The roots of this list can probably be traced back several years, to when I heard my classic rock radio station’s — 100.7 The Bay in Baltimore, MD — countdown of the greatest classic rock songs of all time for Memorial Day. I was sort of unsatisfied with their list, so I got out some paper and a pen and started a list of my own. And that’s how I started making these music lists. Anyway, after they played the #1 song (“Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith from the Toys in the Attic album), the DJ played a couple of “patriotic” songs for the troops that he deemed worthy of the holiday we were celebrating. Which is fine, but he picked two songs that, while great, are protest songs, specifically of the Vietnam War: “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen and “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
I remember thinking that was pretty messed up, what that DJ did. I love both of those songs, but they have their place, and that certainly wasn’t it. “Born in the U.S.A.” is a tale of a Vietnam veteran who fights in the war instead of going to jail (“Got in a little hometown jam/So they put a rifle in my hands/Sent me off to a foreign land/To go and kill the yellow man”). He then loses his brother at the Battle of Khe Sahn (“I had a brother at Khe Sahn/Fighting off the Viet Cong/They’re still there, he’s all gone”) and comes home unable to find a job (“Come back home to the refinery/Hiring man said, ‘Son, if it was up to me’/Went down to see my V.A. [Veterans Affairs] man/He said, ‘Son, don’t you understand'”). The song’s conclusion is even more bitter: “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I’m ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.”
It’s a resentful, angry song, but it has been misinterpreted over the years as some kind of “Go America!” anthem. When Ronald Reagan ran for re-election in 1984, his campaign wanted to use “Born in the U.S.A.” Springsteen, of course, declined to let him use it. Bruce is very liberal to begin with, so I doubt he and Reagan were on the same page politically, and such a clueless misuse of “Born in the U.S.A.” would have just been ridiculous anyway. There’s a great acoustic demo version of “Born in the U.S.A.” on his 1998 Tracks box set, which I got for my birthday recently. It’s a four-CD set of rarities, so I’m still not that familiar with Tracks yet, but I have listened to the demo of “Born in the U.S.A.” a bunch and the difference in tone between the demo and the final versions is absolutely startling. It’s more in line with the grim Nebraska, his great 1982 album that consists entirely of acoustic demos.
The rest of the songs on Born in the U.S.A. cover similar ground as the title track, with downtrodden working class heroes serving as compelling characters in Springsteen‘s mythic vision of America’s heartland. But as with the title track, the synthesized, upbeat instrumentation and his husky, confident voice belie his sobering lyrics. This decided contrast helps lend a “fighting” quality to each of the characters’ narratives, I think. Conflict is always at the heart of any kind of storytelling, and Springsteen’s characters’ common struggles are so easy to relate to, despite the fact that I haven’t the slightest idea of what it’s like to, say, work on a highway. I do know, however, what it’s like to dream of a better situation for myself, which is what the song’s character struggles with. Springsteen really has an incredible ability to turn America into a moving postcard, filling the image with familiar icons.
But they aren’t the icons you’d expect to find; they’re mostly wisps of memory of everyday people and things instead of movie versions of what American life is like. Springsteen’s sensibility when it comes to Americana is so distinct and complete that he can infuse his songs with details from a painterly brush. He, unlike most musicians, knows what America is: huge, mostly rural and largely unpopulated. Nearly three-quarters of its population is still of European descent, and most of that population lives in small towns with little diversity and lots of churches. It’s not a surprise that Born in the U.S.A., a modern-day fanfare for common men, was a hit with Middle America, even if most of it didn’t understand why. Middle Americans should have identified with the struggles Bruce so eloquently puts forth. Instead they bought it as an ode to Reagan’s return to American prosperity and wore it as a badge of honor.