Politics and Protest in Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”

By: Joanna Smolko (Athens, Georgia) //

“I liked Springsteen before he became political,” a friend of mine commented on Springsteen’s performance at the 2009 Super Bowl. But in actuality, Springsteen has always been political. From the outset, he infused his music with elements of working class identity: unions and families, steel and rust, coal and dust, machines that bind you to a community and way of life, and machines that allow you to ride away in a cloud of exhaust and defiance. But there was a specific moment that galvanized Springsteen’s self-identification as a political spokesperson. As Marc Dolan narrates, “Born in the U.S.A.” was used as an anthem in Ronald Reagan’s 1985 campaign without Springsteen’s permission, and in a speech, Reagan cited Springsteen as a beacon of the “American dream.”

Video compilation of conflict around “Born in the U.S.A.” between Reagan and Springsteen. Here Reagan praises Springsteen, stating, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.” In an interview, Springsteen articulates his response, including his opposition to Reagan’s economic policies, and his support for locally based community efforts, such as food banks.

Springsteen knew from experience that he could either define the political ramifications of his music or others would define it for him, without regard for his beliefs, consent, or even the content of his lyrics. Springsteen’s response to the use of “Born in the U.S.A.” was to aver that Reagan must not have been listening to his previous album Nebraska (1982), a stark reflection on economic collapse and poverty in working-class America.

Springsteen intended to release “Born in the U.S.A.” as part of Nebraska, but instead later released it on the compilation Tracks (1988). A radical shift from Springsteen’s earlier albums, Nebraska was primarily acoustic, somber, and generally slower-paced, with lyrics that plunge into the underbelly of American culture. Its title track—the first person narration based on the serial killer Charles Starkweather—sets its uneasy tone; his reason for killing, in Springsteen’s words, was because “there’s a meanness in this world.” The bleak eeriness of the lyrics suggest the short stories of Flannery O’Connor (such as “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”). Springsteen cites O’Connor as an influence on the album, along with John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie. Beginning in 1980 and continuing throughout the 1980s, Springsteen regularly covered “This Land Is Your Land” in concerts, sometimes adding his own verse.

Prior to writing “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen met with Vietnam War Veteran Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July. Their conversations, the loss of Bart Haynes (Springsteen’s friend and fellow band member in The Castiles, who died in Vietnam), and other conversations with veterans, influenced creation of the song. The original version, later cut from the album’s release, is slow, minor-keyed, and acoustic; it suggests a funeral dirge. The sparseness of the arrangement highlights the incisive narrative of the verses—the reflections of a Vietnam War veteran and his exclusion from the American dream, both during the war and upon his return. The high pitch wail interspersed between verses is a nearly-universal marker of mourning.

Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.,” acoustic version (1982) featuring clearly articulated lyrics, minor key, and wailing

The music straightforwardly and heartbreakingly interprets the lyrics. It is, as Springsteen later contextualized the song, a memorial to the generosity of the men and women who served. Had it not subsequently been cut, the somber nature of Nebraska would further have underscored the serious nature of the song.

Instead, he reworked the song as the title track of his next album, Born in the U.S.A. (1984). He overhauled the musical elements: the key is major (although the chords sometimes leave the tonality ambiguous), the tempo is faster, the ensemble fuller, the singing louder. The focus of the song shifts away from the verses and onto its catchy chorus. It is a rock-and-roll anthem in every sense of the word. These very sonic qualities, however, can lead to confusion for those not listening carefully to the lyrics.

Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.,” official video (1984). The familiar rock anthem features loud volume, energetic pace, and repeated instrumental riffs.

In some ways, the lyrics and the musical style seem an uneasy fit, and invoke a question that has been lurking in the shadows of politically-engaged rock since Bob Dylan took his electric guitar onto the Newport Folk Festival stage in 1965: Can rock-and-roll authentically embody the values of protest and advocacy that form a core part of the American folk singer-songwriter tradition? Or is the musical style antithetical to these values? The musical style of this version opens up a range of interpretations assigned to the song over the years. To summarize a few:

  • The chorus is ironic, and perhaps even anti-American. The narrator’s voice drips with sarcasm as he alternates between the harsh experiences of the verses and jumps into the falsely jubilant chorus. In this interpretation, the musical cues (fast pace, major key, loud volume, catchy riff) would be viewed as inversions of their usual “happy” implications.
  • The chorus is heroic. Despite the array of tragedies he encounters at home and abroad, the narrator clings to his sense of hope and national identity, and a faith that better things will come. Here, the same cues would be interpreted as hopeful, a strong assertion of his American identity despite the odds.
  • The chorus is unabashedly and nationalistically patriotic. For this interpretation, the verses must be largely—if not completely—ignored. Its position as the most popular July 4th song on Spotify in their 2015 analysis suggests this may be a common interpretation. The musical cues above would be interpreted in a simplistic fashion, with a one-to-one correlation between the sound of the music and patriotic rocking out.

 The final interpretation, with the omission of the verses on the campaign trail, seems to most closely fit Ronald Reagan’s interpretation. However, considering the song as a whole, “Born in the U.S.A.” is no more a simplistic patriotic anthem than the Police’s “Every Breath You Take is a romantic love ballad, though both interpretations are unfortunately frequent. To interpret the protest elements of a song like “Born in the U.S.A.,” and to understand the ways that rock as a genre can function as protest, it’s important to note that fast tempos and major keys do not necessarily connote happiness. They can equally be used to denote blazing anger and frustration. Rocking out can be an expression of joy, but it can equally be an expression of solidarity in a shared—and perhaps ambivalent or negative—experience.  

Over time, Springsteen re-appropriated this song and became more overt about his political identity. First, he used verbal contextualization around the song in live concerts and interviews. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1984, he contrasted the optimism of Reagan’s campaign rhetoric with the experiences of ordinary Americans, as well as with the tone of his own songs. He graciously but clearly separated the tone of his work from the tone of the campaign: “When Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey, I felt it was another manipulation, and I had to disassociate myself from the president’s kind words.”

Further, this incident inspired Springsteen to embrace a more public role as a political figure. His support for local community-based relief, as well as his performances with Amnesty International in 1988, reflects this consciousness. His roles continued to unfold in the 1990s, leading to his open endorsement of presidential candidates in the 2000s. As Dolan notes, he publicly supported John Kerry in 2004, as well as Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

Though “Born in the U.S.A.” is best known in its major-keyed anthem form, Springsteen continues to perform acoustic versions of it. Most recently, he performed a version of it at the Concert for Valor on Veteran’s Day in Washington, DC in 2014.

Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.” performed at the Concert for Valor. This version is slow-paced and acoustic.

Understated, minor-keyed, and bluesy, it resurrects the ethos of the earliest version, functioning as a song of honor and memorial for a new generation of veterans. It fuses together elements of the singer-songwriter approach to protest music with the weight and sorrow implicit in the blues. Its power also consists in its evocation of the now-ubiquitous rock anthem: its very familiarity creates an implied polyphony as the familiar tune rings in the ears of many hearing the new version. The rock anthem is infused with the weight of sorrow, while perhaps the anthem provides a backdrop of hope against the elegiac interpretation of the new version.

For Discussion

  1. What other rock protest songs have been fundamentally misunderstood because of musical style? What are some of the style elements in rock music that can make their function as protest songs ambiguous?
  2. In recent months of presidential campaigning, politicians have frequently used popular songs on their campaign trail, sometimes to the chagrin of the musicians (see http://traxonthetrail.com/sound-trax for some examples). What control do you think that musicians should have over their musical products in the political sphere?

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