There is a deep symbolism in Bruce Springsteen’s Super Bowl commercial: The Middle. It’s just not the symbolism its creators intended.
The commercial starts with a video of The Boss with a dusty cowboy hat, in cowboy boots visiting what he tells us in the voiceover is a chapel in Kansas at the geographical center of the “lower 48.”
The symbolism is supposed to be in favor of some kind of centrism, a position that can save us from the partisan extremism of our politics. In the chapel, the voiceover tells us “all are more than welcome.”
What in the semiotic hell?
As the commercial suggests, Kansas is not the center of the United States. It only appears to be the center if you lop off Alaska and Hawaii. In fact, the phrase “lower 48” rhetorically eliminates Hawaii, which is geographically “lower” than the other 48 states to which it refers. The phrase only literally works as a callback to a time before 1959, when Hawaii became a state, significantly diversifying the United States both geographically and ethnically.
To focus on this might appear pedantic, but it’s really key to the symbolic train wreck that is this commercial. The imagined center is repeatedly constructed by cutting off the diversity of the United States.
Take the Chapel in which, supposedly “all are more than welcome.” It is clearly an explicitly Christian chapel. In fact, it features a cross set on top of a flag colored map of the “lower 48.” The symbolism screams Christian nationalism. How could this be symbolic of centrism in a religiously pluralistic society? Does The Boss really imagine that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and on and on feeling welcome in this chapel? Or is this centrism, this apparent openness gained by first cutting off the diversity that truly marks the country?
Notably, the deeply Christian symbolism is repeated in a visual of a sun set seen through three crosses posted in what appears to be a Midwestern field, and in the voice over which assures us that we will be able to “make it to the mountain top through the desert” as Bruce prays and lights a candle in the chapel.
Or take again the opening scene, locating the center of our country in Kansas. The symbolism is of America as rooted in its rural farmland. At one point, Springsteen’s hand is seen reaching down to feel the dry soil of the prairie.
But Kansas is an absolutely awful symbol for centrism in American politics. Once a center of populist progressivism, Kansas has been transformed by the culture wars into a solidly red state. Trump won the county where the small chapel is with 83% of the vote. The state school board is infamous for repeatedly attempting to insinuate creationism into the state learning standards. Even when voting for Republicans is against their own interest, Kansans do so because they are triggered by the identity politics of the right. There’s even a book on it: What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.
Demographic lines between urban and rural, white and non-white, male and female, college educated and not college educated mark the partisan divide in America. This commercial somehow finds a “middle” of the country that is rural, white, male, and not college educated. The only image of a non-white person (or really anyone other than Bruce) is in a two second clip of a black woman seen through the window of what looks like a 1950s diner set in a rural town.
A jaunt over to the website for the ad campaign provides no further information on the commercials political symbolism and how it is to be related to unity. For Jeep it is clear that this was just a way to sell products. Springsteen’s manager confirms that The Boss was involved in editing “every shot” of the commercial. When confronted with the reality that some non-Christians feel excluded by the commercial he responded that “The narrative was built around a specific church in a specific place, so we did what the context called for. To me, this film is the most spiritual commercial I’ve ever seen. Despite the presence of the church, it is intended to be spiritual, not exclusionary, that’s for sure.”
Taking him at his word, we have to be fascinated that no one ever questioned the context of the commercial to begin with and amazed as the blinding privilege that allows even well intentioned members of a dominant class to identify political and cultural unity so securely to their own particularity that they are unable to realize that it does not represent the diverse reality of the country in which they live. The commercial then stands as a reminder to be suspicious of calls to “the center” in a country that has lurched so far to the white, Christian nationalist right-wing it is able to think that this is the middle.