Born In The USA - a commentary on the Bruce Springsteen album

This feature was written for an Uncut Ultimate Music Guide on Bruce Springsteen. It is an extended thinkpiece on his 1984 album Born In The USA, and the album's complicated relationship with Springsteen's political worldview.

Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band
Born In The USA
Producers: Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen
Released: June 4 1984
Chart position: UK 1, US 1

Today, we all think we’ve got a handle on Bruce Springsteen’s politics. He’s the archetypal celebrity liberal, the troubadour for John Kerry’s election campaign and the composer of songs for Barack Obama. He’s the leftist union man who pays tribute to Pete Seeger, supports gay marriage and soundtracks films about Aids victims.

So, in retrospect, it seems faintly surreal that President Reagan’s aides wanted to use “Born In The USA” as a patriotic anthem during the 1984 Presidential Election campaign, and weirder still that Reagan, during a stump speech in New Jersey, made a fulsome tribute to The Boss. It seems as ridiculous as, say, Margaret Thatcher singing the praises of Billy Bragg at a mid-80s Conservative Party rally.

The key difference is that Springsteen’s politics have always been a rather more complex and ambiguous beast. Part of Springsteen’s across-the-board appeal has been that everyone has been able to project his or her own beliefs upon him. Right-wing conservatives – who still comprise a sizeable chunk of Springsteen’s audience – will pick up on his small-town ornery working-man shtick, his patriotism, his apparent nostalgia for a more innocent America, and his celebrations of home, family, community and reconciliation. Middle-class mortgage payers will punch the air along with The Boss, vicariously celebrating a hedonistic life that they will never lead. For much of his career, Springsteen appeared to be happy with this. For him, rock ‘n’ roll was a social glue, not a cause of petty divisiveness that set old against young, black against white, right against left.

Tellingly, he never distanced himself too heavily from Reagan’s endorsement. At one live concert in September 1984, he wryly suggested that the president probably hadn’t been listening to Nebraska, and Boss loyalists knew he was drawing lines between Reagan’s patriotic conservatism and that album’s bleak socialist realism. Born In The USA is, in places, as dark as Nebraska, but it is also a more paradoxical LP – both sonically progressive and melodically reactionary, politically radical yet emotionally conservative. The songs’ narrators tend to be alienated, post-industrial men, suffering a crisis in masculinity, angry about the injustices wrought by both corporate greed and government mismanagement. They are nostalgic for a mythic America but abundantly aware that such a place never really existed. They tend to be grown men in their thirties, baby boomers reflecting on their reckless youth, lived following the “Born To Run”/“Hungry Heart” principles of rock ‘n’ roll (“We learned more from a three-minute record, baby/Than we ever learned in school”, announces the narrator of “No Surrender”). They have suffered, but they also tend to show an ability to make the best of what little they have, something emphasised by Springsteen’s triumphalist delivery and the fact that nearly every track is in a major key.

The title track to this album is a perfect example of these paradoxes. The narrator endures a rough, abusive childhood before finding refuge in the Army. He survives a spell in Vietnam where he sees his best friend killed. On his return home to civilian life, he is abused, maltreated, made redundant, and finds himself swinging between homelessness and prison. He is betrayed by patriotism and lied to by government – as much a victim of a senseless war as any Vietnamese peasant – but yet his spirit remains unbowed. The minimal acoustic demo, available on the 18 Tracks compilation, accentuates the song’s bleak lyric. However, the album version, recorded 18 months later, undercuts the song’s protest credentials with a bombastic production job; Max Weinberg’s thunderous, martial drums and Roy Bittan’s synth fanfare giving it the feel of a chest-beating patriotic anthem. Reagan and his aides weren’t alone in trying to claim the song as their own – Chrysler Motors are rumoured to have offered Springsteen $12million to use it in an ad campaign (when he refused they commissioned a dumb pastiche, entitled “The Pride Is Back”).

The reason why everyone wanted a piece of the Boss is, of course, because Born In The USA was absolutely enormous. Like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the album it replaced atop the Billboard chart, it spawned seven hit singles and topped the charts in virtually every territory on earth. It went platinum in the States within a month, eventually going 15-times platinum and selling more than 30 million copies worldwide. It is, by some considerable distance, Springsteen’s biggest ever album. Springsteen himself was uncomfortable with the level of fame that it brought him, and wary that the album had reclassified him from being an “album-orientated” rock artist to a purveyor of pop singles. “It forced me to question the way I presented my music,” he wrote in the sleevenotes to Songs, “and made me think harder about what I was doing.”

“Born In The USA” and “Working On A Highway” were initially recorded in January 1982 on a reel-to-reel in Springsteen’s home in Holmdel, New Jersey, one of the many demos that later formed the bulk of Nebraska. He was unhappy with both songs, and didn’t even present them to the band at the time, feeling that it didn’t fit in with their sound. It turns out that much of what Springsteen was writing around that time – he’s thought to have written about 60 songs in the 18 months after Nebraska – didn’t really fit into the classic E-Street Band mould. When it came to reconvening his band in 1983, it was clear that the Springsteen sound had to be radically reconfigured.

With the exception of “Darlington County” (a ringer for The River’s “Cadillac Ranch”, and a song actually written in 1978 during the Darkness At The Edge Of Town sessions), little survives from the classic E-Street Band configuration that was forged a decade earlier. Saxophonist Clarence Clemons sits out most of the album, appearing only to provide haunted codas to “Dancing On The Dark” and “Bobby Jean”. Max Weinberg’s snare drums take on that gated reverb so ubiquitous at the time, while Steve Van Zandt’s guitars come with that heavily chorused crunch that characterise so many 80s records.

