Stuck in the Middle with Bruce

The Super Bowl, in earlier days, was as much about consumerism as it was about football.

With the largest TV audience of the year watching, the network airing the game could charge millions of dollars for a 30-second spot. And the companies who were paying these top-dollar rates spared no expense to put the WOW factor into their ads, too. And the next day in the papers, the best of the best ads would get the type of residual publicity that made the winner of the game seem irrelevant.

But in 2021, everything was different. The stadium was filled with more cardboard cutouts than big-money ticket buyers. Super Bowl watch parties were scaled back too, in response to the ongoing effects of COVID-19. In some ways, the game itself–and all the hype surrounding it–were really nothing more than a placeholder, or an attempt to keep things going until better days arrive at some time in the future.

There seems to be just one Super Bowl ad that matters in 2021, and it’s a two-minute commentary on where we are in America right now. Two minutes plus of ad time during the Super Bowl broadcast was a huge financial outlay on the part of Jeep, but it’s paying off because it deliberately avoided the WOW factor that once seemed so necessary for Super Bowl commercials to have.

Is this ad trying to get us all to buy a Jeep? I don’t really think so, since there’s nothing but a 30 year-old model that appears for just a few seconds onscreen. It’s not about building the brand, at least in a direct sense. It’s more about meeting us where we are at this fraught moment in our nation’s existence.

The idea that a literal middle point of this nation (or at least the lower 48 states) is the spot where a small Christian church stands is something that I never considered before. I had heard about the population midpoint for many years, and how it keeps moving westward and in a southerly direction each time a new census is completed. If it doesn’t reach into Arkansas or even Oklahoma for the 2020 census, it will get there soon enough.

But the physical center hasn’t moved in several decades, I would imagine. It’s also very unlikely that it ever will move again. So the church at the literal center of this nation isn’t going anywhere, either.

Does it matter that it’s a Christian church at the spot? Not really, at least not to me. I’m not religious today–and haven’t been since the early 1980s–but I was raised a Catholic, just like Bruce Springsteen was. Organized religion is on the decline in terms of its overall presence in society, but the clear majority of Americans will continue to identify as Christians, certainly for the rest of my lifetime and probably for as long as America exists.

In the commercial itself, Bruce Springsteen is driving toward this small church, as he ruminates about how hard it is to find the (figurative) middle in America these days. While the literal middle of the country is tangible and fixed in one place, the figurative middle is far more difficult to pin down. But the point of the ad is to recognize that it’s out there, so long as we’re willing to look for it.

Bruce arrives at the church in the Middle, says a short prayer, and lights a candle before heading off toward someplace else. Jeep then puts up a tagline touting “The ReUnited States of America” and it’s back to the football game. But a marker was laid down by Jeep and the Boss, and it’s one that’s worth saying a few words about here.

The Trump era is now over, whether all of Trump’s people want it to be or not, and it’s as good an opportunity as any to think about where we are as a nation, and where we want to go from here. It’s clear to me that standing still and complaining about How Things Are is not an option at this particular moment.

It’s no secret that I hold Bruce Springsteen in very high regard. I’ve seen him play live a couple of times, read his Born to Run memoir, and purchased most of his music in some format or another. I also identify with his politics, and for many people that seems to render the Jeep ad as something to disregard or even ridicule. But I’m going to offer another take on it here.

Bruce Springsteen has been a national treasure for two generations. His song The Rising provided a moment of healing for this nation in the dark days following 9/11. Watch Sting play that song at the Kennedy Center and tell me that’s not real. Anyone who says otherwise is full of shit.

He also paid tribute to David Bowie and Glenn Frey and Prince onstage. He brought Broadway into territory it had never seen before, and might not ever see again (but I hope it will). He has raised money and awareness for food pantries, and showed the possibilities of rock music to bring blacks and whites together, in a way that doesn’t happen as much as it could or should.

Anybody who wants to hate on Bruce is free to do so, but they also must turn a blind eye to all the good things he has accomplished through the years.

So let Bruce and Jeep make their pitch for all of us to find a better place than where we are right now, or at least have us believe that it’s worth searching for. And if there’s someone with more standing than him to make that case, then bring it on and I’ll listen to them, too. Because we’ve had the alternative for many years now, and it’s a road we simply can’t travel anymore.

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