Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” was born into our collective conscious 30 years ago, when the landmark album of the same name was released June 4, 1984, to almost instant hysteria. Even as it enters middle age, it remains a problem child of a song. Is “Born in the U.S.A.” a patriotic anthem, bitter protest tune, or both? When it gets played at leftist rallies as well as pretty much every 4th of July fireworks show in America, is someone still not getting what Springsteen himself called “the most misunderstood song since ‘Louie, Louie’”? Why is there still a struggle to claim this song in particular, waged between the ghost of Tom Joad and the specter of George Will?
The song famously became the ball in a political ping-pong battle in September 1984 when both sides in a presidential campaign attempted to claim Springsteen as their own. Ronald Reagan had some egg to wipe off his face after suggesting that Republicans were the party of Bossivity, but his Democratic competitor didn’t look much better when he claimed that “the real Bruce Springsteen [is] for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket.” It went on to be parodied by everyone from 2 Live Crew to Cheech & Chong, and rivals Neil Diamond’s “America” as the one song that has to be played to accompany the rockets’ red glare each Independence Day. That’s quite a life for what started as a vituperative little folk song recorded in Springsteen’s kitchen.
The original working title for the tune Springsteen was working on in late 1981 was the more prosaic “Vietnam.” It was about a veteran returning home from the war and taking a lonesome, solo taxi ride home to a far-from-hopeful fate in New Jersey. The chorus line, repeated over and over: “You died in Vietnam.” (Try singing that over the revised lyrics at your next fireworks display and see how it goes.) At the time, Springsteen was feeling newly politicized, particularly in regard to veterans’ affairs. Shortly after Reagan’s election in 1980, he met Bobby Muller, a paraplegic who started an organization called Vietnam Veterans of America, and he’d also been influenced by reading a book called Woody Guthrie: A Life by Joe Klein. But the song “Vietnam” was such a relentless bummer, it would have made all his fans suicidal enough to take themselves out in a wreck on the highway.
Then, inspiration struck when Springsteen happened to look over at a screenplay that writer-director Paul Schrader had sent him, in hopes that the Boss would consider a movie career. The title: Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen started singing that phrase instead of “You died in Vietnam,” and the dour melody instantly became much more ambiguous, if not quite inspirational. (Schrader didn’t come away completely empty-handed, by the way; Springsteen offered him a song called “Just Around the Corner to the Light of Day,” and Schrader’s film —starring Michael J. Fox instead of Springsteen— was retitled Light of Day.)
Yet it still wasn’t a grabber. “To me it was a dead song,” producer Jon Landau told biographer Dave Marsh. “It was one of the lesser songs on the Nebraska tape,” he added, referring to the cassette of demos that became Springsteen’s all-acoustic Nebraska release in ’82. “Clearly the words and music didn’t go together.”
The fact that “Born in the U.S.A.” got nixed from Nebraska was the greatest thing that could have happened to it. There was another set of sessions in 1982, with the E Street Band, when Springsteen was briefly considering making Nebraska a full-on electric album. It was this full-band version cut in ’82 that saw release two years later on the Born in the U.S.A. album, and a classic was born. “For everybody there, I know, to this day,” Landau said, “it was the most exciting thing that ever happened in a recording studio.”
Springsteen’s producers and engineers have talked about how, at that time, the singer preferred not to run through the entire song with the band in advance of turning on the reel-to-reel recorders, instead teaching the players individual sections and then hoping for a raucous spontaneity when they’d play the whole thing through on tape for the first time. Springsteen has said that the version you hear on record was the second take laid down on May 3, 1982. Chief engineer Toby Scott, who may have more complete records, says it was the sixth out of eight takes. What’s clear is that it was live and utterly uncontained, even though it represented one of Springsteen’s first times relying on a synth riff instead of a more organic sound.
“I remember listening to it and going, ‘Wow!’” Scott told Sound on Sound. “Right from the start, the snare drum was exploding, and you have to remember this was 1982, when we were in the middle of disco-land there in New York. There were no exploding snare drums in New York — there were no exploding snare drums anywhere — and then, what with Danny’s synthesizer playing that grand intro, the song was just cracking away and I turned to Chuck Plotkin and Jon Landau and said, ‘I don’t know whether it’s Bruce, but man, it sounds good to me!’… When the band members came into the control room after the first couple of takes and heard the track, they too were going, ‘My God, we’ve never heard anything like this before!’ It was totally, revolutionarily different-sounding to anything else at that time.”
