Wide Angle

Obama and Springsteen’s Podcast Isn’t What It Pretends to Be

The show promises difficult conversations about race, but it avoids the actual difficulties.

The podcast logo for Renegades with animated lines beside it indicating sound.
Photo illustration by Slate

The podcast co-hosted by Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen is called Renegades: Born in the USA. As titles go, it’s not so hot. It lacks the zing of, for example, Dreams From My Father, to say nothing of plain old Born in the U.S.A. It has the feel of a much-workshopped and whiteboarded compromise, hammered out in bleary Zoom sessions by people who know that money is at stake and that the interests of three big brands—including Spotify, the exclusive outlet for the eight-episode series—must be met. The title is also false advertising. At one time, Obama and Springsteen may have qualified as rebels, or something along those lines. (As Obama puts it in the series’ premiere: “We both felt like outsiders as kids.”) But the rule of thumb is, if, like the former POTUS and the Boss, you’ve been spotted off the coast of Tahiti, lunching with Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks on David Geffen’s $300 million “superyacht,” your claim to the mantle “renegade” must be rescinded. The same law applies if you’ve been in possession of the nuclear codes, or starred in a Super Bowl commercial for Jeep.

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The title Renegades also ill-suits a series offering nothing that will surprise or épater anyone, including the bourgeoisie that is the show’s target audience. The idea is simply to set a microphone in front of two of the world’s most beloved and highly Q-rated boomer males and have them serve up oft-told tales, in episodes vaguely organized around themes like “Race in the United States” and “The Loss of Innocence.” Accordingly, the podcast’s producers—Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions along with the audio company Dustlight Productions—stay out of the way, providing occasional intercuts of music or historical tape, but mostly letting the conversation roll out and putting listeners, as the saying goes, right in the room.

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The room in this case is a recording studio—stocked, we are told, with dozens of guitars and at least one bottle of whiskey—on the grounds of Springsteen’s home in Colts Neck, New Jersey. In a bit of off-mic vérité at the beginning of the first episode, Springsteen asks Obama how he wants to be addressed during the podcast taping. “Barack, man. C’mon, dude,” says the 44th president. The goal, clearly, is to establish that we have gained access to an intimate and unfiltered tête-à-tête—just a couple of buddies, sitting around, shooting the breeze. Obama speaks in a casual register, droppin’ his G’s left and right. Occasionally, Springsteen picks up a guitar to strum some chords or sing a song. You can practically hear the campfire crackling.

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The show has its charms. Spoiler alert: Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen are likable guys, who can spin a yarn. Springsteen talks about his decadeslong partnership with E Street Band saxophone colossus Clarence Clemons; Obama recalls his relationship with John Lewis. They swap stories about their childhoods, their families, their struggles with emotionally distant (in Obama’s case, absent) fathers. They speak candidly about ambition and ego—the belief, shared by rock stars and politicians alike, that, as Springsteen puts it, “you have a voice and a point of view that is worth being heard by the whole world.” “You’ve got to have the egotism—” Springsteen says. “The megalomania,” Obama interjects.

This is Guy Talk: an elevated version of the bro-ing down heard on countless podcasts aimed at men. At times it feels like Renegades is a primer on nontoxic masculinity. Obama and Springsteen are emotionally intelligent and self-aware; they poke fun at themselves, in a way that comes naturally to wildly successful people. They’re comfortable sharing their feelings. (Springsteen talks about crying his eyes out in a therapist’s office.) Often, the discussion turns philosophical. The series’ fourth episode, released this week, begins with Obama and Springsteen taking a joy ride in “the vintage Corvette that Bruce keeps in his barn.” Soon, they are hauling out literary allusions and reflecting on the siren call of the open road. Obama: “You go on the road to discover, like Ulysses …” Springsteen: “[It’s] your Hegira. It’s a trip to discover your soul.” Obama: “You are finding out what you are made of.”

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My own Hegira is a two-block schlep to a neighborhood bagel place, so I’m not the ideal audience for this heady Kerouacian stuff. But this isn’t the only time, listening to Renegades, that I found myself bending under gale force blasts of hot air. In his introduction to the series, Obama describes his exchanges with Springsteen as an exploration of “the American ideal.” That ideal, Obama says, is not “an airbrushed cheap fiction, or an act of nostalgia” but “a compass for the hard work that lies before each of us, as citizens, to make this place and the world more equal, more just, and more free.”

It’s not surprising that the podcast would incline in this direction. For years, Obama’s speeches and Springsteen’s songs have ruminated on the meaning of America, in lofty language that tips into hokum. (Both guys, let’s not forget, have leaned hard on the metaphor of America as Promised Land.) In Renegades, they lay claim, again and again, to a progressive patriotism, a love of country sturdy enough to withstand honest reckoning with historical sins and ongoing injustices, especially racism.

