Imagery in the Songs of Bruce Springsteen

By Julia Bodeeb

Bruce Springsteen’s song lyrics use a lot of hyperbole, imagery, and vivid language. Reading his lyrics helps students understand that poetry and songs do not have to be serious.

Looking at imagery in popular songs shows your students that it is okay to be whimsical in word choice and imagery. Once students have read Springsteen’s lyrics, their own writing tends to have more depth, whimsy and imagery in it.

To start this lesson, read one Springsteen song aloud to the class. Discuss its imagery and hyperbole. Talk about the overall theme of the song. Then ask several students to pick songs from the handout of song lyrics and to read them aloud to the class. Tell the class to write down words or phrases they find interesting or fun. Then ask students to tell the class what words were the most significant in the song.

Then put some song lyrics up on the overhead machine and discuss them. The following excerpts give some suggestions of imagery to discuss.

Blinded by the Light

“With a boulder on my shoulder, feelin’ kind of older, I tripped the merry-go-round.”

Adolescents tend to greatly enjoy the lyrics of this song. Ask the class what Springsteen means when he uses the word boulder? And why do adolescents sometimes feel older? What worries do they have that weigh them down?

It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City

“When I strut down the street I could feel its heartbeat.”

This lyric speaks to Bruce Springsteen’s link to the world of the streets. His music is often gritty and speaks of survival and a tough life. In this lyric he personifies the street and gives it a heart beat. Ask students why they think he did that.

Discuss other examples of imagery and personification in the poem. Then ask different students to describe the theme of the poem.

Streets of Philadelphia

“At night I could hear the blood in my veins, black and whispering as the rain.”

The movie Philadelphia portrays the struggles of patients with AIDS and also delves into the importance of love in life and career issues. This song has a lot of emotional depth in it. You may wish to show the film at a later date in class; its gritty reality is eye opening for grades 11 or 12 students.

This lyric uses imagery to describe how AIDS may cause one to view the blood coursing through their veins in a different light. Suddenly one’s blood may seem ominous or threatening. Ask students what color they normally think of when they think of blood. Then ask why Springsteen used the color black to describe blood in this song. Also what is the significance of the word “whispering” in the lyric? Does blood normally whisper or does it pulse or pound?

My Father’s House

“I heard the wind rustling through trees, and ghostly voices rose from the fields….”

“My father’s house shines hard and bright, it stands like a beacon calling me in the night.”

Why does Springsteen long to see his father’s house again? Why is it a “beacon” calling to him? What could he mean by saying he hears ghostly voices? What issues do teenagers have with parents? Ask several students to answer this question. Then ask students if this song relates to their own life in any way. What feelings are strongest in the song? Loss? Quest for independence?

Growing Up

“Well my feet they finally took root in ether but I got me a nice little place in the stars.”

This song portrays Springsteen’s skill at using whimsical imagery. He talks about having his feet in the ether, which is surely a spoof of the practical advice of having one’s feet firmly on the ground.

Then ask students what Springsteen means by having a “place in the stars.” What is the relationship between home ownership and adulthood? Is he also spoofing that aspect of life with this lyric?

Next, ask students to write 10 lines of lyrics that contain imagery and hyperbole. Ask students to sit in groups for this activity so they may brainstorm ideas together. They may work in pairs if they wish to do so.

Assess student progress on learning about imagery by giving a grade for their participation in class analysis of the song lyrics. Then also give a grade for the song lyrics they create. Base the grade on their skill at using imagery and creating hyperbole.

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