Bruce Springsteen - Born In The USA alternate cover

For you to remember the first time you heard Born In The U.S.A., you have to be above a certain age. It’s just one of those albums. Once it was out there, it was ubiquitous. That tends to happen when you produce seven top ten singles from one album, or when a record goes platinum, let alone fifteen times over. The latter distinction means that Born In The U.S.A. sold about 15 million copies in America, a number that seems like total and complete fantasy compared to the anemic record industry of today, and one that ranks it within the top twenty or so highest selling albums, ever, in this country. This is not the kind of situation where you are still able to hear a record entirely on its own original terms, with remotely fresh ears. Even if you somehow all your life avoided hearing its title track, or “Dancing In The Dark,” or “Glory Days,” Born In The U.S.A. is the sort of work that, by virtue of its sheer magnitude and inevitable overexposure, comes with a whole lot of years of baggage down the line.

As of today, that would be thirty years of baggage, to be exact. Three decades on, Born In The U.S.A. has a shifting and at times conflicted legacy. In pop history, it’s simple enough — it’s one of the defining records of the ’80s, the one that jettisoned Springsteen to true superstar status. It’s one of those albums that’s never hard to find on a rack at Target or whatever, next to Thriller or Dark Side Of The Moon or Metallica. Those albums that I guess somebody somewhere will always feel like buying, the sort of stuff that’s never really out of style because it’s at such a level as to be beyond trends altogether. In Springsteen terms, it gets a little more complicated. Born In The U.S.A. is the Springsteen album for a certain generation of fans, and something else for those who came before or after. Every now and then I’ll talk to an older fan who still grimaces at memories of Born In The U.S.A. as the album where Bruce got too big, too pop, perhaps even sold out — if that’s still a thing you can really do when you were already on the covers of Newsweek and Time in the same week a decade prior. They’ll value the preceding six albums in a different way, maybe considering them more authentic. With a career as long and varied as Springsteen’s you’re bound to get those sorts of divides in a fanbase. Even something as widely beloved as “Backstreets” has been played frequently enough at Springsteen’s shows that it’s someone’s holy moment and someone else’s cue to go buy another beer. The dividing line always struck me as a bit more severe with Born In The U.S.A. tracks, though. Maybe you’re enraptured when “Dancing In The Dark” inevitably pops up in the encore, maybe you head to the parking lot early. (But if you’re the latter, I’m not sure we can be friends.)

Before we get too far down this rabbithole, it might be necessary to issue a disclaimer. I’m already on record, in a few places, about the extent of my Springsteen fandom, and the resulting amount of thought I put into his music. It’s only in the last year or two, however, where I’ve begun to listen to Born In The U.S.A. more than any of this other work. I don’t know what would be in second place, but it isn’t close. There are days when it’s my favorite Springsteen album. There are days when I think it’s a perfect album, and other days when I’m a bit more sensible and realize that if “My Love Will Not Let You Down” had taken the place of “Cover Me,” and if “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart” had replaced “Glory Days,” then it would’ve been perfect. (And, still, there are other days where I realize those maybe still wouldn’t fit, even if they’re brilliant.) And then, just about everyday, “Dancing In The Dark” is pretty much my favorite song ever. What I’m getting at here is that we’re dealing with a bias on my part.

But, more importantly, I’m also getting at the fact that I’m one of those Springsteen fans who grew up with Born In The U.S.A. as something that was just in the air, the most ever-present material from an ever-present artist, and it’s only in recent years where I’ve started to get truly obsessed with the thing, where I’ve learned to find personal resonance in an album that’s too easy to take for granted due to its inherent ubiquity. The weird thing about an album so readily ranked in the “Classic” category by every other rock retrospective of one form or another, is that people can just start to think of it as This Thing That Happened, a piece of work from some distant time and place that has little meaning to them. This is the territory in which an album like Born In The U.S.A., against most logical expectations, could become underrated.

Back around the time Springsteen released Magic in 2007, he was well into a career resurgence following a mixed bag of a decade in the ’90s. There were many factors to this, but one of them was that he’d attained a certain hipness in the ’00s; as Stephen M. Deusner put it in his review of Magic, Springsteen had replaced Brian Wilson as the “indie ideal.”

Bands like the Gaslight Anthem, the Hold Steady, and the Killers bore the influence sonically, where others like the National and the Arcade Fire were perhaps more so thematic descendants. Without fail, when people talk about Springsteen’s influence on pockets of this century’s generation of indie-rock, it’s easiest to draw the line back to Darkness On The Edge Of Town or Nebraska (especially in the case of Dirty Beaches).

