Bruce Springsteen,

Bruce Springsteen at the Los Angeles Coliseum, 1985.

AP Photo/Michael Tweed

Arts & Culture

When ‘The Boss’ is your therapist

7 min read

New book by psychologist, sociologist surveys depth, complexity of Bruce Springsteen’s connection to his female fans

Excerpted from “Mary Climbs In: The Journeys of Bruce Springsteen’s Women Fans” by Lorraine Mangione, professor of clinical psychology at Antioch University New England, and Donna Luff, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

Sometimes a person needs help on a foundational level, more than what a friend or teacher can provide, either for a crisis or for something chronically wrong in their life or their sense of self. Sometimes a kind of help different from spiritual guidance feels more compelling, and the problems or distress feel more worldly, complicated, or debilitating on an everyday level. The hurt and pain may stem from events in the world, a major loss, trauma from childhood or the present, problems within relationships, or inter­nal struggles that have long simmered or suddenly erupted. Fear of losing hope altogether, that one is stuck forever, can take over, along with paralyzing self-doubt, questioning everything. People look to religion for help, seek out an elder in their community, call a doctor for a physical explanation, turn to substances to relieve the pain, search the internet, sit alone in a room, read an inspirational or self-help book, or write in journals. Others go to therapy for profes­sional help. And some turn to Bruce Springsteen as their “therapist.”

Before embarking on this journey into the intense issues many women expressed in our surveys, we need to add a caveat. Bruce Springsteen’s work is not psychotherapy, and we are not advocating for its use instead of psychotherapy. It is its own unique creation and cannot be reduced to another process or experience. It can sometimes be extremely helpful to women in despair or in crisis, or who are going through normal life transitions or events that are daunting. His music is a tool that some women fans have used for psychological growth. It is not designed to be psychotherapy and does not include the basics of psychotherapy in a literal sense. Psychotherapy is an analogy to understand the tremendous impact that his work can have on some women fans, and to see what contributes to that impact. We consider his work as another potential healing practice, in the tradition of art’s healing elements, and within practices that are not modern Western psychology, but not as a substitute for psychotherapy.

Book cover of Mary Climbs In.

For some women, Springsteen, through his music, is there often, even every day, helping through issues and conflicts, whether by inspiring hope, creating a sense of connection, or allowing a release or catharsis. A few use “therapist” to describe this presence. “He’s my therapist. I listen to his music every day to maintain peace of mind.” “It helps me every day … listen to E Street Radio on my commute to and from work. Hard to give an example … suffice it to say that Bruce music is my therapy.” “The fact that you can feel his enjoyment in what he does and makes each show feel like it’s just for you. He feels like my therapist I always leave a show feeling amazing and needing more.” “It gave me energy in a very hard moment, the last concert was like a therapy bringing me back to the joy of living!” While most women did not explicitly say therapist or therapy, the healing image reverberates throughout descriptions.

These straightforward statements describe the heart of the help. “When feeling down songs I go to when feeling angry songs I go to when feeling happy songs I want to sing along too.” “His songs relate to all of us, he inspires and gives you hope.” “I can’t think of a single time in my life when Bruce wasn’t a way to help me. He has a song for every thing your heart needs!!” “If I’m pissed off or sad about something, the best cure for me is ride in my car with Springsteen up loud.” “Yes, just get past things. Make me realize I’m not alone feeling certain ways.” “It has definitely helped me during difficult periods of my life, more often to boost my mood. Occasionally by listening to sad songs and having a good cry.” “It has helped me understand my feelings, helped inspire me to keep pushing forward, and helped me feel Understood.” “It’s made me pick my ass back up and get on with living.” “Made me relaxed and it’s comforting to know you will never be let down.” The abiding pres­ence of Springsteen and his work feels basic to their help and support.

The longevity of Springsteen’s career and fans’ devotion contrib­utes to fans feeling helped over decades and across developmental phases and milestones. Many women noted low points of their lives and high points of his help. Research has shown that therapy can be similar when it is “intermittent,” such that one returns to therapy when in pain or crisis or at a turning point. These women described ongoing, intermittent kinds of help, sometimes from a spe­cific song or concert that evocatively spoke to them.

Intimate and grand existential moments, the big questions of life, often unbidden, stand out. “Springsteen’s music helped me through feeling lonely in high school, through a breakup in college, through feel­ing homesick away from my family, through feeling stressed out on a day to day basis. Springsteen is my go to when I need an emotional pick-me-up.”

“When I was in my teens I was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis and every time I heard ‘Born to Run’ it helped me to overcome the pain and try to live a normal teenage life. I always felt that Bruce was sing­ing it for me. As stated earlier ‘We Are Alive’ more recently helped to deal with the loss of my mom who I was very close with. The lyrics in that song have helped me know that she is always with me. Also when my husband lost his job during the recession songs like ‘Jack of all Trades’ felt like it was written for us personally and helped us to get through possibly the most difficult time of our marriage.”

The breadth of help for these women is startling. These aren’t just love songs, or motivational songs, or songs about work, or illness — they are experiences of deep meaning amid turbulence, with Springsteen in a healing role.

Songs do not have to be exact replicas of a person’s life. “Relation­ship struggles, death of my mother, raising kids, getting older. Even though his characters may not be MY story … they still resonate with me. I can start listening to a song and my entire mood can and will change …. again, I FEEL the music.” “It helped me in my youth and later as I had some hard times in some jobs. And I met my hus­band, who is a Springsteen fan, too, and we are married now and are since 20 years together. If my life gets in trouble Springsteen and his music are always like the big rock on the shore.” That rock on the shore, its solidity and security, could be something people are search­ing for in a world where it may be harder to rely on what used to give people strength and solidity. A rock is symbolic of that which stands with you or on which you can stand.

Excerpted by permission of Rutgers University Press, copyright 2023.