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So we get a lot of solemn talk in which hard truths are articulated amid a blizzard of mixed metaphors. In a conversation about the rise of white nationalism under Trump, Springsteen proclaims that racist pathologies are “not meandering veins in our extremities, but … continue to be running through the heart of the country—that’s a call to arms and lets us know, obviously, how much work we have left to do.” This point—that there’s a lot of racism in the United States—isn’t exactly a revelation. The same is true of other themes upon which Obama and Springsteen earnestly emote: The civil rights movement was important, the Vietnam War split the country along generational lines, America has a rich musical heritage. The remedial nature of these history lessons, and the portentous way they are presented by Renegades’ producers—soundtracked by plaintive guitar noodling that suggests pearls of wisdom are being dispensed—is bizarre and undermining: It makes Obama and Springsteen sound more out-to-lunch than they can possibly be. Clichés pile up. Lest listeners get too bummed, hearing about the obstacles the nation must surmount, an old warhorse is dragged out. “The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice,” Obama assures us.

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Listening to Renegades’ onslaught of bromides and potted history, I kept wondering: Why was this podcast made, and why was it made now? After four years of Trump, in the middle of a pandemic, in the aftermath of George Floyd, it’s difficult to imagine who, exactly, the audience is for the brand of hard-won American exceptionalism Obama and Springsteen are peddling. (Those who were disappointed by Obama’s low profile during the Trump era might also wonder why we’re getting Renegades in 2021, as opposed to, say, in 2017, when its comfort food might have been more welcome.) Renegades wants us to believe in its political salience, insisting that “difficult conversations” between “a white guy from a small town in Jersey” and “a Black guy of mixed race born in Hawaii” are a model for the broader rapprochement necessary to move the country forward.

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But Springsteen and Obama aren’t just a white guy and a Black guy. They’re super famous really rich guys, whose conversations, incidentally, don’t sound all that difficult. They appear to agree on everything. They have a way of gliding past the tricky stuff. In the series’ second episode, “American Skin: Race in the United States,” Springsteen laments that we live in a country where bankers on Wall Street get bailed out while ordinary citizens struggle and suffer. Left unstated is the fact that, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, President Obama let big banks off the hook, opting not to prosecute executives responsible for the subprime mortgage debacle while prioritizing the preservation of banks’ capital structure over aid to foreclosed homeowners. In the episode called “Amazing Grace: American Music,” Obama notes that our musical history is complicated by a legacy of exploitation, by questions of “what gets played and who gets paid.” It seems not to have occurred to anyone that, in the 21st-century, Exhibit A for this kind of raw deal is Spotify—that musicians’ livelihoods have been decimated by the very company with which Obama and Springsteen have partnered to make their podcast.

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Obama and Springsteen pay lip service to the truth that virtuous conversation goes only so far, allowing that real world changes “require concrete policies.” But they can’t push the point too far: Renegades is based on the proposition that bull sessions can move mountains. The funniest, shrewdest piece of podcast criticism I’ve come across recently is a parody video by an English musician named Jonathan Ogden, posted on Twitter under the caption “Podcasts saying literally nothing for 20 minutes.” Ogden, impersonating both pod host and guest, blabs inanely about the importance of “conversation” and “dialogue.” “I think what’s really important,” he says, “is that we generate more conversation.”

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At no time in human history has there been so much conversation, nor so much stock placed in conversation, and podcasts, surely, deserve much of the credit, or the blame. The barrier to entry is low, offering a platform to anyone who can get their hands on a microphone and some recording software. That openness has made the medium exciting and trenchant. But it is also a magnet for windbags, including, these days, celebrities who regard podcasts as an easy payday, a way to make a quick buck while doing what comes naturally: self-promoting and swooning to the sound of their own voices.

I’m not suggesting that Obama and Springsteen are as cynical, as complacent, as your run-of-the-mill celeb podcaster. But listening to Renegades, I could not escape a feeling of déjà vu. In the third episode, we hear the story of an acoustic concert Springsteen played at the Obama White House shortly after the publication of his bestselling memoir Born to Run, a performance that became the basis of Springsteen’s Broadway show. Anyone who has read Springsteen’s book, or attended Springsteen on Broadway—or, for that matter, watched the Netflix adaptation of the Broadway show—will recognize many of the anecdotes the Boss recites in Renegades. The same is true for listeners who’ve read any of Obama’s three bestselling books, including the 768-page blockbuster (list price: $45.00) that he dropped in November. Renegades comes on high-minded, but really, it’s a rehash, a greatest hits package, in which Obama and Springsteen rev up old shticks and take them out for another spin. The podcast doesn’t have much of interest to say about the soul of the nation, but it’s a pure example of an artform born, or at least perfected, in the USA: the hard sell.

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