Springsteen and Obama recording in New Jersey  Photo Credit: Rob DeMartin

The President and the Boss: Springsteen and Obama recording in New Jersey
Photo Credit: Rob DeMartin

This compelling photograph is crying out for analysis - is this image really representing what happened, and if not, what is going on here? Apparently the President and the Boss met to make a podcast “Two cultural giants tackle the cracked reality of the American dream”. The location appears to be the music room at Springsteen’s home, there are a couple of microphones rigged in a vaguely plausible placing from a sound point of view. In trying to decode this picture I’m looking only at the image, I’m not considering what they talk about in the podcast.

So firstly, with a billing like that, who is in charge here? Bruce Springsteen (the host, known in the music world as ‘The Boss’) or Barack Obama, the man who used to have his fingers on the US’ nuclear triggers. It’s not immediately obvious, the poses are strikingly symmetric: the professional smiles, the sitting back in the chairs and the eyelines. But the differences are more striking because of the symmetry. Neither man is actually at ease in front of the camera, the tightly crossed arms and legs assure us of that immediately.

You might think Springsteen is crossing less tightly than Obama at first sight, but to my eye, Obama is further down in his chair, legs crossed more loosely and arms further down his front. Springsteen in contrast is boxed in between the table leg that he’s propping with his foot and is sitting firmly in his chair, which is tilted back as if recoiling. Maybe Springsteen has back trouble but Obama is just more relaxed, he’s also sitting slightly higher so looks ever so slightly downwards at Springsteen.

The props on the table give more clues. There’s a whisky service but neither glass has been used. Obama has a coffee cup. They both have iced drinks, Obama’s looks like iced tea; Springsteen has a clear iced drink, water perhaps. Both men are there for business so whilst there might be a dash of whisky in their drinks, it doesn’t look like whisky is primarily what they are drinking. But if the whisky was the main drink, it’s been Obama who has been pouring. There looks to be a guitar plectrum alongside Springsteen’s notes, pen and glass.

The photo is dated February 2021 but there is no indication of Covid precautions even though this is a photo for public consumption.

Is it a natural picture or have two images been combined? If anything has been manipulated, there’s a slight “uncanny valley” feel about Obama’s laugh but overall I think it’s just the one exposure because the combination of facial expressions, body language and eyelines all ring true.

The dress code is interesting, neither are featuring any fashion labels of course, they are their own recognisable brand and here each is distinctive and looks right, ie consistent with the rest of their public image. Obama is dressed down compared to President Obama making a speech, but he’s long since moved on from that. He’s far too stylish and neat to be a run-of-the-mill academic. Obama the high-achieving lawyer is here talking on equal terms with one of America’s foremost creatives - Bruce Springsteen - and Obama is presenting himself on similar sartorial terms. Springsteen, on the other hand, is dressed up compared to his stage clothes: this clothing is Springsteen the multi-millionaire music mogul at home in his residence.

Incidentally, Springsteen is seen surrounded by the tools of his trade: the guitars, keyboards and speaker boxes. We are invited by implication to believe this is where music is made.

Obama has that lean, fit physique that the grey-going-on-white haired generation of Americans aim for, milk with 0% fat and so on. Springsteen still looks chunky and fit, as though he still lifts significant weight in the gym and probably knows how to order a really good steak. And we know from recent news stories that he can enjoy a drink with friends. But a suspicion in the awkwardness of his sitting position that maybe there’s a bit of back trouble that he’s managing. Nonetheless, Springsteen has made it through life to his seventh decade, a feat not managed by many of the music business of his era.

Springsteen has a notebook open, Obama has a stapled script. Obama wears a watch and Springsteen doesn’t. They’re both looking to reinvent themselves but the image suggests it’s Obama is calling the shots on this event.

At first sight, this is a publicity photo for the podcast. Here we have Barack Obama, the first black president of the USA, the embodiment of the American dream that the son of even an immigrant can get to the top of the tree. And he’s talking with Bruce Springsteen, who grew up in one of the many small towns in New Jersey that have few other distinctions.

Looking up Rob DeMartin, he’s a documentary producer, photographer and sound engineer so we can assume publicity is the primary reason for the photo. Moreover, of course if you get together two icons of recent North American liberalism, you would want to document the meeting with an image as well as their thoughts expressed in sound.

These two individuals are both exemplars of the American Dream but are also the embodiment of the problem they discuss in the podcast: Obama spoke eloquently as president but his achievements were limited by politics and majorities. Springsteen the singer-songwriter, consciously following Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, gave a voice to the American working man but in the end, his music has become a part of the great muzak mush that is the soporific for the factory and delivery workers for whom Springsteen sought to speak and Obama sought to empower.

So the apparently genial and jovial meeting for a philosophical discussion between the politician and the singer-poet has the possibility of becoming a session of two older men setting the world to rights. The photo of the two men getting down to business makes it clear this is a daytime philosophical discussion, quite possibly following a relaxed lunch, but it is certainly not a late night drinking tryst. But then the defensive poses tell us that we’re not going to hear any really candid thoughts anyhow.

Above all, these two characters are striving to remain relevant and the first function of a photo such as this is simply to remind us of them as they reinvent themselves. No one wants to be forgotten. Looking at that photo again, the forced smiles and professional joviality hide a degree of post-fame desperation and desolation. They have things still to say but the superficial conviviality hides their common fear that, despite all efforts, they haven’t changed the world and they’re on the way down.

It’s a striking picture.