautiful form. And having looked at it in terms of the opposites, as always happens, I love it more than ever!
Here comes the big finale:
Learn more: AestheticRealism.org
Matt D. says
Thanks for this great understanding of this song by “The Boss” which I will never hear or listen to in the same way again. So encouraging to read at this time of turmoil in our world. Thank you.
Christopher Balchin says
I’ve always liked this song but I really had no idea until I read your critique based on the principles of Aesthetic Realism that it deals with such an important issue for me and for everyone. This is a great read, and I appreciate the way you describe the music and the words so carefully but also with style and love.
Barbara McClung says
Thank you! I feel I understood the essence of this song–through the explanation of the opposites–as never before. To see that musical form can be given to what people can feel, are tormented by, –“obstacle and release, heaviness and flight”– is thrilling. Something to truly celebrate!
Len Bernstein says
I have loved Born to Run since I first heard it (still have my vinyl) but I never knew how related it is to our own lives, our struggles, and hopes. What you wrote, what you learned studying Aesthetic Realism and Eli Siegel’s principle of beauty, brought joyful tears to my eyes and I loved this song and respected Bruce Springsteen’s impulsion to write it, as never before. Thank you!