Perhaps no hit song in the last 40 years has been misinterpreted, misrepresented and misused as much as Bruce Springsteen’s signature anthem, “Born in the U.S.A.” Every July 4th, you will hear that cannon blast synth riff and defiantly sung chorus, as millions of beer drinking yahoos sing along beating their chest thinking the song is about how flawless America is.
The misconception of “Born in the U.S.A.” began shortly after the song’s release in 1984. The album of the same name, featuring the now iconic image of Springsteen standing in front of the American flag in a pair of blue jeans, launched Springsteen to super-stardom and made him a household name; that included the White House, as Ronald Reagan decided to play the song at his various re-election campaign rallies around the countries. By putting emphasis on the chorus, which simply features the title repeated over and over again, the song lost context and left many to see it as a sort of modern day pop Star Spangled Banner.
Of course, it’s anything but. “Born in the U.S.A.” is the story of a Vietnam veteran recounting how his country failed him upon returning home, refusing to provide him with employment, benefits, or anything to help him with live with the scars of war. The song began life as a haunting acoustic number during the sessions for Springsteen’s now legendary Nebraska album in 1982, a record in which The Boss explored the darker side of the American Dream by embodying those who never attained it. The song ultimately didn’t make the final cut, leaving it to be revisited in the sessions for Bruce’s next record, which was intended to be more commercial.
The album Born in the U.S.A. was intended to be more commercial, as Nebraska failed to win mainstream success despite performing brilliantly with critics. Bruce began experimenting with more hook based melodies as well as modern drum machines and synthesizers, giving way to songs such as “Dancing in the Dark” and “Glory Days,” as well as five other Top 10 singles from the album. Over the course of the sessions, “Born in the U.S.A.” grew from a quiet acoustic dirge into a powerful, bombastic rocker, punctuated primarily by Bruce’s aggressive vocals, Roy Bittan’s iconic synth hook, and Mighty Max Weinberg’s explosive drumming; the final song was a violent masterpiece of sound and fury.
Anyone with ears and a brain can see from the first lines that the song is an indictment rather than a love letter:
“Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground.
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up.”
These are not the words of a man standing in front of his barbecue, shotgunning Coors Lights and wearing a bald eagle shirt; the narrator has clearly been neglected by his country. As his identity becomes clearer throughout the song, so does the meaning behind it:
“Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said ‘Son, if it were up to me…’
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said ‘Son, don’t you understand?’
The song is one of many of Bruce’s sympathetic ballads devoted to the plight of the Vietnam Vet; “Shut Out the Light,” “The Wall,” “Brothers Under the Bridge,” and numerous others present a similar tale of frustration and sadness, putting a light on one of the most shameful periods in our country’s history. Through these songs, Bruce managed to give a voice to these veterans on a national scale, something they not have been achieved without him; that’s not hyperbole, Vietnam Veterans for America founder Bob Mueller has said it himself.
Unfortunately, the song became lost in translation almost immediately thanks to Reagan’s co-opting of it. The song’s chorus became a shout of pride rather than ironic detraction, and the song’s violent riff became a sound of excitement rather than fury. Of course, the blame can’t fall solely on Reagan: Bruce opening each concert on the tour – his biggest ever – standing in front of the American flag, decked out in an all American outfit consisting of ripped denim and a star-spangled bandana, looking like Rambo with his newfound muscular physique, no doubt had something to do with it.
Since its release, Bruce has worked tirelessly to re-educate Americans on the true meaning of the song, often performing it in its original acoustic form, or including PSA’s about the Iraq War before the song during the Rising Tour, or simply not performing it for many years. Despite these efforts, “Born in the U.S.A.” remains a staple of July 4th weekend.
And you know what? It really should be. If anything, “Born in the U.S.A.” becomes even more fundamentally American when you understand the song, because it speaks to the greatest freedom we have as a country: dissent. It is a song that takes it country to task for its sins, a rallying cry for us as a nation to decry jingoism and fix what’s broken. In the age of Donald Trump, where are our flaws are more apparent than ever (especially our president’s failure to provide meaningful benefits to veterans), the song’s message rings louder and clearer than ever to those willing to listen to and really understand it.
No artist in music has done a better job at analyzing the American Dream vs. the American Reality than The Boss, and “Born in the U.S.A.” is truly his magnum opus when it comes to his ability to create an honest, ‘warts and all’ portrayal of what’s good and what’s terrible about our country. Remember this when Ted ‘I Shit My Pants to Get Out of the Draft and Then Insulted Vets in An Interview’ Nugent rambles on about supporting the troops.