I vividly recall the first time I heard this song. Oh how I bopped, oh how I loved the sax and piano led feel good factor. “This, this is what he is all about” I thought in those naive early days of my Springsteen fandom, back when I thought he was the epitome of this feel good “race away and take on the world” type songs. Then I actually listened to the lyrics properly…
I’ve often wondered when it comes to Springsteen and these up tempo hits with more sinister undertones, whether he considers it a compromise to preserve artistic integrity or if he genuinely feels a need to sneak some deeper meaning into even his most light hearted songs. He famously was none too pleased at the fact that he gave away “Fire” to the Pointer Sisters and they went on to have a #2 hit with it and up until The River he had not managed to get beyond high critical praise and good but not great single sales. Thing is though, he wasn’t down and out by any stretch. Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town both sold admirably, the latter far more than the former granted, but it seems from all accounts that Springsteen still craved a more mainstream success.
It seems he couldn’t fully embrace that desire though. He wanted the mainstream recognition but even when the hits came in the form of “Hungry Heart”, “Dancing In The Dark” and “Glory Days”. It was a compromise that I quite like if I’m being honest and it aligns with the sentiment of “Dancing In The Dark” quite well – I’m gonna write it, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it. In my book what he has done is acknowledge that having a hit record allows him one specific opportunity. It lets him get an important message out to as many people as possible. This of course has come back to bite him on the ass like with “Born In The U.S.A” where the music and performance won out over the lyrics and he just had a straight up hit record, the underlying message disappearing in the set dressing. “Hungry Heart” is especially curious though in that it really is open to a million interpretations.
“Got a wife and kids in Baltimore Jack/I went out for a ride and I never went back”
You’d have to say that’s pretty clear cut. Man has a wife and children, man pisses off on wife and children, we ain’t a fan. We get to the chorus though.
“Everybody’s got a hungry heart”
What are we saying here – everyone wishes they could do this so that makes it ok? Or is it that everybody naturally wants to do this, let’s not fight nature (which still sounds a bit like an excuse to me). The second verse is more telling though.
“I met her in a Kingstown bar/we fell in love I knew it had to end”
How defeatist of you Bruce (or whoever you are here). Someone with self esteem this low or indeed pessimism this high, no wonder he felt compelled to run out on the picket fence perfect family setup. So this guy is just an asshole right and during the chorus he’s just trying to justify himself to the listener?
Well, no. Because then comes the final verse.
“Everybody needs a place to rest/everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says/ain’t nobody likes to be alone”
So here comes the question – is the lead in Hungry Heart just too afraid to front up to their failings or is this Springsteen’s compromise? If we take it as compromise, Springsteen decided he’d do two verses for him, one for “us”. The first two verses detail a typical Springsteen narrative where not everything is rosey behind the picture perfect suburban windows, the final verse then brings along a more mainstream “everybody’s just looking for their place in this world” sentiment. I don’t really know which I prefer to be honest. For me it’s a little cheap for him to just decide “ok that’s enough of my serious stuff, time to give ’em what they want”. Besides, hit singles rarely become just that via the lyrics. That’s not to say that people are ignorant to the lyrics most of the time no, rather that people tend to get hooked by the beat of a song. Can I dance to it? Can I jam out in the car to it? Hungry Heart has a fantastically jovial melody to it and besides the chorus, the verses could have been anything at all and I would argue it would have still been a hit. Where I think Springsteen was going with them though was that our lead that we follow throughout the narrative is actually, well, a dickhead. I read it as a man writing of his character flaws and wandering eye by saying “ah sure everybody does it”. It’s genius, because in his delusion these sentiments would be accompanied by upbeat music to move to. He sees nothing wrong in what he does.
But you might and likely will hear it differently and dammit if that isn’t one of the greatest things about music and all it entails.