OK, so I finally heard the Eric Church song "Springsteen." (Showed up in my Twitter feed as an Austin City Limits performance: #countryfail.) To be honest, I didn't listen all the way through. I've heard this song before.
Well, figuratively. I used to get my haircuts at a chain place (like Eric Church, my hairline doesn't require much maintenance) that often had the Pandora bro-country station running. This variation on the theme goes "Things were really great when we were young growing up in a small town," and typically invokes cutoff jeans, swimmin' holes, beer, music, and young "love." There are a bunch of these songs, and I couldn't tell you their names if my life depended on it. (Note: my own small-town youth did actually involve these things, but I do not romanticize it much, which means that I may never have a country radio hit.)
The wrinkle that Church puts into it is that the symbol of this summery nostalgia is the music of Bruce. Which in a way makes perfect sense, and in another way is profoundly weird.
The way in which it makes sense is obvious, and the reason it was a country hit: Springsteen's 80s hits did in fact provide part of the soundtrack of small-town America, and Springsteen's image at the time was the personification of the heartland.
That was already kind of weird at the time, though. While Springsteen's sound, themes, and image were suited to that role, his actual lyrics had no trace of the pastoral romance required of country radio music; were, in fact, full of darkness, lost hope, indeed, forsakenness (the visceral longing for freedom found in his earlier albums had vanished by then.) But as has been adequately documented elsewhere, most people were not actually listening to the lyrics.
Church's song references a bunch of Springsteen's. In order: "I'm on Fire," "Born To Run," "Born In the USA," and "Glory Days." It's no accident that three of the four were from the wildly popular Born In the USA album, and were major radio hits in '85 and '86 (when, apparently, the singer and the girl were 17.) "Born to Run" is a little strange in that company, since sonically it's a whole different world, had been a hit a full decade earlier (when the characters in Church's song were 7!), and has a more urban setting. Granted, it was already, as it has remained, sort of Springsteen's signature tune, so we'll let it slide.
No, the truly weird part about "Springsteen" is how absolutely un-Springsteen-like it is. It is generic bro-country nostalgia, full-stop. Not only does it lack any of the emotional nuance of Bruce's good ones, it trades specifically in the cheap nostalgia of the kind Bruce would never allow himself, knowing as he does that human experience and human hearts are never as simple as we might wish.
So it becomes this bizarre exercise in appropriating the image of mid-80s Springsteen to appeal to a romantic longing that the artist and his art have virtually no relationship to. It just takes that image and plunks it into a standard country-radio setting, seeming to honor Springsteen while in fact tossing out everything substantial about him. "Springsteen" here could just as well be swapped for Bon Jovi. In that sense, it's way worse than what Reagan did when he cast Springsteen in that role contemporaneously; at least then, Bruce was in a position to publicly refute the association.
There is also the matter of genre. I'd like to get into the question of accents (a fascinating one to me), but I don't have time for that now. I'll just note that this song is a tacit admission that these characters were not listening to country radio when they were 17, but they are now (or at the time the song was released, in 2011, when they would have been around 43.) Entirely plausible, of course, but interesting and almost weird in its own way. In precisely the way that an actual, powerful longing for freedom when you're 17 can turn into a romanticized longing for youth when you're 43.