Photo Left: Political Wire / Taegan Goddard | Photo Right: Getty / Win McNamee

The Night Cardi B Eclipsed the Boss

Not many people can say they were in the room to witness one of their favorite moments in American history.

Mine was nearly one year ago, on a balmy June evening in Jackson Heights.

Flanked by waiters carrying platters of Chardonnay and fellow staffers wiping tears from their eyes, I gripped my phone as it chimed relentlessly with notifications and news alerts, a pocket-sized bell tolling for the end of a political era.

The impossible had in fact come to pass.

We were rendered immobile by shock — all of us, that is, except our boss, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives and prospective successor to Speaker Nancy Pelosi: Joe Crowley.

Moments after CNN declared our opponent — an under-funded, 28-year-old activist from the Bronx — the victor, Joe met our confusion with resolve. He stepped onto the stage of the would-be victory party, strapped an acoustic guitar around his shoulder, and beamed toward the gob-smacked crowd.

“This is for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” he declared before tearing into a rather faithful rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”

I don’t think any other song — or speech, for that matter — could have better captured the magnitude, essence, and power of that moment.

In many respects, Joe’s song choice was a no-brainer. During my time working in Joe’s press shop, we’d ping-pong around New York’s 14th Congressional District in his black Chevy Equinox, rushing from event to event as one of two Sirius XM stations blasted through the speakers: The Beatles Channel or E Street Radio. During my first week on the job, we were driving across the Whitestone Bridge for an interview with NY1 when Joe asked if I was a Springsteen fan. He nodded approvingly when I told him “Hungry Heart” was an all-time favorite of mine.

Me staffing Joe during an interview with News 12 The Bronx | Photo: Ziya Smallens

Joe is far from the only baby boomer Democrat who has a soft spot for the Boss. Several major Democratic politicians, including Secretaries Clinton and Kerry, have played Springsteen songs at campaign stops. The man himself even performed at President Obama’s inauguration. And former Vice President Joe Biden, who recently announced his candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination, chose “We Take Care of Our Own” as his walkout song at campaign events.

A shared affinity for the Boss speaks to the political era in which both Joes were bred. “Born to Run,” in Springsteen’s own words, is a song that speaks directly to a part of the listener “that is both exhilarated and frightened about what tomorrow brings.” That mixture of fear and excitement also characterizes America in 1975, the year Born to Run was released. Back then, our nation was grappling with an energy crisis, recovering from the biggest political scandal in modern history, and entering an era of economic and technological transformation that would upend working-class families across the nation.

It was also around the time when Joe Crowley got his start in politics by helping his uncle get elected to local office and Joe Biden began his career as a first-term U.S. Senator. The political crises and cultural touchstones of 1975 informed the political leaders they would go on to become.

Rep. Joe Crowley and Vice President Biden | Photo: Office of Congressman Joe Crowley

Today, the Joes are whiter, older, and an X-chromosome short of emerging leaders like Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Lauren Underwood, and Ayanna Pressley.

The generational chasm runs deep, leading some pundits to wonder, when it comes to 2020, “who will be the Bruce Springsteen candidate?

This is the wrong question to be asking; it belies the reality that the base, and face, of the Democratic Party is changing. Resonant as Bruce Springsteen’s discography may be among one segment of Democratic voters, women, millennials, and Americans of color make up another, growing portion of the Party’s base. And with the ascent of a new generation of leaders comes a shift, not only in our political culture, but our popular culture as well.

Just as “Born to Run” captures the spirit of political figures like Joe Crowley and Joe Biden, we can point to a new strand of cultural icons who capture the spirit of emerging political figures like AOC.

AOC even identified one such icon when she responded to her critics by quoting Cardi B’s “Best Life”:

I never had a problem showin’ y’all the real me/

Hair when it’s messed up, crib when it’s filthy/

Way-before-the-deal me, work-to-pay-the-bills me/

‘Fore I fixed my teeth, man, those comments used to kill me/

But never did I change, never been ashamed/

Never did I switch, story stayed the same/

I did this on my own, I made this a lane

Though not overtly political, “Best Life,” like “Born to Run” before it, captures the era in which we live. Where “Born to Run” expresses trepidation, “Best Life” expresses triumph. It’s unapologetic, and it speaks to a cultural renaissance being led by Americans of color who are breaking barriers at the box office, on the Billboard charts, and within the halls of Congress.

In tweeting out the lyrics to “Best Life,” AOC is demonstrating how she and her peers represent a new era of leadership.

It’s no longer Bruce Springsteen’s Party — it’s Cardi B’s.

The similarities shared by AOC and Cardi run deeper than a tenacious spirit. Both AOC and Cardi B are Bronx-born, working-class women of color who proved far more formidable than the establishment originally anticipated. Both women achieved popularity through talent and determination, and their public appeal is buoyed by their refusal to temper their tone or cater to conventional wisdom. They also both supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election and have a knack for Twitter clap-backs.

AOC and Cardi B redefined what was possible in their respective lanes of culture. Both of them beat the odds by brandishing — rather than burnishing — their personal story. They threw the most unfiltered versions of themselves into the spotlight and succeeded as a result.

The meteoric rise of artists like Bruce Springsteen and Cardi B reveals how popular culture inspires and empowers audiences. To a generation of working-class Americans ensnared in the economic anxieties of the late 1970’s, Born to Run validated their experiences. Today, Cardi B’s double platinum-certified Invasion of Privacy plays a similar role. In tracks like “Best Life,” Cardi is speaking directly to listeners who feel as if they must sacrifice their sense of self to prosper in America. The song proclaims: hell no, you don’t–and I’ll prove it.

The political earthquake that shook Queens is a testament to the fact that, today, listeners are vibing to a new sound, and voters are clamoring for a new generation of leadership. In the throes of defeat, Joe stood in front of a literal audience to pass the torch from his own generation to the next.

In lieu of a concession speech, Joe performed his own anthem as the opening act to a new kind of artist playing a new kind of sound.

— Ziya Smallens

In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.

Watch former Representative Joe Crowley’s concession rendition of “Born to Run” here.

Follow Ziya and West Wing Writers on Twitter.



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