What, really, can be written about 1984’s ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ that hasn’t been written before? Thirty years after its release, it remains one of the best-selling albums of all time – 30 million copies and counting – and it’s got one of the most iconic record covers, shot by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, in the history of music.
The title track – originally written in 1981 and recorded a year later as a demo for Bruce Springsteen’s dark, acoustic solo record, ‘Nebraska’ – was famously mistaken for a patriotic national anthem by then-president Ronald Reagan. He even used it in his 1984 campaign for re-election, until Springsteen told him to stop.
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‘Born In The U.S.A.’
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But while the title and the album cover might, on the surface, look like pro-American propaganda, any listener with even one brain cell must realise it’s actually an incredible indictment of American imperialism. Yet it was only four years ago that far-right Republican radio schmuck Glenn Beck discovered this song about a displaced Vietnam vet wasn’t the fist-pumping affirmation of traditional American values he thought.
Weirdly, to this day, there are Springsteen fans – actual American people who bought (and presumably still buy) his albums – who say he should leave the politics out of his music, somehow incapable of understanding that the biggest hit on the man’s biggest album is one of the biggest-selling political songs of all time, and that his entire discography is inherently political.
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Title track aside though, the politics here aren’t shoved in your face. Its songs are just set in a world ravaged by policies that place emphasis on wealth and war over humanity. The all-consuming love of ‘Cover Me’ is about seeking solace from a f*cked up world (“The times are tough now, just getting tougher / This old world is rough, it’s just getting rougher”), ‘Darlington County’ tells the story of two pals looking to make it big in New York, only for one of them to wind up arrested, while ‘Working On The Highway’ is essentially a tale about statutory rape. America – f*ck yeah!
Not all the songs’ settings are so full on – the five that follow are more personal ruminations, on lost love (‘Downbound Train’, ‘I’m Goin’ Down’), lust (‘I’m On Fire’) and friendship (‘No Surrender’, ‘Bobby Jean’). ‘Glory Days’ is about just that – each character that appears has been worn down by time, though it’s as much the American Dream that didn’t live up to its potential as these poor souls – while closer ‘My Hometown’ is a plaintive farewell to a city which, over the years, has succumbed to the devastating effects of poverty and crime.
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‘Dancing In The Dark’
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And then there’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’, Springsteen’s biggest ever hit and the last song to be written for the record. Jon Landau, Springsteen’s producer, friend and manager, said the album needed one more hit, so Springsteen went home and wrote that tune. Overnight. Like a Boss.
Sure, the whole thing is ’80s to the extreme – all bombast and big production, with the exception of ‘I’m On Fire’ – but it doesn’t sound dated. Rather, the music itself is a defiant foil to the personal, political and literal wars being raged beneath its glossy sheen. Which, when you think about it, is actually pretty heartbreaking. Even sadder is that its broken themes and dreams are just as pertinent today.
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Words: Mischa Pearlman
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This article is taken from issue 96 of Clash magazine, focusing on the American Dream – details and purchase links here.
Listen to 'Born In The U.S.A.' below, in full, via Deezer.