Bruce Springsteen’s biggest hit of the last 30 years, “Streets of Philadelphia” — written for the soundtrack of the movie, “Philadelphia” — contrasts sharply with the signature songs of his earlier years. It’s introspective and understated, moody and atmospheric. It doesn’t rock, in the conventional sense; it’s got a hip-hop beat. Springsteen doesn’t belt it out; it almost feels like he’s murmuring.
But “Streets of Philadelphia” is still a powerful, dramatic song, as Springsteen sings from the point of view of an AIDS victim (“wasting away” and “unrecognizable to myself”), feeling betrayed and hungry for connection.
“Ain’t no angel gonna greet me/It’s just you and I, my friend,” he sings, heartbreakingly.
Ironically, “Philadelphia” director Jonathan Demme was not looking for this kind of song when he reached out to Springsteen. He told Rolling Stone he was thinking that in order to reach a mainstream audience with a movie about someone suffering from AIDS, “What we need is the most up-to-the-minute, guitar-dominated, American-rock anthem about injustice to start this movie off.”
But the song Springsteen wrote resisted rock treatment, and Demme ended up using it anyway. Demme also co-directed the song’s video with his nephew, Ted Demme (see below).
The movie, which starred Tom Hanks, and the song were both big hits and undoubtedly helped to destigmatize HIV and AIDS, nationally, and increase awareness of the crisis.
“This is the first song I ever wrote for a motion picture, so I guess it’s all downhill from here,” Springsteen said, accepting his Best Original Song Oscar for “Streets of Philadelphia” in 1994. (see below)
“You do your best work and you hope that it pulls out the best in your audience and some piece of it spills over into the real world and into people’s everyday lives. And it takes the edge off 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 the other stuff.”
Background facts: “Streets of Philadelphia” was included on the January 1994 Philadelphia (Music From the Motion Picture) soundtrack album (following the movie’s December 1993 release). Songs by Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, Sade and others were also on the album.
Springsteen did all the music himself. The only other musician on the track is Tommy Sims, who adds some backing vocals.
The song came out as a single in February 1994, and rose to the No. 9 position on Billboard magazine’s singles chart. Springsteen had 11 Top 10 hits in the ’80s; this has been his only one since then.
The song’s awards include an Oscar for Best Original Song; and Grammys for Song of the Year, Rock Song, Male Rock Vocal Performance and Song Written for a Motion Picture or for Television.
According to Brucebase, Springsteen performed “Streets of Philadelphia” 91 times between 1994 and 2016.
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
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