One hallmark of the E-Street Band was always the organ/piano conversation between Danny Federici and Roy Bittan; that classic gospel double-act, popularised by The Band, which balances rhythmic piano comping with sustained Hammond lines. This dynamic was all but removed on Born In The USA. Bittan switches from piano to synth on the title track and “Dancing In The Dark”, while even his piano parts have that slightly glutinous, bell-like quality that suggests that they were played on a Yamaha DX7. Likewise Danny Federici’s organ takes on a plasticky, slightly ethereal tone on tracks such as “I’m On Fire”, “Working On The Highway” and “Glory Days”.

If such sonic tropes carbon date this album more significantly than any other Springsteen release, they also succeeded in capturing the pop zeitgeist, creating a string of singles that were machine tooled for 80s FM radio. It meant that Springsteen, unlike comparable rock legends such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young, never became an irrelevancy in the 1980s. Springsteen never looked out of his depth in the MTV world, and fully embraced the compressed production techniques of the time.

The lead single, “Dancing In The Dark”, is the most radical overhaul. It might have introduced Bruce to the 80s, rebooted his career and turned him into a singles artist, but the song remains a messy dance-rock compromise, largely sequenced on synthesizers and reeking of shoulder pads and hair gel. A more convincing pop fusion is “Cover Me”, which was initially earmarked as a disco track for Donna Summer until Springsteen’s manager and co-producer Jon Landau convinced him that it would make an ideal single (Summer instead got a Springsteen number called “Protection”).

However, as well as moving into the 80s, Born In The USA harks back further than Springsteen has ever done. “Working On A Highway” and “I’m On Fire” delve deep in the 1950s. Both mix a rockabilly guitar and rimshot drumming; both see him doing very different types of Elvis impression (“Working On A Highway” is the hollering Elvis of “Mystery Train”, while “I’m On Fire” is the closely-miked baritone crooner of “Love Me Tender”). Incidentally, the latter is Springsteen’s first country-and-western flirtation on the album (if you dig out your vinyl version and play “I’m On Fire” at 45rpm, as many pranksters did at the time, you’ll notice that it sounds uncannily like a Dolly Parton track); the other nod to C&W is “I’m Goin’ Down”, which sounds in places like Johnny Cash. Both paved the way for the more explicit country flavours of Tunnel Of Love

Lyrically, if there is a unifying theme to the album, it is one of the adult looking back at his youth. Curiously, the mood is similar to 1982’s The Nightfly by Donald Fagen, another baby boomer revisiting the 50s and 60s, again with enough detachment to realise that the past wasn’t always such a great place, and that the American Dream was always tainted. Of course Springsteen’s characters are rather more hard-bitten than Fagen’s Ivy Leaguers; as with Nebraska, the cast of Born In The USA are blue-collar Americans who discover that life is harder than the world promised by their carefree childhood dreams. Yet, unlike the victims in Nebraska, these characters are determined to party through the hard times, to seek solace in any way they can.

In “Glory Days”, the high school jock and the high school babe look ruefully back upon their apparently blissful schooldays, when they were young and in demand, while the narrator looks at them both with a mix of amusement and pity, contemplating his own mortality. Both “Bobby Jean” and “No Surrender” explore – quite beautifully – the deep and long-lasting friendships that cannot be broken (the former believed to be about Springsteen’s oldest sidekick Steve Van Zandt, then on the verge of leaving the E-Street Band). “Cover Me” sees the narrator seeking to escape the rigours of modern life by immersing himself in the love of a good woman. “My Hometown” follows a 35-year-old father, the same age as Springsteen, who surveys his neighbourhood and finds a bleak post-industrial landscape (one later explored by Michael Moore in Roger & Me); he reluctantly decides that he and his family have to leave town to find work. But Springsteen always avoids looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles – the past was, as he reminds himself, one of danger and racial segregation (“there were lots of fights/between black and white/there was nothing you can do”).

They aren’t all sympathetic characters, though, and many are pathetic male stereotypes who regard women purely as trophies. Some, like the priapic narrator of “I’m On Fire”, or the roadworker in search of a child bride in “Working On The Highway”, might be seen as predatory paedophiles. “Darlington County” is another morality tale, following young construction workers from the big city on the hunt for easy sex with small-town teenage girls; the song ends with one of them finding God, the other being arrested. There’s also the jilted lover of “Downbound Train”, who appears to work his way through three different jobs before ending up in prison.

Springsteen, suspicious of the enormous success the album bought him, remains unconvinced of the album’s greatness. “I put a lot of pressure on myself over a long period of time to reproduce the intensity of Nebraska on Born In The USA,” he says. “I never got it.” He says that the title song and “My Hometown” fitted into the concept album he initially intended, but otherwise “it really didn’t flesh out like I had hoped it would”. And, despite this being Springsteen’s biggest LP, few of its songs have become regulars in his set list, at least not in their bombastic album form. “Dancing In The Dark” was transformed into a solo acoustic guitar dirge before dropping from the setlist, as was “No Surrender” (which gained a brief revival in 2004 when John Kerry used it as an election anthem). Likewise, “Born In The USA” reverted to its Nebraska-style solo version in the late 1980s before dropping out of the setlist; after September 11 2001 it was briefly revived, but radically recast as a kind of raga blues, with Springsteen ululating the lyrics while accompanying himself on a specially tuned 12-string guitar which he played, Ry Cooder-style, with a slide.

Throughout the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Springsteen has strenuously avoided using “Born In The USA” as a gung-ho anthem, undercutting its stridency and making apparent its protest song credentials. It suggests that, if he was once happy for his lyrical ambiguities to be freely interpreted, he is now in a position where he can be a little more forceful in nailing down his standpoint. Amazingly, it doesn’t appear to have harmed his career one bit.  

© 2014 by John Lewis.