Born in the U.S.A., the greatest sales blockbuster in the career of Bruce Springsteen, was released 30 years ago this week. Columbia Records executives sensed their sales juggernaut even when their heard previews of it, and they weren’t disappointed, as the LP produced seven singles.
I’ve already posted on one of the less-remarked songs from the collection, “Bobby Jean,” and I alluded briefly to another song about youthful friendship in high school, “No Surrender.” I had even thought about writing on the creation of the song and video for the LP’s first single, “Dancing in the Dark.”
But a Facebook post made me consider the title track as a more intriguing subject. One of my friends in that corner of the social media had written how the Billy Joel song “I’ve Loved These Days” had reminded her of idyllic schooldays. No song could be further from such a feeling or situation, I wrote, for it evoked a life of decadence: satin sheets, gaining weight, champagne, cocaine. That song brought to mind other tunes that had become similarly applied to situations far removed from their actual content. In fact, Springsteen himself has said that his huge hit might be “the most misunderstood song since ‘Louie, Louie.’”
The rest of this post, then, will consider how The Boss’s bitter lament about the damage done to the American psyche by the Vietnam War came to be reinterpreted by fist-pumping flag-wavers.
The seeds of “Born in the U.S.A.” were sown, of course, during the war, when Springsteen, like other young men of the late Sixties without a deferment, feared being drafted. It was hardly an idle concern: a drummer in one of his early bands ended up being called up and dying in the war. Springsteen’s involvement with veterans’ causes, especially Vietnam Veterans of America, increased with his fame, as did his anger over their plight upon returning home. These feelings began to harden into musical form during the acoustic sessions that resulted in the 1982 Nebraska LP.
Today, it is hard to credit the insistence of Springsteen’s manager (and, at the time, producer), Jon Landau, that “Born in the USA” was “one of the lesser songs on the Nebraska tape.” In its stark, moody instrumentation and narrative tales of ordinary Americans desperately holding onto a margin of hope in the recession of the early 1980s, Nebraska provided a concentrated, diamond-hard context that would have been most appropriate for Springsteen’s Vietnam tale.
In contrast, Born in the U.S.A. was, thematically, far more of a miscellany. Bracketing the title tune and “My Hometown” at opposite ends of the LP left listeners with a far stronger impression of Springsteen’s social concerns than all the other songs together would have managed.
A couple of factors made Springsteen reconsider the searing but downbeat song he had left over from Nebraska, however, according to an article posted on Yahoo by Chris Willman.
First, a Paul Schrader script that Springsteen received made him think of another, more hopeful title than his original, “Vietnam.” The screenplay was called “Born in the U.S.A.” The singer decided not to go the Sinatra-Elvis route and get into acting, but he did decide the title was worth using.
Second, Springsteen and Landau were excited by the sound produced by the full E Street Band when they recorded the song. This version was live and, depending on the recollection, either the second or the sixth take recorded in the studio. The mix was visceral and explosive, almost made for the stadiums that the singer would play on his next tour.
Most of all, I would say, was this fact: The unmistakably morose chorus from his embryonic tune--“Died in Vietnam”--was replaced by the more ambiguous “Born in the U.S.A.”—the most fortunate change in a placeholding chorus since Paul McCartney changed “Ham and Eggs” (or "Scrambled Eggs") to “Yesterday.”
Any person listening to the rest of the song would absorb, through a single voice, multiple aspects of why the conflict was so wrenching: the way it disproportionately affected the working class (“I was born in a dead man’s town”), the additional vulnerability of personal circumstance (“Got in a little hometown jam/So they put a rifle in my hands”), the searing experience of even a single battle (“had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong”), the sexual relationships between servicemen and those they met overseas (“He had a woman he loved in Saigon”), and the neglect of the returning vet (“Come back home to the refinery/Hiring man says ‘son if it was up to me’”).
This wasn’t a Rambo-esque revenge fantasy, then, directed at America’s enemies: “I was born in the USA—take that!” It was really a tune hurled at the people at home who had damaged and then forgotten the Vietnam vet: “I was born in the USA—and look what you did to me!”
