The ‘Born in the USA’ fallacy

“All my life I have judged the distance between American reality and the American dream,” Bruce Springsteen said at the media launch of his 2012 album. Wrecking ball. It’s hard to imagine a British pop star so seriously explaining the role of our country’s mythologies in their work, but for American musicians, interrogating that precious, unifying ideal is an established convention. From Elvis’ ‘American Trilogy’ to Beyoncé’s gospel-infused ‘Ameriican Requiem’, it has long been grist to the mill for American artists.

But the boss is a special case. Late 1980s, the BBC comedy show A little Fry & Laurie featured a sketch in which a bandana-wearing Heartland rocker sits at a piano and shouts out the words “America, America, America…” – until Stephen Fry walks up to him and punches him. Bruce is actually that piano guy.

I’m grateful for it, because what gives Springsteen’s music so much power is its unabashed sincerity. Half a century has passed since music critic Jon Landau discovered him performing at a Massachusetts theater and announced that he had witnessed the future of rock ‘n’ roll. But nine American presidents, after his debut in 1973, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, Springsteen has hardly strayed from his original artistic preoccupations. At 74, he remains a chronicler of the joys and sorrows of America’s cash poor. He still documents the frustrations of chasing what he painfully called “Born to Run” in 1975, the “runaway American dream.”

Springsteen once defined that dream as “the right and promise to life, to fulfill yourself within.” But this promise, he said, had been broken by economic injustice. Billy Joel expressed the same sense of betrayal in his 1982 song “Allentown,” which tells the story of a steel town left behind by Reaganomics: “Every kid had a pretty good chance of getting at least as far as their old man got.” Something happened on the way there – they threw an American flag in our faces.”

Springsteen explored these themes on the grim 1982 album Nebraska, which he recorded alone on a Tascam tape recorder in a rented house in New Jersey. In “Used Cars,” a father who “does the same job from morning to morning” buys a used piece of junk from a salesman who refuses to give him a discount; other songs ventriloquize a murderer, a cop and a night worker in intimate first-person stories that draw deeply on Americana clichés to imbue small tragedies with grandeur. Springsteen returned to the same area on the Steinbeck-inspired The ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and the anger Wrecking ball (2012) – but none of his albums had the impact and reach of his 1984 blockbuster Born in the USAwho turned 40 on June 4.

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During the sessions for that album, in a New York City studio, Springsteen counted off a mid-tempo beat and began his second full version of a song he had just finished writing – so new that it had no real arrangement.

His band looked at his fingers for the chord changes, but there were hardly any; it was simply B held for four bars, followed by E, repeated over and over again. Springsteen belted out the opening verse, at maximum intensity from the get-go: “Born down in a dead man’s town/The first kick I got was when I hit the ground/You end up like a dog that’s been beaten too much/Till you spend the half your life just hiding…’

About four minutes later “Born in the USA” was finished. It was “lightning in a bottle,” Springsteen recalled in his memoir: Born to run. When the song was released in October 1984, it became the third of seven top-ten singles from the world-conquering chart. Born in the USA album – an astonishing feat for a song with unflinchingly somber lyrics, inspired by US Marine Corps Sergeant Ron Kovic’s experiences when he was discarded by his country after being paralyzed during the Vietnam War. As Kovic describes in his 1976 book Born on the 4th of July, his American dream was shot out from under him. Springsteen’s defiant chorus – “I was born in the USA!” – was a cry of disbelief at his treatment.

But the song sounds triumphant. Springsteen later called it “one of my greatest and most misunderstood pieces of music”. Ronald Reagan, then campaigning for re-election, heard the ecstatic major chord chorus and considered it straightforward chauvinism. In a speech in New Jersey, the president said the country’s future rested “on the message of hope in songs that so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen.” Writing in the WashingtonPostReagan ally George Will called the searing chorus “a grand, cheerful affirmation” that swept away the negativity of the verses’ “recitation of closed factories and other problems.”

The Republicans didn’t get it. Springsteen distanced himself from Reagan’s words and joined the Democrats, making passionate statements of support for John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.

For everyone who listened carefully Born in the USAthis political trajectory would not have been surprising. Springsteen grew up in an ethnically mixed, almost high-functioning neighborhood and had deep compassion for those excluded from the riches of the “greed is good” era. Where Chuck Berry’s “Down Bound Train” dramatized a literal descent into hell on satanic public transportation, Springsteen’s song of the same name follows a man who loses his job at a lumber yard, finds his life spiraling out of control, and ends up brandishing a sledgehammer . in a railroad gang. The core rocker ‘No Surrender’ is a vow to keep youthful dreams alive in an adulthood that doesn’t allow it; other songs, like the smoldering come-on “I’m on Fire” and the megahit “Dancing in the Dark,” are sung from the perspective of those who dance and drink and fuck because there’s nothing else to do, like Jarvis Cocker later placed it in “Common People”. And no amount of great Reaganite communication could spin the first lines of “Cover Me” as a feel-good statement of support for 1980s America: “Times are hard now, they’re only getting harder / This old world is rough, it’s only going to get rougher.”

And yet that is the way the Springsteen phenomenon was often understood during that decade, in the US and around the world. In July 1988, the singer and his band played a huge concert for 300,000 fans in East Berlin. According to American journalists such as Erik Kirschbaum, the action helped push the communists to tear down the Wall. Despite all the desperate lyrics and their stories of broken dreams, the songs represented the possibility of change and freedom.

For most, that’s what the American dream comes down to: the will to survive and thrive that endures even when the world closes in on you and robs you of everything you’re worth. Springsteen ennobles that indomitable spirit. Born in the USA ends with “My Hometown,” a slow-burning ballad of urban decay in which “whitewashed windows and vacant stores” replace the once-thriving shops of a platonic main street. The local textile factory closes, leaving the main character unemployed. In the final verse, he gets into his car and shows his young son around this dying community. “I put him in the driver’s seat and said, ‘Son, take a good look around,’” Springsteen sings. “This is your birthplace.” There is pride, despite the suffering. Isn’t that what it means to be born in the US?

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