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Thirty years ago tonight... "Streets of Philadelphia" wins the Best Original Song Oscar

March 21, 2024

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thirty years ago tonight, Bruce Springsteen won his first (and, to date, only) Academy Award. The Oscar went to Springsteen for "Streets of Philadelphia," the song that he wrote for Jonathan Demme's film Philadelphia. To mark this anniversary, we have invited contributing writer and Springsteen as Soundtrack expert Caroline Madden to write about "Streets of Philadelphia," its role in Demme's film, its importance in Springsteen's career, and its thematic connections to the rest of his music and messages. We are honored to present Caroline's essay below:

On March 21, 1994, Bruce Springsteen accepted the Academy Award for Best Original Song for his contribution to Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, “Streets of Philadelphia.” The powerful song is Springsteen at his very best, using a combination of sparse instrumentation and subjective lyrics to clearly convey the inner thoughts and struggles of someone living with AIDS. At the time, the epidemic had been largely swept under the rug by the Reagan administration, save for dismissive jokes about the “gay plague” during press conferences. 

In Springsteen’s song, ethereal synthesizers evoke the narrator's close brush with death and the drum loop his wandering of the lonely streets. You can feel the weight of his illness getting heavier with each plodding step of the steady, hip-hop beat. By writing the lyrics in the first-person, the listener is able to closely identify with how the narrator’s illness causes him to slowly waste away into someone he no longer recognizes—like so many of the friends he has already lost. There's a somber resignation in Springsteen’s plain vocals, giving the sense that he has already accepted his grim fate—even as he still asks his community if he will be left unacknowledged and uncared for. 

Jonathan Demme's film, which centers on a man with AIDS who sues his law firm for wrongful dismissal, was intentionally made for “the malls.”  The director sought to cast a wide net of viewers, especially conservative ones, in the hopes that they might begin to empathize with those with this disease—especially the LGBTQ+ community. While independent films such as Parting Glances and Longtime Companion addressed the AIDS crisis, they mainly appealed to art-house connoisseurs (who were likely also LGBTQ+ themselves). Demme appealed to broader audience members by using Bruce Springsteen on the soundtrack and Tom Hanks, the quintessential American everyman, as his star. Donning acid-washed jeans and muscle tees, belting anthems extolling the virtues of souped-up cars and dirt-under-the-fingernails labor, Springsteen’s rock-star persona exuded ruggedness and machismo—particularly during the height of his 1980s popularity. The participation of these beloved stars, known for their very heteronormative palatability, ensured that there was no “danger” in more traditionalist audience members embracing Demme’s queer-focused film. 

But Springsteen would buck this conservative interpretation of his star image, making it clear that he did not endorse some of the more intolerant ideologies of his right-leaning fans. While "Streets of Philadelphia” was a very public declaration of Springsteen's support for the queer community, he further cemented his allyship in a 1996 interview with The Advocate, a legendary LGBTQ+ publication. This was a very significant interview for a major rock star. Springsteen declared that everyone, regardless of their sexuality, is entitled to the beautiful rewards of marriage and children. He reflected on how his relationship with his father, who resented his son’s artistic and sensitive nature, taught him the importance of acceptance and allowing children to pursue their own paths in life. Springsteen also affirmed that he would fully embrace his children's LGBTQ+ identity if they were to come out. 

Springsteen would make similar observations on how his upbringing shaped his acceptance of diverse identities in his autobiography Born to Run. As a young rock-and-roll outsider, he defied the clean-cut norms of his insular Freehold community. His working-class enclave scorned the long-haired hippies of the growing counterculture, as well as their African-American neighbors. It would be unthinkable for anyone to be openly queer in such an environment. But Springsteen was forged on the streets of Asbury Park, which has long been an LGBTQ+ mecca, and often skipped school as a teenager to prowl New York City’s Greenwich Village. Both of these locales boast a vibrant, bohemian culture that undoubtedly exposed Springsteen to a melting pot of artistic expression, sexual and gender fluidity, and unconventional lifestyles starkly contrasting with his hometown. We can see these influences throughout his music, especially in his early work. 

