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Springsteen's Right: Unity Can Only Begin in the Middle

Bruce Springsteen’s name may be on the marquee of the Jeep Super Bowl ad featuring The Boss, which is titled “The Middle.” But Lebanon, Kansas -- the real middle -- is the star.

And while the message of the rock-and-roll icon from New Jersey is an appeal for national healing, using a chapel in the geographic center of the nation as a backdrop, out here in Flyover Country we may experience the two-minute commercial differently than other Americans. That’s not just because many in the heartland dislike The Boss’s politics.

It’s really because we know that if the true healing of America ever is going to begin, on a universally edifying basis, it’s going to begin in The Middle. Our middle.

Springsteen knew that. So did Olivier Francois, the chief marketing officer for Jeep and the other brands owned by what used to be Fiat Chrysler and now part of Stellantis. Springsteen has been legendarily shy about making commercial endorsements, but Francois finally was able to draw him into a Big Game ad with an invitation to apply some salve to the national wound.

And the way that Francois – a Frenchman who worked for an Italian company but a very shrewd reader of American moods and culture – drew in The Boss was with a script for an ad that focused on the U.S. Center Chapel in the middle.

“It’s no secret,” Springsteen begins the spot. “The middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and our fear,” The Boss intones, in a script he helped pen himself, over a new musical score he also assisted in writing.

“Now, fear has never been the best of who we are. And as for freedom, it’s not just the property of the fortunate few; it belongs to us all. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from. It’s what connects us. We need that connection. We need the middle. We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground.”

Springsteen finishes by urging Americans to come together to “cross this divide,” before Jeep ends the ad by putting on screen, “The ReUnited States of America.” A star on a U.S. map where Lebanon is located sits between “ReUnited” and “States.”

The images carrying the narrative are a virtual paean to the raw simplicity of the Great Plains in the winter, to its rolling hills, rolling stock on the rails, rugged rock outcroppings, icy sunsets and slush-strewn city streets.

There’s even a baldly spiritual statement encompassed by the cross on top of the chapel, and the three crosses stuck in a field outside – all of which are embraced by the ad. Springsteen sits in the tiny chapel and lights a votive candle toward the end.

“Literally, the intent of this ad was to deliver a healing message,” Francois told me for stories that I wrote for Forbes and Chief Executive. “Together, all of us wanted to do literally a prayer.”

So as a representation of a place for healing, the choice of the chapel in Lebanon wasn’t accidental. But neither was it simply a function of a topographical equation.

Every shot in the ad is of someplace in the middle, in Kansas, Nebraska or Colorado. In fact, rather than showing him blasting out a few bars of "Born in the U.S.A." with the E Street Band, Springsteen is portrayed doing only the things we do out here in the middle every day: having a cup of coffee at the neighborhood diner; parsing the soil in his hands; and, yes, sitting in his Jeep. An American flag flutters on a front porch.

All of them were reasons for one of the world’s iconic musicians – who now is 71 years old -- to fly out to Hastings, Nebraska, last week; push through a day of shooting in the January cold; and huddle with Francois and producers to bang out the ad in a plane on the tarmac because it was the best place to keep warm.

Jeep and Springsteen could have insisted on sprinkling in some of the usual iconic images “from sea to shining sea” that have become shorthand for feelings of national unity and pride over the decades, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building or the U.S. Capitol.

But these days especially, could any serious plea for unity possibly have included scenes of the sewage-strewn streets of San Francisco? Or the empty canyons of New York? Or the hurricane-fenced boulevards of the nation’s capital?

So while we all love the idea of reuniting the United States, could it possibly begin anywhere other than the middle?

Springsteen isn’t the greatest messenger for true national reconciliation, given his increasingly harsh and vocal critiques of Donald Trump – and, by implication, of his tens of millions of supporters – over the last few years, in line with the rest of entertainment celebritydom. But at least The Boss, and Jeep, are urging us to move toward one another.

The thing is, it’s going to take a while – if it ever happens – for America to come together again in the realms of politics and ideology, and in the very important national policies, priorities and actions that stem from whose ideas are in control at the moment.

But there need be no delay in commencing healing in the actual places where people live, in rebuilding and building up our communities, cities and suburbs, farms and hamlets – beginning out here in the middle.

And the chapel in Lebanon may be the right place to start.


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