Born In The U.S.A. gets a little less credit, but at times it feels like perhaps the most important Springsteen record when it comes to newer artists being influenced by his work. Given the age of some of these musicians, this is the one that would’ve been new when they were kids, just getting into music; chances are, it was the formative one. They would’ve been the young fans for whom this was their Springsteen album. Before they went all Sandinista! on Reflektor, Arcade Fire’s anthemic qualities seemed more in the lineage of Born In The U.S.A.-era Bruce, the themes of The Suburbs a mash-up of stuff like “My Hometown” and “Downbound Train” with Darkness and The River. Tellingly, when Win Butler chose his fourteen favorite Springsteen songs for Rolling Stone in 2010, most of them were from the ’80s. Butler might’ve gone onstage to play Nebraska’s “State Trooper” with the man himself, but when it came time for Arcade Fire to cover the Boss, they chose “Born In The U.S.A..” At this point, “I’m On Fire” seems destined to live on as a standard of sorts. You’ve got everyone from Mumford & Sons to Chromatics covering it. Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon, long the Springsteen acolyte, has been known to perform it solo, while his band’s own “High Lonesome” quotes/references the song.

Comments (19)
  1. Terrific write-up. While I wasn’t even born when this thing was at its apex, I have a permanent connection to this record and the title-track in particular because it was the first Springsteen song I ever heard and the utter desperation in his voice cast a spell on me that’s still going to this day.

  2. pagination? do you want me to finish reading the article?

  3. I first got into this album through my mom’s vinyl copy. I always remembered hearing it at family parties as a kid. Hearing it now, at about the same age as my parents were when I was a kid, makes me think about emotions and life situations my parents must have been going through when they started a family. It is a great album in that way; the lyrics really take you to a ringside seat at an early-80s drunken neighborhood softball game, and then to that downcast feeling of getting laid off and feeling that your life has been for naught. It was music that aimed to tell the stories of real people, a kind of music that rock has entirely ceded to country at this point.

    About a decade ago, when I was in college, the Boss was definitely not cool in indie circles as far as I can remember. It was really the Hold Steady and Arcade Fire’s Keep the Car Running (which let’s be honest, totally swipes Bruce’s MO) that started making him hip. He fully deserves the victory lap. There’s very little music like this anymore that aims to reflect the lives that regular people live, certainly not at the endless Turbopop party dominating the mainstream these days. I like being able to tune out all the crap that mainstream culture churns out, but I also miss great albums like this that could be shared by everyone over a few beers.

  4. i got turned onto springsteen by the gaslight anthem 6 years ago, of whom i’m grateful to see mentioned here. a fitting tribute, but i really could’ve done without lines like “Springsteen has two albums that begin with the word “born” and would’ve appreciated at least one mention of “i’m goin’ down.” it’s quite obviously the best song on the record.

  5. Great article….Born in the USA clearly defined a decade which not many can lay claim. I spose London Calling or Joshua Tree could threaten its space, but considering that Bruce made you appreciate a country by wagging his leathered finger more at its flaws than its celebrations, its hard not to give it top respect. It was truly a vulnerable album and carried the same, if not more, raw emotion that Born to Run, Nebraska & Darkness at the Edge of Town yielded. Its fitting because his next album would be without the E Street Band which looking back makes you understand the heightened sense of sadness that’s palpable inside each track. Yet it comes across as product of American pride….maybe that’s its true charm.

    • I’m not picking a fight (promise) but when I hear Born in the USA now it sounds very 80′s and very produced and weak. When I hear the opening chords of London Calling I still feel as if it’s time to break out the Doc Marten’s and rail against all that is hypocritical and fraudulent.

      London Calling is a masterpiece. Born in the USA is kinda blah by comparison.

    • Now you have me thinking of what the “Definitive American 1980′s Album” (not necessarily by Americans) would be and I’m coming up blank.
      -Born in the USA (duh)
      -Joshua Tree (love the album, but their take on Americana is more of a caricature)
      -Reckoning (for that rural, slice of life perspective. not popular enough to be definitive though)

      It seems like so many of the 80′s classics (by Americans) focused on looking outward (Remain in Light, Graceland), or had a smaller/more personal scope (Replacements, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Dino Jr, Pixies). I feel like I’m missing a big one.

