Best Song Ever: Wrecking Ball

Can a song grow a new meaning years after it’s written, even if its lyrics are pretty straightforward about its original intent?

Wrecking Ball

I missed Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” when it was first unleashed in late 2009, long before he turned it into the title track of his latest album. So when I finally heard it earlier this year, I had no idea it was written to commemorate the demolition of Giants Stadium, no idea that when the boss sang “C’mon and take your best shot / let me see what you got / bring on your wrecking ball,” he was talking about a literal wrecking ball.

In my defense, the first time I heard the song was on the highway with the windows down, so it was easy for me to miss lyrics about the Meadowlands that made it clear he’s singing from the stadium’s point of view. Instead, I mistook the use of football-themed bluster as a smart mix of actual sports anthem (minus the references to Jersey and the Giants, and you could play this song in any arena in the country and get the crowd jumping), general bad-assery (while the refrain’s a great taunt for sports – you think your defensive line is a wrecking ball? Bring it – the chest-thumping is more all-purpose, a terrific middle finger to flip to anyone you’re itching to take down), and political moralizing. Checking the lyrics, that last point is definitely a stretch; after all, he’s singing about “mud and the beer” and “burnin’ down the clock” and “the arenas filled and giants played their games,” which is about as definite as you can get.

But maybe not. Midway through the song, Springsteen broadens his scope, first with a bridge telling us “hold tight to your anger,” then with a verse that conspicuously leads us to something deeper:

Now, when all this steel and these stories
Drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty
Has been given to the dust
When the game has been decided
And we’re burnin’ down the clock
And all our little victories and glories
Have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires
Are scattered to the wind
And hard times come and hard times go and
Hard times come and hard times go and
Hard times come and hard times go and
Hard times come and hard times go and
Hard times come and hard times go
Yeah, just to come again

Suddenly, he’s not really singing about football any more. Remember, this is Bruce Springsteen, a man who, despite his position as aging millionaire rock icon, has somehow managed to stay so finely tuned to the working class he’s become a true American poet, a voice for the Everyman – a voice that’s increased in volume over the past decade. Surely he’s singing about us, the ninety-nine percent. Surely the wrecking ball is something bigger, perhaps the power of the fatcats and crumbums who broke our country, and Bruce is reminding them that we’ve been down before but we’ve never been out, and we’re ready for a fight. Figuratively or literally, whichever.

Turns out I’m not the only one to make this assumption. Based on its placement on Wrecking Ball, wedged between the album’s opening six songs filled with increasingly direct thoughts and stories and calls to arms about the Great Recession and its more hopeful yet still clear-themed closing four, it’s easy to find political ramblings in the title track. It’s reborn as an American anthem, defiant and proud, angry but optimistic, a rallying cry for the common man.

Not bad for a song about football.

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