Having grown up in a depressed nowhere-ish town in Pennsylvania forever occupied with dreams and visions of taking off, of moving to the city, a lot of Springsteen’s early music is made specifically for people like me. Born To Run sounded like it lead to another world, not just because it was so intricate, so intent upon crafting escape through imbuing music with legend so thoroughly, but also because its own visions of escape felt like they belonged so thoroughly to a bygone time. They were unretrievable; if anybody ever really got in their car and just drove away to a new start, they didn’t do it now. Of course, most of the people in his songs never quite make it out of that town they start out in, anyway. The bar scenes of “Glory Days” or the father-son cycle of “My Hometown” might fly in the face of this notion, but in recent years I’ve begun to think of Born In The U.S.A. as the Bruce album for those of us who came from such places, actually did make it to the destination at the other end, and didn’t know exactly what was supposed to have changed once we got there.
Springsteen has two albums that begin with the word “born”: Born To Run and Born In The U.S.A. People will argue about where these fall in the canon (in my mind, there’s no way both of them aren’t in the top 3), but there’s no getting around that these are his most iconic albums. The first was the last gasp of his romantic period, as operatic and grandiose as he’d ever let himself be ever again. Born To Run is the one that minted him as a star, Born In The U.S.A. of course the one that took it much further. They feel like bookends, his first two albums a prologue to Born To Run’s Point A, the subsequent three albums the middle chapters on the way to Born In The U.S.A.‘s Point B. With those seven albums, you get the whole arc of Springsteen’s first story. There’s a reason he followed Born In The U.S.A. with Tunnel Of Love, a departure stylistically and conceptually, and there’s a reason he never quite got his muse back after that until he had post-9/11 America to grapple with. Those first seven albums should rank as one of the Great American Novels. They flit between grand dreams of escapism and classic Americana iconography and far more grim, sparse portraits of real, non-archetypal characters struggling in a spiritual and economic wasteland in a post-Vietnam America. Born In The U.S.A. holds all that within it, and seeks some sort of resolution, offers some hope. It’s the one you carry with you on the other end of trip.
One would imagine it’s no coincidence — and if it is, it’s still illustrative — that the word “run” also appears in the lyrics to “Born In The U.S.A.” In “Born To Run,” the famous line had been “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” It was a desperate, last-bet kind of romanticism that ran through Born To Run, but it was still one final shot at throwing your arms around the highway and all the promises you wish you still totally believed it offered. On Born In The U.S.A., any sense of romanticism comes in yearning and nostalgia, simple pop forms rather than intricately crafted catharses. When he sings of running in “Born In The U.S.A.,” there’s no more glimpse of pulling out of town — it’s “Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.” It’s the lack of options, the lack of a perceived future, that drives this song’s protagonist to Vietnam; it’s his return from Vietnam that presents him with a heightened sense of that same lack. It’s preceded by the line “Ten years burning down the road.” Born In The U.S.A. came out just shy of ten years after Born To Run. This is the album where Born To Run ends, finally, all that came in between steps along that journey. While “Born In The U.S.A.” may start it off despairingly, by “My Hometown” we’re making peace with where we came from and who we are. There’s an arc to this album specifically that puts to rest so many of the issues of the preceding six albums.
Despite all I’ve said here about the circumstances of this album and how it’s been perceived, lately Born In The U.S.A. has transcended context for me. When I leave my apartment in New York on a rainy day, it seems like the right album to put on. When I visit home, in Pennsylvania, and I’m driving under grey skies on a five degree day in January, it seems like the right album to put on. When I’m walking home late at night on a balmy summer night, there’s no way that I’m not putting on “Dancing In The Dark” before I’m done. Usually, when a piece of art becomes voluminous or malleable enough to mean everything, it winds up not meaning much at all. Born In The U.S.A. is an exception, a record whose myth just feels more massive and inviting even now. Or, maybe, that’s just what this kind of pop music is supposed to be: a different version of everything to anybody who listens to it.
Even when you live in a place like New York, that urge can develop, that unquenchable recurring American thing of wanting to escape where you are. No matter where it is, the answers are elsewhere. Of course, that’s the kind of thinking Springsteen already tried, and he knew it didn’t hold up. But he still wanted to believe it, even on Born In The U.S.A., where he’s pretty much deconstructing the notion. It’s in our DNA, that desire — something about the expanse of America, the big abstract promises of this country, instills a hunger. There’s always that possibility to blow everything up and start again in a new town. And in the 21st century, that’s only gotten stronger, even if it seems like a particularly American Century notion that should be outmoded. We might be savvy enough to know that our existence won’t look like the dreams earlier Springsteen songs sketched out, the dreams so many of his later protagonists suffered having lost. But the flipside of that savviness, I’d argue, is that we also live with a perpetual sense of “Is that all?” We have, in a sense, everything at our fingertips, but it’s never enough. It begins to feel like nothing.
So every now and then, it helps to put on Born In The U.S.A., because of that fact that it’s the one that represents the end of the road of all he’d written up until that point: a mature reckoning with all the mythology he’d been raised on, a grounding of it in the daily realities of people’s lives, and a glimmer of wistfulness and belief that it’s still possible to grasp at it all. There are days recently where I find it to be the most rewarding, most essential, most immortal Bruce Springsteen record. Anytime I put it on, for 47 minutes there’s that intangible sense rising again — not the hunger, but the response to it. The point where you had the belief, lost it for a time, and are old enough to come back around to it tentatively, just taking little doses of it amongst your daily, physical realities. It might ring out in desperation sometimes, but thirty years on it feels more like a tinge of something new, and a promise to carry on: “There’s something happening somewhere.” Sometimes, I just know that there is.