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Tuesday, Apr 23, 2024

‘Renegades: Born in the USA’: A conversation between a rock and roll legend and Bruce Springsteen

Last week, Spotify released the final episode of “Renegades: Born in the USA,” a podcast hosted by former president Barack Obama and rock-and-roll legend Bruce Springsteen. Over eight episodes, the two men — who became friends during Obama’s first presidential election cycle in 2008 — discuss topics including music, politics, gender and racism in America. The podcast was produced by Higher Ground Productions, which was founded by Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. 

The general angle of the podcast’s first episode is how Obama and Springsteen perceive America through the eyes of an outsider — a “renegade.” Then, in “Our Unlikely Friendship,” Obama talks about his unique childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia as a mixed-race kid in the 1960s and 70s. Springsteen relates to Obama in a discussion of his own origins in Freehold, N.J., a small, predominantly working class beachside town.  

Obama famously posts a list of his favorite movies, shows, books and songs on social media at the end of each year, so it is no surprise that while discussing the arts with Springsteen, the former president is able to hold his own. 

On the topic of how many white Americans admire Black artists while simultaneously holding racist beliefs, Obama has a nuanced view: he stops short of disparaging cultural appropriation in favor of praising the melting pot which is American art, while also acknowledging its flaws. “There is this notion that Black folks are the other,” Obama notes. “Yet the culture is constantly appropriating and regurgitating and processing the style that arises out of being an outsider. And knowing the blues. And having suffered these scars.”

In a particularly thoughtful episode, Springsteen discusses how the E Street Band’s saxophonist Clarence Clemons kept up a stoic facade when called racist slurs at concerts and bars. Springsteen acknowledged that he could only glean the surface of Clemons’ struggles. The segment on race in America has a blither coda with Obama and Springsteen discussing their favorite protest songs, such as “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” 

“[A Change Is Gonna Come] can make me cry,” says the former president. Springsteen agrees.

Although Donald Trump is rarely mentioned in the podcast, his shadow looms over the production. “For three years I’d had to watch a presidential successor who was diametrically opposed to everything I believed in,” Obama notes early on in the first of several allusions to Trump.

When and why do we listen to podcasts? I found myself tuning into “Renegades: Born in the USA'' while folding laundry and looking over apartment leases, hazily gripped by several segments of the podcast. However, I propose that a fair litmus test for whether a podcast is truly exceptional  is whether you would sit down in a room around 9 o’clock at night, with everything tidied up and your day over, and listen: your eyes closed and your mind empty, sans laundry and sans apartment leases. Perhaps at the end of a great episode you go back to relisten. “Renegades” doesn’t exactly inspire that attention. 

Obama’s contributions in “Renegades” are nothing that we haven’t heard before, and Springsteen’s are probably only of interest to the singer’s fans. Skip randomly to any point in “Renegades,” and it feels as if there is a 90% chance that Springsteen will be speaking; too often, Obama’s control of tempo and genuinely entertaining stories are sidelined. Easily one of our most relaxed presidents, Obama won’t interrupt or steer Springsteen to more narratively rich waters, which is a problem for an eight-hour podcast. 

The podcast’s problem is less of an issue than it is a wasted opportunity. The former president, especially, steers clear of politics, focusing more on his uniquely optimistic vision of America as a country that is slowly aligning with its ideals. Of course, Obama’s gift for language soars in “Renegades,” but he plays things safe here. He is more restrained here than in his recently published memoir “A Promised Land” — famous for its brutal honesty about the failures and triumphs of his administration.

“Renegades” is fine enough. But you deserve a more dynamic rock-and-roller for a podcasting partner, Mr. President. Perhaps Bob Dylan next time?