Looking beneath the dirty hood of Springsteen's alpha-male persona that swept the mid-1980s by storm, we find someone who has consistently included LGBTQ+ characters and ideals within his music—either directly or indirectly. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. includes several references to complex interplay of gender and sexuality. The soft ballad "Mary Queen of Arkansas'' revolves around a transgender woman, someone who is "not man enough for me to hate or woman enough for kissing." The narrator enamors her "soft hulk," a line that suggests a paradox between her sex and gender expression. The mealy-mouthed phrase "wolfman fairies dressed in drag for homicide" from "Lost in the Flood" infers the radical changes in society, as well as traditional masculinity, that the Vietnam veteran encounters upon his homecoming. The world is now just as unstable and unfamiliar as the jungle he fought in. 

The song "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" from The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle features lily-white boys wearing "high heels." While these were possibly the popular Beatle boots of the era, the boardwalk flâneurs could have easily been wearing more feminine footwear. On “Incident on 57th Street,” there are “golden-heeled fairies” and “romantic young boys” freely kissing one another goodbye. In live performances of "Wild Billy's Circus Story," Springsteen sings "the leather boy tightens his legs on the sword swallower's blade.” This line offers a clearer depiction of gender as opposed to the vague term “hired hand,” enhancing the line’s suggestive undertones.

While some of these songs have outdated vernacular or are considered “problematic” by contemporary standards, they still illustrate the diverse canvas that Springsteen was toying with. He created a musical landscape filled with nonconforming individuals. Another issue is that Springsteen tends to frame the LGBTQ+ figures as peculiar oddities, especially when linking them to a circus environment. This implies that their identities are something to be gawked at rather than normalized. However, Springsteen was a young man when he wrote these songs, and his artistic evolution would lead to a more sophisticated portrayal of queer life. 

The gender of Terry in "Backstreets" from Born to Run is hotly debated. While there is ample evidence that Terry is female, such as the "Sad Eyes'' interlude during live shows, Springsteen also describes the close friends’ desire to emulate their movie heroes. This brings to mind the leather-jacketed male roadsters of the B-movies that inspired other tracks on the album. However, the narrator’s relationship with Terry is incredibly fraught and emotionally charged, one that requires them to run away and hide on the backstreets. They are left stranded in the park and find solace lying together in an abandoned beach house before they are forced to confess the true nature of their relationship. These lyrical motifs of clandestine intimacy and social marginalization deeply resonate with LGBTQ+ experiences. 

The title character of "Bobby Jean" from Born in the U.S.A. is also gender-neutral, calling into question the song’s relationship dynamic. The narrator refers to Bobby Jean as “baby,” which suggests femininity and a romantic attachment, but the line about liking the same music, bands, and clothes suggests that they are platonic friends of the same gender identity. The narrator harbors a deep affection for Bobby Jean, seeing them as a kindred spirit with the same view of the world. However, the lyrics teeter between platonic and romantic tones, obscuring the truth of their relationship 

Springsteen frequently explores these types of tight-knit bonds with amorous subtexts. Many of his same-sex characters are unafraid of physical closeness, such as the kiss between the “brothers'' of “This Hard Land.” Springsteen animated this type of brotherly love on stage with Clarence Clemons. The sight of two strapping men openly sharing a firm kiss—often at the triumphant end of "Thunder Road," as if Clemons were the equivalent of Mary finally climbing into Bruce’s car—conveyed an ethos of openness and acceptance. Of course, we know his relationship with Clemons is platonic and this is all theatrics, but through this gesture Springsteen asserts that there is no inherent taboo in the physical expression of same-sex affection, whether through love or friendship. Another notable visual moment occurs in the “Tougher Than the Rest" music video from Tunnel of Love, a tender declaration of commitment through adversity. Released in 1988, the video features an adorable montage of both heterosexual and queer couples posing as if they are in a boardwalk photo booth, attesting that everyone is welcome to ride the tunnel of love. 

Other songs have been adopted by the LGBTQ+ community. The line “closets are for hangers” from “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) has popped up on lots of queer Etsy merchandise. “Dancing in the Dark,” with lyrics about yearning to change “my clothes, my hair, my face” and spark a new beginning, embodies very queer themes of liberation, defiance, and self-discovery. People who are LGBTQ+ often seek to change their way of dress and appearance in ways that challenge societal expectations. 

