Released June 4, 1984
46 min, 57 sec
The greatest trick Bruce Springsteen ever pulled on Republicans was “Born in the U.S.A..”
On the surface (and I mean the absolute top layer), the song is patriotic. The story of a man headed off to war, and that refrain of being “born in the U.S.A..”
But if you listen at all, if you open your ears and pay attention beyond the chorus for five seconds, it hits you. This is not a song about patriotism, about the pride of being an American in war. This is a song about the great lie of patriotism – the lie of bringing glory to America and peace to the world by way of a gun.
The veteran goes to war. He watches his friends die. He watches them leave behind love in a foreign country. He comes back to nothing. No jobs. “Hiring man says son if it was / up to me.” America’s great lie – opportunity and equality. “Ten years burning / down the road / nowhere to run / ain’t got / nowhere to go.”
Springsteen had never really been huge on politics prior to the 1980s. He was, understandably, wrapped up in more personal struggles, still trying to find his footing singing about what he witnessed his father go through as a working man. His music held great hope, a grand promise. He was a fantastic storyteller. But a legal war of attrition with the manager he trusted more than anyone soured him on those bright-eyed tales, and Springsteen emerged on the other side with the bleak pain of Darkness on the Edge of Town. He found a balance, to an extent, with 1980’s The River, a balance between trying to find the light in a bad situation, and just going all-out and enjoying what you’ve got. The tour had a similarly positive feel to it, a good balance of party and emotion.
The first real indication of Springsteen’s political leanings came along during that tour, the night after Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency. Springsteen took the stage, remarked “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening,” and launched straight into Darkness standard “Badlands,” a song about suffering through the bad until the good finally comes your way.
Nebraska was spun out of prototypical sessions for what would become Born in the U.S.A.. A bleak, oftentimes hopeless album, it consists entirely of Springsteen’s solo demos, as he found no way to adapt the songs to a rock band setting, deciding that they worked better in their bare-bones demo forms. He spins no stories, no glimmers of hope here – Nebraska revels in the shadow of the American reality. There is no salvation for these people.
Over a quarter of Born in the U.S.A. was intended for this album, including, incidentally, the title track of “Born in the U.S.A..” Springsteen cut them because they weren’t quite dark enough.
Despite this, Born in the U.S.A. is not an overall “dark” album – not musically, at least. The album takes The River‘s expansive range of emotion and compresses it down into an incredibly tight 12-track pop bombshell. The record was more “mainstream” than Springsteen had ever allowed himself to go, and the album spawned seven singles, all of which did quite well. With this album, Springsteen continued his emergence from the dark pit that Darkness attempted to swallow him up with, but there remained several tracks with that same edge of them, most prominently the title track.
This is an album about injustice, wrapped in a nice, digestible pop format. Another trick that no one saw coming – Springsteen got his working man themes onto pop radio and blasted them into the ears of millions and millions of unsuspecting listeners. This album sold 15 million copies in the United States. 15 million Americans were told by Springsteen that Vietnam was a mistake and we’ve treated our soldiers like they’re fucking worthless.
How many of them really heard that, though? How many people decided to follow Ronald Fucking Reagan in his baffling ignorance to the song’s true meaning, to the album’s central message?
Legendary Reagan shill George Will attended a Bruce Springsteen concert in 1984 and managed to completely miss the god damn point. He wrote this in one of his columns after the concert: “I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs 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.!’”
You dumb motherfucker. That’s the most ignorant fucking quote I’ve ever read.
He then went to Reagan and somehow managed to convince that senior citizen that Springsteen was somehow “on their side.” Reagan, because he obviously didn’t know any better, extolled the virtues and power of Springsteen’s music in a disgustingly manipulated conservative sentiment.
Springsteen, of course, was not happy.
During a concert shortly after all this occurred, Springsteen fired back. “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to thinking 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.” He then played “Johnny 99.”
“Johnny 99” is about an auto worker that is laid off from his job and kills a convenience store worker in a fit of drunken despair. In the course of the song, he requests to be executed for his crime instead of being sentenced to prison.
The American dream.
Do I seem angry?
Because I am.
Injustice is real. Racism is real. We, as a country, spout on about equality and the grand opportunity that America presents its inhabitants. The Statue of Liberty is the grand beacon to all immigrants. “Welcome to your new home. This is where you belong.”
If you don’t get fucking gunned down in the street by a “law enforcement officer,” then sure. Good luck.
Justice was not served yesterday. Justice was not served to the veterans who fought in a war they never asked for, who did atrocious things and were brought back home to a resounding chorus of “Fuck You.” Justice was not served to any person of color gunned down by the police that are allegedly sworn to protect them.
Justice was not served.
In 1999, 23-year-old Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo was killed by four police officers in plain clothes on the steps of his apartment in the Bronx. The four officers shot 41 bullets at him, 19 of which struck and killed him. They thought he was reaching for a gun in his jacket; he was reaching for his wallet, presumably to provide the identification that they asked for.
A year later, the four were acquitted on all charges.
Springsteen wrote a song about the murder, entitled “American Skin (41 Shots).” The song makes a more general case about racism and corruption, while still referencing certain details of Diallo’s death (“is it a gun / is it a knife / is it a wallet / this is your life”), telling a short story in the second verse of a mother and her child, imploring her child to always be careful (“if an officer stops you / promise me you’ll always be polite / and that you’ll never ever run away / promise mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”), because to these officers, there is no such thing as “innocent until proven guilty.” There is no time for that.
The song features a saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons, a man of African-American heritage. Clemons and Springsteen forged a friendship in the uneasy racial atmosphere of the 1970s, where such a prominent, iconic friendship was exceedingly rare in the music industry.
I wonder how many times Clemons was stopped in his car. I wonder how many times the officer realized who he was, and only relented then. I wonder how many times Clemons’s fame saved his life.
Fifteen years ago, Amadou Diallo died in a hail of unjustifiable bullets. Fifteen years.
Springsteen resurrected the song in concert in 2012, following the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of neighborhood watch man (read: ignorant civilian) George Zimmerman. He re-debuted the song in Tampa, with no comments.
I was there. We all knew what he was singing about.
George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013. The song returned.
There is no justice.
18-year-old Michael Brown was shot seven times.
There is no justice.
Born in the U.S.A..