Some, inevitably, missed the message, starting, somewhat surprisingly, with George F. Will. The erudite columnist, invited to attend a concert by E Street drummer Max Weinberg, showed up with his ubiquitous bow tie and cotton stuffed into his ears to muffle the loud music. Somehow, he made out lyrics about factory closings, saw the flags waved by numerous concertgoers, and surmised that it was all “punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’”
Will, with no clue about the singer’s politics (which, at that point, were certainly not overtly expressed, in song or interviews), intimated to friends Nancy and Ronald Reagan that it might be a good idea to reach out to the singer. Springsteen politely rejected the GOP’s request for an endorsement, but The Gipper was not easily put off. In a campaign appearance in Hammonton, New Jersey, just as Born in the U.S.A. was at the height of its popularity, Reagan noted: “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs 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.”
By way of answer, in one of his next concerts, “New Jersey’s own” referred to the President’s comment, then said, “I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” He then launched into a ferocious version of "Johnny 99," about a laid-off auto worker who, in desperation, resorts to murder.
Over the years, perhaps a bit dismayed by those who misconstrued the meaning of one of his most famous songs, Springsteen has played it in a stripped-down, almost delta-blues style that is closer to his original vision. (You can hear one rendition on this YouTube clip from his appearance on Charlie Rose several years ago.)
Springsteen’s song is not the only one that, over the years, has been wildly misconstrued. I’m not even going to get into all the rock ‘n’ roll songs that have been interpreted as veiled drug songs (a whole other, inherently murky genre of its own). But these are just a few, among many examples, of instances where irony and intent have been missed:
“The Greatest Love of All”: In the 1980s, I heard this (originally written for the Muhammad Ali biopic "teh Greatest") as the opening dance song for a couple at a wedding reception, then rolled my eyes. Didn’t the love-struck duo know that the central line—“Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all”—was more appropriate to Donald Trump gazing in the mirror than to two young people vowing to spend the rest of their lives together?
“Wonderful Tonight”: Another wedding reception staple. Eric Clapton’s vocal delivery is so soft and soothing about his “beautiful lady” that listeners miss the final irony that he tells her she looks “wonderful tonight” at the end of the song because, after too much to drink, he’s got “an aching head,” so is doubly appreciative when she puts him to bed.
“Short People”: It’s remarkable, more than 35 years later, to think of the ruckus Randy Newman caused with this ditty. After coming as close as pop music had ever come to the savage satire of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” in "Political Science" (“Let’s drop the big one now”), the singer-songwriter probably thought that listeners would figure out quickly that he had brought prejudice to a reductio ad absurdum with a narrator ranting, “Short people got no reason to live.” Heck, Newman probably thought the song was losing its subtlety with a normal-sounding guy in the bridge declaiming, “Short people are just the same as you and I.” Wrong! If the bouncing melody didn’t take the song up the charts, then the hue and cry over the sardonic singer-songwriter’s intentions did the trick.
“Captain Jack”: “I’ve Loved These Days” wasn’t the only Billy Joel song to be misinterpreted. An earlier song of his actually became the focus of one of the sillier controversies of this still-young century. As First Lady Hillary Clinton launched her historic initial U.S. Senate race in 2000, a staffer did not put on the Piano Man’s expected anthem, “New York State of Mind,” but, by accident, a distinctly more downbeat song by the same singer, “Captain Jack.” Ms. Clinton's expected GOP challenger, Rudy Guiliani, pounced, reciting the chorus (“Captain Jack will get you high tonight”) and denouncing her campaign for propagating a pro-drug song. As my friend, longtime New York political observer Rob Polner, noted in a post for Salon, the attack backfired, starting a slide in the polls for the New York mayor that would probably have resulted in his defeat had not his cancer diagnosis and treatment forced him from the race. But there was another reason why the attack was so preposterous: the singer had no more intended to endorse cocaine, pot and other recreational drugs than Ernest Hemingway had meant to boost alcohol in The Sun Also Rises. Are wasteful spending (“your new English clothes”), masturbation, and all-around aimlessness meant to be positive byproducts of drugs?
“Every Breath You Take”: As I wrote in a prior post about the 1983 Police Grammy winner, Sting’s lyrics were not about constant, unwavering love. They were about desolation, obsession—the critical ingredients for stalking.
(My thanks to the thought-provoking blogger Delia Lloyd, who inspired this particular post.)