By the time Springsteen put out Born in the USA in June 1984, he’d faced a choice, to back away from the off-putting-to-some starkness of Nebraska and go for the stadium-level brass ring. “In the end it was a variety of things that kinda threw the argument in one direction,” he told Marsh, “but my feeling was that I’d created an opportunity for myself, and why cross the desert and not climb the mountain?”
But making things grand didn’t mean making things glossed over. And so Born in the U.S.A. relied on what was known among Springsteen as “the electric Nebraska sessions” — tracks that maintained that lyrical tough-mindedness but with a high-spirited sheen that beckoned the masses to consider his themes instead of holding them at bay.
“Born in the U.S.A.” was the third of the seven singles from that albm, all of which reached the top 10. It hadn’t yet been released as a 45 but was already a fan favorite by the time conservative columnist George Will caught a show (at drummer Max Weinberg’s behest) in Washington, D.C. in September of 1984. Will never made it past the intermission, but that didn’t stop him from writing a column rhapsodizing about Springsteen’s old-fashioned American values.
“There is not a smidgen of androgyny in Springsteen,” Will wrote approvingly, perhaps meaning to put the Boss against fellow superstar Michael Jackson. After writing about how he wore his trademark bow tie to the show and put cotton in his ears, Will further wrote that Springsteen was “a wholesome cultural portent” and that his “message affirms the right values.” “I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.’!”
Will had the ear of Reagan, so it wasn’t so great a stretch when, on September 19, the president went to downtown Hammonton, New Jersey and, even though the campaign had been politely turned down for a personal appearance, declared: “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in 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.” (Contrary to legend, though, the Reagan campaign apparently never adopted “Born in the U.S.A.” as a theme song.)
Two days later, at a Pittsburgh tour stop, Springsteen said, “The president was mentioning my name the other day and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album must’ve been. I don't think it was the Nebraska album. I don't think he's been listening to this one” — which led into "Johnny 99," where closed plants and unemployment put a man on the slippery slope to murder. Less wryly, he later added, “It's a long walk from a government that's supposed to represent all of the people to where we are today.”
Did the folks in 1984 who thought “Born in the U.S.A.” was a patriotic anthem — and those who still think it now — make a gaffe?
Springsteen had a laugh over how fans prefer to just concentrate on the chorus of the song when he wrote about it in a songbook, remembering trick-or-treaters coming to his door singing the title phrase at Halloween. “They were kind of vague on the next lyric about Khe Sahn," he quipped, referring to a line about the narrator’s buddy being killed in one of the bloodiest and most debated battles of the Vietnam war.
In subsequent decades, Springsteen has frequently performed the song live in something closer to the country-blues dirge it was conceived as, to reframe it for fans as something deeper or darker than they might have first considered it.
And yet, some time between the moment he started to conceive it in his kitchen in 1981 and the time Born in the U.S.A. was released in ‘84, Springsteen seems to have made a conscious decision to heighten the ambiguity of that title cry and make it not so outright a lamentation. It was and always will remain fundamentally an elegy, not just for those who lost lives in the war but the grander hopes of many of those who returned. The lines “They’re still there, he’s all gone” — followed by a few instrumental bars that suggest the singer is too choked up to speak — couldn’t be a more wrenching reminder of how little there was to show for the war effort, despite the losses of soldiers like Bart Hanes, the drummer in Springsteen’s first band, the Castiles, who perished in Vietnam.
But when Springsteen made the choice to add the climactic lines “I’m a long gone daddy” (echoing a Hank Williams song title) and “I’m a cool rocking daddy in the USA,” he chose to end on defiance rather than defeat. And if that hardly negates all the nattering nabobs of negativism that inform the preceding verses, it’s just enough to turn the song into a last-second jamboree, after all… even if it’s a sad, hard-fought, against-all-odds celebration. Fireworks? Maybe not completely and totally inappropriate, after all.
Springsteen instinctively knew “Born in the U.S.A.” was bigger than he was. ““I knew that that particular song was just a song that comes along once in a while, even if you write good songs. It had some power to it that seemed to speak to something that was so essential, similar to the way that ‘Born to Run’ did. It’s not that you have better songs or worse songs, but that’s a particular type of song.” Funereal and cool-rocking all at the same time... As a rival might put it: Ain’t that America?