After the success of "Streets of Philadelphia," Bruce has continued to show his support for the LGBTQ+ community, whether it be in live performances or acts of protest. During a concert in Portland, Oregon on March 28, 2008, he replaced "Germans" with "lesbians" in "American Land," tipping his hat to the audience members wearing Lesbians ♥ Bruce t-shirts. He canceled his April 10, 2016 concert in Greensboro, North Carolina in response to the controversial "bathroom bill," which mandated individuals use public restrooms corresponding to their birth sex. Springsteen’s decision amplified the visibility of the issue on a national scale, with many other artists and athletes following suit in canceling their events. 

In this day and age, it isn’t revolutionary to champion LGBTQ+ men and women, nor do we need to overly praise a straight white man for acknowledging their existence. However, we should commemorate Springsteen for embracing the queer community from the very beginning of his career. As someone who grew up as an “outcast weirdo misfit sissy boy,” Springsteen has so eloquently captured what it feels like to be an outsider and the difficulties of finding your place in an often hostile world. With these themes, it’s no surprise that so many LGBTQ+ fans have connected to his music. Bruce Springsteen’s body of work insists that everyone—regardless of race, country of origin, religious beliefs, gender expression, and sexual preference—can climb aboard the United States’ figurative train of acceptance and unity. It’s easy to say that this is a very romanticized vision of America, but Springsteen’s recurring efforts to include, support, and give voice to LGBTQ+ individuals shows that they are an invaluable part of our national and global community. Through the power of music, Springsteen shows that changing minds is possible and the differences in our identities is what makes our world a richer and more beautiful place.


Caroline also has provided this small bibliographical listing of and links for books, essays, and articles that feature more in-depth writing on Bruce Springsteen's relationship with the LGBTQ+ community:


Bruce’s Best Original Song Oscar acceptance speech: “Thank you. This is the first song I ever wrote for a motion picture, so I guess it’s all downhill from here. But Neil, I gotta share this with you. [Neil Young wrote and performed “Philadelphia,” which played over the ending of Jonathan Demme’s film and also was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar that evening.]  You do your best work, and you hope that it pulls out the best in your audience, that some piece of it spills over into the real world, into people’s everyday lives, and it takes the edge off the fear and allows us to recognize each other through our veil of differences. I always thought that was one of the things popular art was supposed to be about, along with the merchandising and all of the other stuff. But I just want to say thank you, Jonathan, for having me as a part of your picture. I’m glad my song has contributed to its ideas and its acceptance. Love, you, Pats, and thank you, all, for inviting me to your party.”

Music writer, cultural/political critic, and broadcaster Dave Marsh on “Streets of Philadelphia” and its deep connection to his family: “My daughter, Kristen Ann Carr, the product of [former Springsteen co-manager] Barbara Carr’s first marriage but raised by me since she was three years old, had developed liposcarcoma, a very rare cancer. Kristen loved Bruce the way you love a person you’ve known from infancy and have watched grow into a virtually mythic figure while remaining someone sitting next to you on the couch...Bruce would play a benefit to help us endow a Kristen Ann Carr Fund for Sarcoma Research…It would be the final show of his 1992–1993 tour... Later in 1993, director Jonathan Demme asked Bruce to write a song for his upcoming movie about a Philadelphia lawyer fighting AIDS and the law firm that fired him because of antihomosexual bigotry. Bruce responded by writing a beautiful, somber song called ‘Streets of Philadelphia.’ Whether it’s a great song about AIDS, I don’t know; but having studied the subject more than a little (see my Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story and The New Book of Rock Lists), I know it’s one of the greatest rock songs about death and dying. The first time I heard Bruce sing one of its most poignant lines—“ clothes don’t fit me no more”—I knew that Kristen had left her mark on the song. When Bruce accepted his Grammy[s] for Song of the Year [and Best Male Rock Vocal performance, on March 1, 1995, Dave Marsh's 45th birthday,] he thanked Kristen, ‘whose spirit is in this song.’ I love my kids and my wife, and I do my best to love myself. All that comes with the territory. For two books—call them histories, biographies, hagiographies, whatever—I did my best to explain why I loved Bruce Springsteen’s music while avoiding talking about why I love him. At the time, that seemed to come with that territory. But now that Bruce has demonstrated his love for my family in such tangible and intangible fashion, I’m in a place beyond words. So I will not speak further but leave you as is only appropriate with lines from Bruce Springsteen: But the stars are burnin bright like some mystery uncovered I’ll keep movin through the dark with you in my heart My blood brother.” – from the introduction to the 1996 Thunder’s Mouth Press edition of Glory Days: The Bruce Springsteen Story Volume II


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