The Enduring Genius of “Born In The U.S.A.”
By Rob Huckins
Claiming Born In The U.S.A. is Bruce Springsteen’s best album is not cool. You’re supposed to say Nebraska or Darkness on the Edge of Town. Or maybe The River or Greetings From Asbury Park. Not the pop-tinged hit machine The Boss unleashed in the mid-1980s, the album that saw him dance in a video for the first time. And sing a song that didn’t have guitars.
Springsteen’s catalog of music is extensive and astoundingly rich, putting him in the rarest of company at the top of the musical food chain. But Springsteen’s most apt turn could well be his mid-1980s top 40-heavy pop rock classic set that dominated old school radio play for nearly two years straight and proved a mainstay on MTV. It sold over 30 million copies, a total unheard of in today’s world of digital downloads and singles and remains the most commercially successful album of Springsteen’s entire career, producing seven top-ten singles and promoted with one of the biggest world tours ever. For a variety of reasons, albums like this just aren’t made these days. Even by Springsteen himself. He continued on with a host of other works and inspired creative turns in the decades that followed Born In The U.S.A., but Springsteen’s career would never be the same after 1984.
This is all window dressing, honestly, superficial distractions from the true pathos of this remarkable and utterly durable work of musical artistry, a monstrously successful pop rock album which also mirrors as one of the most introspective and downtrodden statements about American life anyone has ever recorded. On the sporadic occasions when I hear the glut of “bro country” offerings that pass for country today, I always think: these guys are trying really hard to connect in a mainstream, meaningful way but wind up missing the mark, failing to do something Springsteen made seem so easy with Born In The U.S.A. In many ways, Springsteen pulled off the ultimate bait-and-switch with this album: most got drawn in by the iconic all-American cover art (jeans, white tee, flag and baseball cap in the back pocket) and accessible, good time soundtrack suited for summer but wound up smacked in the face with the underlying desolation and displacement inherent throughout the album; down and out victims of unemployment, downsizing, the Vietnam War and family breakups.
The decidedly arena rock hooks creatively obscure what is essentially a mid-1980s tone poem of American life at the time of its release, a Ginsberg-worthy scorching of modern America as it was then with the brotherly figure of Springsteen to ably bring it all home. It’s all there, beneath the synthesizers, big guitars and belting choruses, the loss, the pain of missing out of what previous generations took for their birthright, everything that World War Two supposedly guaranteed but Vietnam showed was at best simply on loan.
This was the album that gained Springsteen a huge wave of fans, many of them too connected to mainstream pop culture to appreciate the stark genius of Nebraska, then just barely two years old, and sounding nothing like what people heard on the radio at the time. Born in the U.S.A. turned some of Springsteen’s original fans off, confusing them with his solid turn toward more pop-centric, arena rock sounds and anthems instead of Jersey shore juke-jams or laconic songs of longing and isolation. I was in the former category and my older sister was in the latter camp, our nine-year age gap perhaps never appearing so clearly as it did with this release. She loved old Bruce. I thought new Bruce was just fine. I bought cassettes of both Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain on the same day (not something normally done due to costs) and enjoyed both immensely. For weeks, I alternated between the two as both managed to straddle to precious line between pop art and mainstream hit collection, both works gaining huge boosts due to the explosion of video play on MTV and Top 40 radio. Both albums were quintessentially 1980s cultural touchstones. I love both of them today still, but whereas Prince practically disavowed his Purple Majesty Era in later years, changing names and styles multiple times, Springsteen seemed largely content to own this one. No apologizing for the “Dancing In The Dark” video (pretty cheesy, but shamelessly delightful) or lamenting on having to play these songs for the rest of his career. There was none of that zig zagging from The Boss. He wrote the songs, recorded them, put them out and played them live for the rest of his career.
When considering Born in the U.S.A., it’s important to remember Springsteen was recording songs left over from his sparse and singular Nebraska album just two years prior, a work which remains for many the singular Springsteen album for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was its stark, longing echo of a setlist recorded largely without any regard for radio play or arena dates.
Whereas Nebraska was like hearing your displaced next door neighbor record songs in his living room after a few shots of Jack Daniels and a divorce, Born in the U.S.A. is getting the band back together for a big summer barbecue after hard times, creating a veritable jukebox of hits designed to be played through and then played again. In many ways, the two albums are as lyrically alike as they are sonically different.
It’s difficult to find a truly happy song on Born in the U.S.A. Go ahead, look for one. Sure, many sound upbeat and joyful but listen to the words. There’s a lot of covering up going on here, the type of compensation that happens when things aren’t working out the way they ought to. Joblessness. Divorce. Mental illness. Legal trouble. Jail. Infidelity. Isolation. Lost legacies. It’s all there, stretching out across twelve tracks lasting just over forty-six minutes, a relative case study in efficiency considering the mammoth magnum opus albums released by lesser artists today. Springsteen is celebrating American life while reminding us that maybe it isn’t what it’s been cracked up to be, either. Politicians have inexplicably misconstrued the album, even using it for their campaigns (something Springsteen has openly loathed), perhaps illustrating the American myth is whatever one wants it to be, as long as it is wrapped in the flag and has the right beat.
The title track hits the listener with a verbal salvo of America’s lost way through the eyes of a war veteran and newly unemployed American male, a character who encounters rejection with each verse until the losses pile up so high there’s no end in sight. So superficially patriotic in its bombastic, drum heavy crescendos and searing vocals, the song’s angst and painful isolation can be lost to those who don’t pay careful attention. For this impressionable listener, the song stimulated thinking about what the Vietnam War (the songs’s main character talks of a brother “down in Khe Sahn”) was really about and why everyone older than me talked about it in such negative language.
