“Born In The USA” – Bruce Springsteen:
A symbol of nationalistic pride, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA subsists patriotically in one form or another, despite its antithetic sentiments. The last, burnt-out refuge of Republican scoundrels still clinging to outdated, Capitalistic xenophobias, yellow-man effigies ‘twixt warmongering romanticisms and unrealities. Nearly twenty-seven years later and already twenty-six years too late, conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck:
… [W]as shocked, shocked to discover that for all these years he’d been rocking out to a song about a bitter down-and-out Vietnam vet who has been kicked to the curb by the aforementioned USA.
The 80s decade saw a shift from conventionality – again. From disco to synth-pop – not altogether different from folk/blues transition from rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s. 60s liberalisms resurfaced, rife with androgyny: Boy George, Garry Glitter, Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, not to mention carry-over megastars from the previous decade, like David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury’s Queen. Punk saw its first schisms into a heavier, hardcore post-punk with artists such as The Cure, New Order and U2 prospering. Five years post-Vietnam; Republican Ronald Reagan had just succeeded Jimmy Carter for the American Presidency; the end of the decade would see the first to years of the G.H.W. Bush Administration. Suffice to say, dissent was endemically popularised worldwide.
Springsteen’s seventh studio album (Columbia Records) of the same name produced seven Top Ten singles – one of only three other albums to do so – while the subsequent Born in the USA Tour lasted two successful years. Politicians leapt before thinking, seized a chance to harp on Born in the USA, and plugged it with jingoistic bastardisations of its anthemic chorus; as Hitler did unto Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. With the song’s release on June 4th 1984, Springsteen unwittingly became the country’s subliminal pinup-boy. Move over Uncle Sam, here was a man without:
… a smidgen of androgyny… who, rocketing around the stage in a T-shirt and headband, [resembled] Robert DeNiro in the combat scenes of “The Deerhunter”. This is rock for the United Steelworkers…
Annie Leibovitz’s renowned photo of Springsteen’s blue-jeaned, red-capped, white-shirted rear plastered across the American flag galvanised propagandist patriots: finally, a buff, heterosexual working-class-ass, an embodiment of the so-called American Dream, tangible. Reagan even managed to slip Springsteen somewhere into his 1984 re-election campaign, stating that:
America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.
Danny Federici’s piano/synth soared across Max Weinberg’s pounding snare-drum, and the predictable yet seductive repetition of notes from start to finish, stole any lyrics hiding behind a raspy-voiced Springsteen between sing-along choruses. What anybody cared about, it seemed, was in those choruses – overriding Born in the USA’s anti-war communique about post-war suffering and its vilified veterans. A mixed-message reaction ensued; Springsteen responded at the time by telling Rolling Stone Magazine that:
I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what’s happening, I think, is that that need is getting manipulated and exploited. You see that in the Reagan election ads on TV.
Born in the USA follows an unnamed, down-and-out protagonist’s journey from deadbeat, to criminal, “Born down in a dead man’s town… I got in a little hometown jam…” from soldier back to criminal again, “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary… I’m ten years down the road… I’m a long gone Daddy in the USA…” Recurring on the second- and fourth-beats of each bar, Weinberg’s emphatic snare-drum encapsulates unwavering, small-town drudgery as well as wartime monotony, rolling occasionally during the choruses and towards the end of lines, into a flare. It gives the song pace, and is effectively its beating heart – the heart of the protagonist, the non-stop rhythm of cannon/bullet fire, and its demise come song-end. For example: “I had a brother at Khe Sanh / Fighting off all the Vietcong / (*roll) / They’re still there, he’s all gone… / (*roll*).” These flares accentuate moments of intense, emotional passion between steady beats in an attempt to redirect our attention to the lyrics – like italicising a sentence, indicating its importance. Khe Sanh’s significance is merely a metaphor demonstrating the pointlessness of warfare – from the 21st of January through to April 8th, America defended and later abandoned after their subsequen victory, their base at Khe Sanh. By its end, there were 7,482+ casualties, 1,542 fatalities, 5,675 wounded and 7 missing. This amazing, extra-dimensional subtlety to Born in the USA substitutes an objective sympathy for Vietnam-vets with subjective undercurrents of scorn and contempt. Author, Jim Cullen writes of Springsteen’s power to be:
… very much a man of his time. I have been… impressed by the way his life and work resonate with some of the most important themes and figures in American History… [H]is work represents the latest chapter in a story that includes Woody Guthrie, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.
