Before we get started with Born in the U.S.A., listen to it–and watch the official music video, which will figure in this discussion–here.
The first thing you’ll notice about the sound of the song, the cover of the single, the opening shot of the video, is it’s loud, brash, American. The stars-and-stripes feature prominent in both visual mediums, and the synthesizer and the drums that open the song are in your face, energetic. Springsteen’s vocal is loud and proud as well; It’s less sung than defiantly shouted, especially the refrain, that oh-so-famous repetition of “Born in the U.SA.!”
If you never actually listened to the rest of the song, you’d think it’s an anthem of blind, unadulterated patriotism. But this isn’t Toby Keith we’re dealing with. It’s the Boss, not only one of our great rock stars, but one of our great songwriters. The story these lyrics tell isn’t of glory won, but of hardscrabble struggle. The narrator is: “Born down in a dead man town/The first kick I took was when I hit the ground.” He’s a blue collar guy from one of the many mining/factory/refinery towns across America, and indeed, the video, when not showing footage of Springsteen and the E Street Band performing (incredibly badly synced, incidentally), focuses on shots of blue collar workers.
Our narrator finds himself in some kind of jam that lands him in Vietnam: “They put a rifle in my hand/Send me off to a foreign land/To go and kill the yellow man.” Then, as today, the working class made up a disproportionate number of active duty soldiers. The man telling this story makes it back from the jungle, but to a country where he’s not celebrated, but rather reviled and unable to find work: “Come back home to the refinery/
Hiring man said, son, if it was up to me/Went down to see my VA man/He said, son, don’t you understand?”
The next couple of verses tell the story of the narrator’s brother, who fought and died at Khe Sanh (one of the most notorious bloodbaths of the war–if you want to read about it, check out Michael Herr’s Dispatches), leaving behind a woman he loved in Saigon. And the final verse has our narrator look at his future and realize he has no hope: “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/By the gas fires of the refinery/Ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.”
So, it’s a song about the shunning of Vietnam War veterans, who fought and died or fought and lived to come back to be called “baby killers,” but beyond that it’s a song about the marginalization of the American working class. That last verse in particular sums up the way our country’s blue collar workers have had their unions busted and their jobs shipped overseas, leaving them with little recourse beyond welfare lines (which the video shows footage of) and prison bids. (Aside: If you watch The Wire all the way through, you’ll see that this is what the greatest TV show of all time is actually about.) The music video perfectly sums up this point in the final shot, showing Springsteen from behind, looking at an American flag, then turning to look at the audience questioningly, as if to ask, “What now?”
Set to the booming rock of the E Street Band, Born in the U.S.A. is dissonant, an exercise in irony. Which brings me to my other favorite thing about the song: the way that conservative politicians in the 1980s totally missed the fucking point of the song. Famed conservative writer George Will wrote a column titled “A Yankee Doodle Springsteen,” praising the Boss and in particular Born in the U.S.A. for exhibiting cheer and patriotism in the face of struggle. And Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign asked to use Born in the U.S.A. as its theme song. Springsteen declined, of course, and later castigated Reagan for mentioning him in speeches without having any idea what the Boss’s music was actually about.
The thing that’s always defined Bruce Springsteen for me is that no matter how big and famous he has became, no matter how extravagant those arena stadium tours get, he cares. His best songs are about the little guy who’s been dealt a bad hand by powers out of his control: the man who can’t find a job but comes up with a plan to do “a favor” for someone in Atlantic City; the accidental teenage father in The River, who for his nineteenth birthday got “a union card and a wedding coat.” Born in the U.S.A. is full of that empathy, and when politicians who stood for the exact opposite of what Springsteen’s lyrics meant misinterpreted and then tried to co-opt his song, he stood up to them. That’s why Born in the U.S.A. is my favorite Springsteen song.