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  7. Great article. Greetings from Asbury Park through to Tunnel of Love must be one of the best run of albums by any musician/band ever.

  8. Call me crazy, but I always liked ‘Tunnel of Love’ better.

  9. “Glory Days” can suck my balls. Most of the rest can stay.

  10. Part of Springsteen’s brilliance is that even though I didn’t grow up in a nowhere PA town like the author, Springsteen still makes me feel all those feelings.

    “Born in the USA” sold 10 times as many records as any modern pop album not so much because the industry’s changed, but because it’s just 10 times better than any modern pop album.

  11. Nice article. I’ve also taken a lot of crap over the decades for being a fan, and I believe it is because of the success of this album and primarily the title track. Detractors always use that one to crack on The Boss without ever witnessing one of his live shows(which made me a lifelong fan since high school). I have a theory about that time period in music. CBS Records in the mid 80′s milked the hell out of “Thriller”. The success of that album made them rethink their marketing strategy to continually shove their popular artists down everyone’s throat ad nauseam. They did a similar thing with “Faith”. I think that’s when the real backlash started and probably why he rarely performed the title track for years.

    • There are two kinds of people in this world. Springsteen-fans and people who haven’t seen his live-show.

      I know a more than a few people who became true fans after seeing him play.

  12. I wish I could express what this article means to me. I myself grew up in this era of the 80′s and the message and brilliance of Springsteen as a whole, and much more so this album, was lost on my pre-teenage mind. Coming back around to Bruce now in the last 5 or ten years and really recognizing, shamefully late, what an amazing songwriter and an amazing human he is, I find myself listening to his records over and over and over. I can’t exactly explain why but there is some solace in his music, some feeling of safety that is hard to pinpoint. I think you kind of nail it near the end there, it’s that sense of an escape route, a trapdoor exit. The notion that if your life totally falls apart you can pack it up, drive away to the middle of nowhere and find a bar where you can drink until you forget and the people will appreciate you only for who you are, not who you were.

    Lately in my own life things are not the best they’ve ever been and I find myself day after day putting on his records and flipping them over and over and over and over all day. Which brings me to the point, Born In The USA is exactly as you describe. I cannot tell HOW MUCH this essay and it’s timing mean to me. This is the record I go to most often. I’ve probably listened to this album more times than any record in my entire life, all this last year, by the way.

    I’ll save my breath reiterating every single point you’ve made and agreeing with it (in particular the disturbing feeling of Born In The USA, the song, I find it to be the most difficult to listen to, the one song on the record that actually makes me feel uneasy and creeped out) but, suffice to say, it was as if your sentiment and writing were put out here just for me in some way. This record has become a sort of mantra or oasis for me. It’s become a place that I can go and feel relief, feel safe, feel understanding in very. very difficult times. I suppose the Bible is that for some people. I suppose many things are that for many different people. Something that provides ineffable shelter in uncertain times.

    I can’t say why really. There is a theory, psychologically, that the music you grow up with, experience as a child inadvertently becomes a sort of safety blanket for you. Something that always brings you peace and a feeling of safety when you are grown. I suppose many forms of art can fall into this same premise, movies in particular. For me it is sometimes hard to explain to those around me why 80′s music is so important to me, why I love it so much and why it makes me feel so safe. Born In The USA may be the ultimate culmination of those memories and that feeling.

    I’m going on and on. What I really set out to say was THANK YOU SO MUCH for this essay. It could not have been more on point, more relevant to me or more eerily well timed. Why just today I flipped this record over no less than ten times.

  13. Good article. It’s easy to dismiss Born In The USA precisely because it was so ubiquitous. However, there was an omission that deserves mention: the B-side of Born In The USA was “Shut Out The Light,” which strongly and unmistakably underscored the despair and loneliness of the title track. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember when there were actual singles with actual non-LP B-sides). If you haven’t heard it, and have any interest in Born In The USA at all, check out the B-sides of the singles, starting with Shut Out The Light.

  14. Fantastic piece. It’s a testament to the depth and breadth of Bruce Springsteen’s oeuvre that an album as brilliant as this 5-star all-time classic isn’t necessarily obviously his best—probably isn’t even in the Top 5 of most of his hardcore fans. And yet it’s an absolute masterpiece.

  15. Not much love for “Cover Me” I see! Even though it’s a bit lightweight compared to other stuff on the album, I always loved that one.

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