“Darlington County” and “Working on the Highway” initially shine with charming, good ol’ boy themes of road trips and fun times but the stories are anything but, as men work awful, monotonously dead end jobs with nothing to look forward to except picking up girls with pathetic lines and in some cases, ending up in jail. Looking for a summer filled with sweet country girls, overflowing red cups and good times? Keep moving — Springsteen’s characters have nothing for you here. The words are precise and on point, talking of Highway 95 and union halls and all the glorious promises of another lost weekend before the monotony gears up again on Monday. Both songs end either with friends handcuffed on hoods of police cruisers or under the watch of the “old warden” in prison.
“I’m On Fire” is Springsteen’s best channeling of Johnny Cash, as the song’s quiet, brooding relentlessness keeps moving like a soft train through your hometown late at night when everyone’s gone to sleep. With it’s sparse promises of settling “bad desires” and “edgy and dull” knives to quell the soul, the song is the album’s most cryptic and morally ambiguous, allowing one to think these feelings and thoughts are OK in this world. “Downbound Train” is among Springsteen’s underrated classics, its anguish and isolation so painful and acute it weaves a wholly desperate narrative leaving the listener with an overpowering sense of loneliness and despair. There are no winners in this America.
“No Surrender” is a driving war cry that rollicks along with huge drums, guitars and a heroic, pounding chorus hinting at a less than hopeful future lying beneath all the adolescent bravado. With its tinkering piano sequences and stirring vocal refrain, summer nights never sounded so promising in the face of such long odds. “Bobby Jean” ends up being one of the most sincerely romantic tracks on the album, a straight up story about two friends (or lovers?) who become abruptly separated because one of them had to go on their way. Many have suggested this song was Springsteen’s secret ode to his longtime guitarist Stevie Van Zandt, who parted ways with the band during the recording of this album because of serious creative differences and only returned to the fold when the tour began. The lyrics leave it open to the listener as to what type of relationship is at play here, romantic or otherwise, but the earnest feelings established between the two people in less than four minutes are palpable and Clarence Clemons’ saxophone solo to close out the song is one of the musical high points of the entire album and demonstrated a return to prominence by a towering band member whose instrument had been quietly muted over Springsteen’s previous two albums.
“I’m Goin’ Down” and “Glory Days” offer straight up rock grooves to start the last quarter stretch of the album, each of them following up on themes established early and often with the collection’s early songs. “Dancing in the Dark” was easily the most pop-oriented song of the entire bunch, and marked the first and possibly only time Springsteen went full Top 40 star mode with a heavily-synthesized, percussion laden hit single supported by a equally ubiquitous video that showed The Boss swaying and dancing to almost comical proportions (you’re welcome, Courtney Cox). It was a huge hit, but to many, the results didn’t sound or look like The Boss. Nonetheless, the song has taken on a different life in the decades since as Springsteen has played it more like a pop-punk number highlighting the dark journey of self identity anchoring the song’s lyrics.
The poignant “My Hometown” powerfully ends the album in true balladeer fashion, allowing Springsteen to bring the running theme of America According to Bruce full circle, the father telling his son what life was like in his day, what it could be and what he hoped the future would his family in the face of huge uncertainty. Racial problems, economic downsizing, housing prices and host of other hallmarks of a changing face of America’s main streets are littered in each tender verse, offering up an alternative universe fairly tale for the time period. The song ended up becoming a later hit off the album and one of the most overtly symbolic songs about the pitfalls of modern America’s empty promises of his entire career.
Born In The U.S.A. was released in the midst of the Reagan Revival in America, when the modern tale of the country’s resurgence gained traction along with a seemingly full recovery from the morale-weakening 1970s with its unpopular war, unpopular politicians, lousy economy and loss of face internationally. By the mid-1980s America appeared to finally get some of its swagger back, buoyed by a wildly successful home city Olympics (Los Angeles) and the gradual decline of the Soviet Union and economic revival in many sectors of the country. But underneath it all there was an emptiness still in play, scores of average Americans who missed out on the party just when it was getting good, and were instead left with hollowed out factories, empty main streets and dubious family relationships. Springsteen captured this America in these songs, reminding everyone the dream was not realized by all people, especially in corners of the country the Reagan Revolution seemed to forget existed.
Although the perception of Born in the U.S.A. being Springsteen’s most slick and pop-hit conscious efforts persists, there is a playful looseness to the recording of the songs here, with a live feel evident throughout the set, especially on “Glory Days”, “Working on the Highway”, “Downbound Train” and “I’m Goin’ Down”. This album is the band hitting its musical and performing stride, finally settling in all the pieces after years of honing the edges and working the puzzle pieces in one way or another. On Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen pulled off the ultimate musical magic act, deftly crafting stories of people and places and circumstances not very much different than what untold numbers of Americans face today, nearly two generations later. Springsteen could pull out an acoustic guitar, sit on a barstool and perform all twelve songs off this album and it would be the most fitting folk-country performance of all time. The songs don’t lie. The lyrics still resonate. So much has happened since this album came out, so many events nobody could have fully predicted or have been prepared for. But here we are, still living in the U.S.A. Springsteen told us all about over three decades ago, dealing with the same ghosts and legacies most of us had no part in creating.