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4 June 2024

The Born in the USA fallacy

Forty years ago Bruce Springsteen’s bleak portrait of America’s discarded working class was miscast as a patriotic anthem.

By Yo Zushi

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

But the Boss is a special case. In the late 1980s, the BBC comedy show A Bit of Fry & Laurie featured a sketch in which a bandana-wearing heartland rocker sits at a piano, belting out the words, “America, America, America…” – until Stephen Fry walks over and punches him. Bruce is basically that piano man.

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

Springsteen once defined that dream as “the right and a promise to life, to fulfilling yourself inside”. But this promise, he said, had been broken by economic injustice. Billy Joel expressed the same feeling of betrayal in his 1982 song “Allentown”, which tells the story of a steel town left behind by Reaganomics: “Every child had a pretty good shot to get at least as far as their old man got/But something happened on the way to that place – they threw an American flag in our face.”

Springsteen explored these themes on the stark 1982 album Nebraska, which he recorded alone on a Tascam tape recorder in a rented New Jersey house. In “Used Cars”, a father who “sweats the same job from mornin’ to morn’” buys a second-hand hunk of junk from a salesman who refuses to give him a discount; other songs ventriloquise a killer, a cop and a night worker in intimate first-person narratives that draw deeply on Americana clichés to imbue small tragedies with grandeur. Springsteen returned to the same territory on the Steinbeck-inspired The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and the raging Wrecking Ball (2012) – but none of his albums had the impact and reach of his 1984 blockbuster Born in the USA, which turned 40 on 4 June.

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

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

About four minutes later, “Born in the USA” was done. It was “lightning in a bottle”, Springsteen recalled in his memoir, Born to Run. Upon the song’s release in October 1984, it became the third of seven top-ten singles taken from the world-conquering Born in the USA album – an astonishing feat for a track with an unflinchingly bleak lyric inspired by US Marine Corps sergeant Ron Kovic’s experiences of being discarded by his country after he was paralysed during the Vietnam War. As Kovic describes in his 1976 book Born on the Fourth of July, his American dream was shot away 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 refrain and took it for uncomplicated jingoism. In a speech in New Jersey, the president said the nation’s future rested “in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen”. Writing in the Washington Post, the Reagan ally George Will styled the searing chorus as “a grand, cheerful affirmation” that blasted 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 aligned himself with the Democrats, with passionate endorsements of John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.

To anyone who listened closely to Born in the USA, this political trajectory wouldn’t have been surprising. Springsteen was raised in an ethnically mixed, just-about-managing neighbourhood and had deep compassion for those who were excluded from the riches of the “greed is good” era. Where Chuck Berry’s “Down Bound Train” dramatised a literal descent into hell on Satanic public transport, Springsteen’s song of the same name follows a man who loses his job at a lumber yard, finds his life spiralling out of control and ends up swinging a sledgehammer in a railroad gang. The heartland rocker “No Surrender” is a vow to keep youthful dreams alive in an adulthood that won’t permit them; other songs, such as the smouldering come-on “I’m on Fire” and the mega-hit “Dancing in the Dark”, are sung from the perspectives of those who dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do, as Jarvis Cocker later put it in “Common People”. And no amount of Reaganite great communicating could spin the first lines of “Cover Me” as a feel-good endorsement of 1980s America: “The times are tough now, just getting tougher/This old world is rough, it’s just getting rougher.”

And yet that’s how the Springsteen phenomenon was often taken throughout that decade, in the US and around the world. In July 1988, the singer and his band played an enormous concert in front of 300,000 fans in East Berlin. According to US journalists such as Erik Kirschbaum, the performance helped to galvanise the commies to tear down the Wall. For all the despairing lyrics and their tales of broken dreams, the songs represented the possibility of change and freedom.

For most, that’s what the American dream amounts to: the will to survive and thrive that persists even when the world closes in on you and strips you of all you’re worth. Springsteen ennobles that indomitable spirit. Born in the USA finishes with “My Hometown”, a slow-burning ballad of urban decline in which “whitewashed windows and vacant stores” replace a Platonic Main Street’s once-flourishing shops. The local textile mill shuts down, leaving the protagonist unemployed. In the final verse, he gets in his car and shows his young son around this dying community. “I sat him up behind the wheel/And said, ‘Son, take a good look around,’” Springsteen sings. “This is your hometown.” There’s pride there, despite the suffering. Isn’t that what it means to have been born in the USA?

[See also: Olivia Rodrigo’s guts-spilling, rabble-rousing tour]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024