Essay

There’s Something Happening Somewhere: 30 Years Of Born In The U.S.A.

As of late, the War On Drugs might be leading the pack in terms of indie-rock’s debt to Springsteen. Any cursory listen to stuff like “Baby Missiles,” or material from this year’s Lost In The Dream — particularly “Burning” — most evokes the synth-y roots rock of Born In The U.S.A. (Sometimes I wonder whether Adam Granduciel has actually been listening to Born In The U.S.A. outtake demos like these.) On his So Outta Reach EP, Granduciel’s former bandmate Kurt Vile did a stellar version of “Downbound Train” that approximates what might’ve happened if Dinosaur Jr. were big fans of the Boss.

There are plenty examples of contemporary musicians looking elsewhere in Springsteen’s catalog (the National covering “Mansion On The Hill,” the Hold Steady doing “Atlantic City”), but I’m not trying to say Darkness or Nebraska don’t loom large, because they do. The point here is that Born In The U.S.A. is somewhat sidelined in the conversation even though it has a fundamental presence in the music of these artists. It’s not exactly hard to understand why. That same ubiquity I had to work my way into is simply prohibitive to other would-be Springsteen fans. Where Nebraska’s bleak, lo-fi quality is a logical entry point for a younger, more indie-oriented listener, Born In The U.S.A. is saddled with a few potential deal-breakers. The production is exceedingly ’80s, and not necessarily in a way of “this synthesizer sound is really cool and would become very popular in Brooklyn in 2008-2010,” but more like “This just sounds old.” Or, perhaps even worse, some of the synths have a surprisingly cheap sound to them that could hinder songs like “Bobby Jean” or “Dancing In The Dark” if a listener is prone to find these kinds of tones cheesy. Maybe the most damning quality is that this is the album with famous songs like “Glory Days,” which isn’t too many steps removed from artists like John Mellencamp, which makes it easy to lump Springsteen in with those lame heartland rockers of the time, even this many years down the road.

Actually, the most damning quality is probably the song “Born In The U.S.A.” itself. It seems to represent some unlikeable quality about Springsteen to people. I had a friend in college who loved Nebraska, was totally unaware that Springsteen had also written “Born In The U.S.A.,” and was totally disgusted at this revelation and demanded to not know anymore, lest I ruin Nebraska for her. Its bombastic qualities can be hard to get past, I suppose; it’s only recently that it’s become one of my favorite tracks on the album. But, amazingly, there still seem to be people who interpret this as some sort of jingoistic anthem, or at the very least some hollow triumphant rave-up, when it of course has a lot more going on. The same qualities that might turn off someone who just hears it as an obnoxious patriotic song from Reagan’s America are the same that keep it around as the sort of song that can cranked out in a baseball stadium. It can be played over and over to large gatherings of people who may not really care about music, because it’s so famous and overexposed that nobody will get overly mad or happy about it, which doesn’t necessarily make it the sort of thing a new listener would be eager to engage with. And as the meaning of the song subsides into historical footnotes (though it’s not hard to transpose its lyrics to our own wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), these qualities are only made worse.

Which, I suppose, fair enough: I’m a firm believer than once you put a piece of art out into the world, it ceases being totally yours, and how it’s received and interpreted becomes as much a part of its story as the original intent. But, I mean, still — the lyrics of “Born In The U.S.A.” are very, very direct and it’s hard to imagine people in a time as media-savvy as ours still hearing that big chorus and missing the ironic undercut of the whole thing. It’s there musically, too. “Born In The U.S.A.” exists in a Nebraska-esque demo from before Springsteen decided to pursue a new rock record instead. It’s every bit as haunting as you’d expect from the preceding album’s tone, and it sounds very little like the finished product. (For a much more in-depth breakdown of the song’s complicated origins, check out Mark Richardson’s post from the collaborative Bruce Springsteen One Week//One Band we both participated in last year.) Even with Springsteen’s style generally falling squarely in the “earnestness” column, I can’t help but hear the over-the-top anthemic qualities of “Born In The U.S.A.” as a mechanism to pull out the song’s dark roots and make them that much worse. He was fully aware of what he was doing at this point. When Springsteen sings a lyric like “I’m a cool rocking daddy in the U.S.A.” over this backbeat, but surrounded by these lyrics, it’s difficult to see how the phrase “Born In The U.S.A.” could be misinterpreted as anything but the disgust it represented. The synths sound queasy themselves, especially in the song’s ride-out, striking a dissonance that sums up the distance between the pride supposedly evoked in the song’s title and the story it tells.

There are a lot of other places on Born In The U.S.A. that also don’t immediately reveal their darkness. To return briefly to the argument I made last year in the Springsteen Counting Down, one of the reasons Born In The U.S.A. is so great, one of the reasons it remains one of his most important albums, is that it’s the one where he mingles realism and romanticism the most deftly. “Dancing In The Dark” is an infectious pop song, but most of its lyrics relate desperation: “There’s something happening somewhere/Baby, I just know that there is,” one of those perfectly Springsteen-esque sentiments. The story in “Dancing In The Dark” is based in the same kind of realities as “Downbound Train” or “Working On The Highway,” or of songs before any of them on The River and Darkness, but the tone is one of yearning. There’s just that much more amount of gloss, just that little bit of measured romanticism let in.

That combination is why there’s a strong case to be made for Born In The U.S.A. being the quintessential Springsteen album, the one that everything beforehand was leading to. In hindsight, it’s also come to be seen as the end of Springsteen’s peak era, with all of his first seven albums being more or less critically adored in the subsequent decades, and everything post Born In The U.S.A. subject to more debate. It’s the pivot point: everything after it exists in relation to it. This is the case not only because of its commercial stature amongst Springsteen’s catalog and pop music in general, but also because this is the album most representative of everything Springsteen was and is as an artist. With the benefit of thirty years to situate itself, Born In The U.S.A. feels like a centerpiece around which the rest of Springsteen’s career revolves, the one perfect distillation of all the stories he wanted to tell and all the voices he wanted to tell them in.