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