(Jim Cullen; p2-3; “Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition”; Wesleyon University Press, 1997)
Unlike Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ though, Born in the USA‘s patriotic vibes outweighed anything it had to say at the time. It is still being argued over today: public forums, like YouTube, are inundated with regurgitated arguments advocating patriotism over remonstration, and vice versa. Some instead contend that Born in the USA was a sympathetic portraiture of American Industry; they must have missed the phrases “The first kick I took was on the ground” and “Hiring man says: ‘Son if it were up to me’… He said: “Son, don’t you understand?” In response to pop and politics, author Brian Longhurst suggests that the beginning and subsequent perpetuation of its relationship:
… is often presented as a kind of liberation from the dullness of American and British life of the period. It is seen to have opened up new possibilities of self expression and to break down the conventions of stuffiness of everyday life… there is something inherently oppositional in rock… [characterised] as the music of protest, the ‘movement’ or the underground…
(Brian Longhurst; p106; “Popular Music & Society”; Cambridge; Polity, 2007)
The song’s rallying chorus then beckons listeners to reciprocate, like a nationalised anthem would: “I was… Born in the USA… I was… Born in the USA…” Springsteen sings, as if the only affiliation he, his fans and the protagonist have with the United States of America is the fact that they were born there. Why not: I’m a part of the USA? Too communistic. I am the USA? Too hedonistic. I respect the USA? Too untruthful. So much is trying to be said through such a funneling phrase, its epithets escape. But, anything else would have been familiarly rebellious, along the lines of: Fuck the USA. Censorship would have demanded controversy, and Springsteen would have been lumped into the same vilification as the American Government. We know by now, what he wants to say – nothing should be taken at face value. So how on Earth did anyone – let alone former Republican President Ronald Reagan – misinterpret one of the world’s most televised protest songs?
Four years ago, I would have hated this song: publicised Americans fanaticising its chorus like some twisted badge of honour, their country largely responsible for the past three bloody (mainsteam) wars including Vietnam, and an escalating Second Gulf War. Being a leftie, the immediate stench of right-wing politics was a detrimental put-off. Whatever it had to say was swallowed up in its infectious chorus, while Springsteen I personally blacklisted under patriotic sycophant. It wasn’t until the October 2007 release of album Magic when I started backtracking through his success, that I came to understand what Bruce Springsteen was all about. Reorienting its context into the present decade’s music allowed me to overcome my political prejudice. Subsequent acoustic versions of the song – first, during a Reunion Tour from 1999-2000, and second, during his Devils & Dust Tour 2005 – were scathingly clearer, rougher and considerably less anthemic. Reunion Tour was notably bluegrassier, while the Devils & Dust outcry contained only a harmonica and an amplified stomping board. Without Federici’s and Weinberg’s obfuscating piano/synth/percussion, Born in the USA shone through in a typically Bob Dylanesque physique.
The 1984 cut is musically pop of the decade, though – especially with Federici’s synth overture. Something in the style of Eurythmic’s Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), fused with rock ‘n’ roll to the feel of Van Halen’s Jump or Bon Jovi’s You Give Love A Bad Name. However, Born in the USA‘s catchy, two-bar repetition of notes is characteristically folk in origin – to the effect of Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’. Each verse is accompanied with the same notes, making the chorus verbally rather than musically apparent when Springsteen sings those now infamous words. Its first iteration at 0:34 has only a percussion and synth accompaniment. A single, preamble piano-note accompanies each repetition, salvaged from the previous verse and the song’s introduction. Atypically, bass/guitar/(more)-percussion begin after the chorus’ first appearance. At 2:28, it reverts back to its original state at 0:34, giving the fifth verse a sort of rebirth coincidentally with the protagonist’s “[Coming] back home to the refinery.” The song starts over again, despite its miniature reiterations like representational days, months or years. At 2:55, just after “I’m a long gone Daddy in the USA…” the chorus starts-up again like a makeshift eulogy as all the instruments clamour together towards a fade-out end. As if the only worthwhile thing the protagonist has done is being “Born in the USA…” only to beget the next generation; because the song really doesn’t stop, it just simply fades away.
To me, what this song reminds me of, and what my interpretation of it is, are two different things altogether. I can never let go of fully, Born in the USA‘s all-encompassing American-vibe. But I can see through it instead, envisioning it rather like Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed and its nameless, everyman protagonist written in the first-person. What that book had to say, and what this song has to say, are one and the same: all war is bad. And war hasn’t changed. And what frustrates me more, is that somehow we didn’t get it the first time when someone like Harrison – who had endured WWI – published his novel in 1930. Springsteen wrote his song in response to soldier-friends’ accounts from Vietnam, and it echoes many a Vietnam veteran’s struggle for acceptance after its eventual loss.
But personally, I envisage Born in the USA rather like a requiem – a funeral song. The heavy-handed snare-drum exacerbates the nature of the human heartbeat, which is dying. Springsteen’s raspy voice, bestial and animalistic, howls the lyrics in pain, while the synth that is the Political steam-train called America, persists in chugging-on relentlessly. Every repetition, a propagandist reiteration advocating war, promising hope and stifling change. Every heartbeat, an obstacle; towards the end, arrhythmia – finally fading away into obscurity and death. Born in the USA may fuse multiple musical styles into one successful – albeit misinterpreted – form, but it is the misinforming politics surrounding it which interest me more. On a larger scale, Born in the USA is an excellent, demonstrative example of the stupidity of governments, the stupidity of warfare and the underestimated power of patriotically musical indoctrination. Largely though, it is the stupidity of everyday people which amazes me, to hear one thing and think another. Maybe I like this song because it has something to say, rather than for music’s sake, or perhaps because of all its continuing, peripheral controversy. It certainly isn’t something I can listen to over and over again, though – just like politics, really. Nor do I feel like singing it aloud, because of the chorus’ outwardly-appearing patriotism. I am not American; I am proud not to be American. Why should I sing, let alone dance, to a song contrived through so much pain and suffering, exploitation and deceit?