Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. is perhaps one of the greatest works of art to encapsulate the spirit of a nation, at a pivotal point in its history.
Across the collection of twelve songs, a population of narrators describe the cities, landscapes, and secrets of their internal and external realities. Aside from any other achievement, (of which there are many) it is the continuity of soul and sincerity that perseveres across these tunes that establishes the album as a genuine classic.
The story of Springsteen’s most successful commercial album started back in 1981, three years before the albums release. Director Paul Schrader approached The Boss to write a track for a movie that would later be released as Light of Day, but was being developed under the working title, Born in the U.S.A. At the time Springsteen was assembling songs for his album Nebraska, a dark, brooding, mainly acoustic collection that dealt with themes of dislocation and disillusionment. According to myth Springsteen sang the title “Born in the U.S.A” over a tune that he’d been writing called “Vietnam”. He’d wanted to include the song on Nebraska, but was warned that it was an ill-fit for the already established themes. The song would wait, and become the anthem for an album that defined the artist as a world-class act.
America, in 1984 saw Ronald Reagan in the White House, and a strange cultural celebration of material greed. Living in the shadow of failed foreign conflicts and domestic economic shift the American cultural compass was spinning in search of north. On release, the title track “Born In The U.S.A” became quickly loved, but widely misunderstood. Springsteen was singing from the perspective of a veteran of the Vietnam War – a conflict that he’d narrowly avoided, having taken and failed the medical test when drafted. This is a story of a working class man, in less than a blue-collar job, snatched from his life and sent to “a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man.” The now ubiquitous chorus of “Born in the U.S.A.” was understood as a punchy one-dimensional celebration, not a deeply layered reflection. Reagan, like many others, entirely missed the point, and hijacked the tune during his reelection campaign. Springsteen was careful to distance himself from party-centric politics and spoke in interviews, for the people that he considered beaten, bruised and bullied by the powers that be.
Sonically this is an album where Springsteen and the E-Street band hit an incredible altitude. During recording sessions the full band played live, with Springsteen’s vocals being contributed from a booth, usually in a single take. The band, that had been together for six previous albums, and who had famously become the tightest live band in rock history, captured, perfectly, their multi-compounded chemistry. The contrasting sense of space and intimacy that spans these tracks is handled with seamless craft, and is brought cohesion by Jon Landau and Chuck Plotkin who join Steve Van Zandt and Springsteen in production duties. A moment that defines each of these elements combining to produce something larger than the whole is in the album’s lead single, “Dancing in the Dark”.
This is a totemic piece of art that extends beyond itself.
Reportedly, Springsteen had been instructed to go away and pen a song that would be released as a single to drive commercial interest in the album. The Boss struggled, and fought with the instruction to bend his will, but eventually he conceded that folks like Dylan had managed to play the industry game whilst retaining integrity. Springsteen stated that his foray into pop music via “Dancing in the Dark” was as far, if not further, than he’d ever want to travel in that direction. Ironically, of course, the single is one of the highest achievements of any pop track on record. Having more or less ignored the British Invasion of the 1960’s Springsteen and the E Street Band remained true to the sounds of Atlantic City and to Phil Spector. Theirs was a Rock ‘n’ Roll informed by Soul, and sometimes Country. “Dancing in the Dark”, whilst borne of frustration, has the sense of instrumental hope that was so heavily present in Gospel, Soul and American tradition. The protagonist of the song paints an escape from personal-scrutiny and the resultant self-loathing: “I check my look in the mirror/I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face,” he sings. “Man, I ain’t getting nowhere just living in a dump like this.”
And so, sneaking under the radar with radio-friendly melodic hooks, Springsteen delivers a measure of darkness that reflects one perception of the nation, beaten but hopeful and longing for something different to the status quo. This is a place that can only be escaped by distraction and blindness. For all of the aching and frustration in the theme and origins of this song, the resulting pop classic is as bright and celebratory as anything you’ll ever hear. And you can check out pre-Friends, (pre-everything) Courtney Cox dancing along with Bruce in the accompanying video. Hers are the dance moves that should be replicated at every 4th of July barbecue for the rest of time.
What had defined Springsteen on previous releases like Asbury Park, The River, and Born To Run was his peerless ability to capture the plight of the blue-collar individual. His lens often focused on the unsung nobodies that were, in fact, everybodies. The perspective had usually been provincial, even when dealing with universal issues of love or rejection. When he had journeyed into sociological issues he tied them to the scale of a known neighborhood. With this album he brought a national scale to his concerns. Whilst it was previously understood that his country was built up of neighborhoods like those in his own hometown, rather than the shoulder-padded boroughs shown on TV shows like Dallas and Dynasty, never before had Springsteen had the courage to assemble his characters so explicitly under the national flag.
The album cover, itself, a statement of pride and deceptive simplicity, also deals with nuance and association. To describe Annie Leibowitz’s photograph in the artwork now seems as unnecessary as sharing a description of the Statue of Liberty; Red stripes from The Star Spangled Banner, Bruce’s backside in a pair of Levi’s blue jeans, and a baseball cap poking from his back pocket. Can there be a more iconic American image? Legend has it that the market stock of Levis’ had been somewhat floundering–but then this album came out. Suddenly, the aspirational shoppers of the world, previously intent on separating themselves from their roots, embraced class identity as a fashion statement, stylized work wear, and consequently rebooted Levis’ value.
The portrayal of national identity that Springsteen explored on Born In The U.S.A. is as full as complexities and contradictions as the country that he set out to explore. Previous expressions of his relationship with his own father showed a kind of frustrated and uneasy peace, and there’s a sense of that uncomfortable yet unwaveringly deep affection here, for America.
Closing track “My Hometown” opens with the narrator reflecting on his eight-year-old self running to the corner store, and sitting on his father’s lap in the front seat of the family Buick, driving slowly around the streets in which both men grew up. Across the verses a transition unravels between inherited family values, a struggle between races, and the economic pitfalls that result in a migration away from the narrator’s roots. Now with a wife and a child of his own, the legacy is no longer one of home, hope, and stability. “My Hometown” has become a place where things went so very badly wrong for those who planted themselves firmly within the ambitions of the American Dream.
Born In The U.S.A. expose you to the deepest sadness, or make you dance, sing, and punch the air in triumph.
With seven Top-Ten singles, an insane amount of global sales, and countless accolades, Born In The U.S.A. is secure forever in every credible list of classic albums. However, there is an argument that the album is bigger than a simple ‘classic’. This is a totemic piece of art that extended beyond itself. It reached back in to the culture from where it came and shaped the way that a huge number of Americans assessed everything from their own lives to the behaviors of their government in domestic and foreign policy. This is an album of keen associations and reflections, as shrewd as they are subtle, and as lyrically sensitive as they are musically robust. It’s an album that can expose you to the deepest sadness, or make you dance, sing, and punch the air in triumph and/or resistance. Born In The U.S.A, simply put, is a lot like the country it depicts; it is big, complicated, contradictory, and full of natural wonder.
IMAGES: Columbia Records