How Springsteen Took Over Alt-Rock

When it comes to classic rockers who are revered by punks, alt-rockers, and indie brats, Bruce Springsteen may not possess the lofty stature of Neil Young, but the guy’s also no slouch. His influence tears across the first decade and a half of the 21st century like a ’69 Chevy with a 396. Adam Granduciel’s The War on Drugs–whose 2017 release, A Deeper Understanding, frequently nicks the gauzy, hushed heartache and mechanistic throb of Tunnel of Love—is just the latest in a long line of current artists who worship the Jersey legend. In addition to The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn (who has penned more than a few American anthems soaked in the Boss’ doomed romanticism and epic piano runs), The Killers dropped an entire album, 2006’s Sam’s Town, documenting the Vegas act’s collision of post-punk propulsion with gruff protestations and engine-roaring dynamics strung out on Born to Run. And, of course, the Arcade Fire (who actually pal around with their hero) slipped a whole mess of Springsteenisms—including the “Dancing in the Dark”-style pulse powering “Keep the Car Running”—into their 2007 blockbuster Neon Bible.

Rewind to the pre-2000s (back when alterna-types generally were gloomier and harbored far deeper suspicions of mainstream rockers), and Springsteen’s influence admittedly was less pervasive. Not only that, those artists who were inspired by him rarely wore it on their sleeves like their post-Y2K counterparts. Where a tune like The War on Drugs’ “Up All Night” actually sounds like the Boss, The Replacements’ heartland ballad “Here Comes a Regular” evokes more of a spiritual connection in its evocation of small-town drinking buddies and dive bar fatalism. Paul Westerberg’s protagonist, broken yet restless, sounds as if he walked right out of the grooves of The River.

Yet an even more interesting example is U2 and The Joshua Tree: There’s virtually nothing on the album that sounds overtly like Springsteen (though “In God’s Country” definitely reads like one of his song titles), yet the case can be made that the band’s fusion of anthemic rock, arena-sized yearning, and self-consciously grandiose lyrics drenched in American imagery could have only arrived in a post-Born in the U.S.A. pop market. (It should be noted Springsteen delivered U2’s Rock Hall induction speech in 2005.)

The Clash also channel the Boss without nicking anything in particular from his music. This is especially true of London Calling, a record oozing the same sweaty belief in rock ’n’ roll redemption that Springsteen pumped out all throughout the ’70s. Of course, punks weren’t supposed to dig classic rockers, but the late Joe Strummer was having none of that. “His music is great on a dark and rainy morning in England,” he wrote to rock documentary filmmaker Mark Hagen in 1997. “Just when you need some spirit and some proof that the big wide world exists, the D.J. puts on ‘Racing in the Streets’ and life seems worth living again—life seems to be in cinemascope again.” All hail the Boss!