When Bruce Springsteen met Barack Obama on the latter’s 2008 campaign trail, the two became fast friends. They may observe the American disorder through different lenses, but they still seem to have drawn some of the same conclusions; they’re evangelists of the kind of modern liberalism best explained by the famous Dr. King quote about the arc of history bending toward justice. Now we can hear Springsteen and Obama explore this worldview in the new Spotify podcast Renegades: Born in the USA, a series of conversations between the rock star and the politician about the commonalities and differences in their backgrounds.
In its more profound moments, Renegades offers a patchwork history of the United States, from the Cold War to the current culture war. However, it also inherits its hosts’ blind spots along with their admirable convictions and intelligence. Their journeys have been unique, but they seem to converge in a shared ideological space — that of the unshakably upbeat establishment Democrat, who bolsters morale by pointing out how far we’ve come, no matter how disconcerting the last decade of social discord, wealth and power disparities, and natural disasters has been.
Both Obama and Springsteen make intriguing podcast hosts, as public figures whose way with words is a function of meticulous craft: Bruce as a songwriter and Barack as a speaker, one known as much for the insight and optimism of his words as for the pregnant pauses between them. The podcast medium usually tends to favor deliberate, intentional essays and reporting or fast-paced dialogue. Renegades doesn’t quite fit either category. It unfolds like a series of porchfront chats between old friends; these conversations feel winding and loose, sometimes almost too loose.
The aim — as expressed by the former president in the first episode, “Outsiders: An Unlikely Friendship” — is to pave a path out of the cultural and political entrenchment of the last five years through an appreciation of the vastness of the American experience. There’s a general theme to each of the eight episodes, which play out as a series of philosophical conversations around overarching ideas about America. Between Bruce’s Irish Catholic upbringing in Jersey’s predominantly white Monmouth County — close enough to commute to New York City but far enough away to seem authentically suburban — and Barack’s early years as a biracial child in Hawaii a decade later, you get a picture of disparate, intersecting Americas. Where one story ends, the other begins.
It makes for a fascinating way to approach matters like race. Bruce can talk about what it was like to see his Black friends in Freehold’s integrated school system in the ’60s, frustrated and hesitant to talk to white people amid racial tensions. Barack can talk about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of those tensions; he recounts how he taught a buddy what mainland slurs not to use, with a fist to the guy’s nose.
Also connecting both dreamers is the idea that things could and should be better, but that they won’t get there without incredible effort. In an early episode, Obama spells out his guiding ethos: “I believe in the upward, forward trajectory of humankind, but I do not believe that it is a straight and steady line.” Later on, Bruce confirms what we have gleaned about his perspective from songs where ambition drives lovers on quests of self-discovery: that he thinks “part of the essential aspect of being an American is getting out of where you are.” The two agree that the road is one of the best ways to experience both the sheer size of the country and the surprising similarities bridging far-flung communities, a sense of scope that has informed both men’s work.
As paragons of liberal hopefulness, Barack and Bruce speak candidly about America’s problems — and stop short of suggesting that America itself is the problem. You want to hear them discuss why the divisions of the ’60s have evolved into new and upsetting manifestations in every decade since, how so many Americans have come back around to embrace the overt, torch-carrying racism their predecessors fought hard to chase out of the public discourse. But they often breeze by these complexities like scenery during a road trip. Still, it’s intriguing to hear men who believe in the country as much as these two do recalling moments that shook their faith. Obama lists the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary-school shooting as a low point in his career and a stark reminder of the limits to the power of a president: “The closest I ever came to losing hope about this country was probably after efforts for modest gun-safety laws were defeated … after 20 children had been slaughtered.” He remembers struggling to find words when asked to speak at the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed by Dylann Roof during the Charleston church massacre in 2015, explaining his decision to sing “Amazing Grace” at the service to address a point about the power of music to move people.
Elsewhere, Bruce talks about running a racially integrated band and learning about the unknowable emotional cost that his late friend and saxophonist Clarence Clemons shouldered along the way. He revisits “American Skin (41 Shots),” the song he wrote about the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant shot at 41 times by plainclothes NYPD officers who claimed they mistook Diallo’s wallet for a gun (the officers were eventually acquitted). It also seems to reveal something about Springsteen’s politics that he would be surprised to hear of police officers being angry about the song. (This seems especially notable in the aftermath of his recent arrest on reckless driving charges, which happened after a cop saw him take a shot of tequila with fans before getting on his motorcycle. Some smoke never settles.)
Renegades suffers from a pacing issue; there’s an almost unusual amount of dead air here. Sometimes it scans as two people comfortable enough with each other to relish the silence. Sometimes you’ll find yourself checking to see if you’ve dropped WiFi. This is truer to the experience of listening to elders speak, though, than the lilting ASMR typical in the podcast sphere: It invites you to listen closer, to tune your thinking down to a different speed, and consider simpler, though perhaps not brighter, days. As it moves through different moments in time and ping-pongs between opposite but complementary perspectives, you start to grasp the show’s vision of America as a society on the brink of breakthrough — where we could all progress if our most virulent nativist, exclusionary contingent could get over its hang-ups.
This is, of course, rose-colored idealism. Nationalists and xenophobes choose their stances, choose to shut people out, and that position is not necessarily fueled by simple ignorance about conditions on the other side of town. It might serve a sunny outlook to suggest that America is only zigging a bit on the way to the zag. But the country’s hunger for bogeymen and scapegoats is as central to its character as purple mountains’ majesty. Whenever Renegades touches this horror, it retreats into the boundless positivity of the duo that gave us “Born to Run,” The Audacity of Hope, “The Promised Land,” “A More Perfect Union,” and “Land of Hope and Dreams.”
But that’s why we come to these two, right? For hope. This podcast isn’t trying to change the country or offer solutions. Its only intention is to use our distance from the worst points in our past as motivation to keep pushing, and to model a way of celebrating our differences at a time where that seems increasingly difficult. To that end, at least, Renegades is hearty comfort food.