As the Fourth of July is nearly upon us, many are likely planning barbecues and other celebrations of our great country. As such, playlists are surely being composed and edited in preparation for this weekend. A staple of the holiday for as long as I can remember is Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 classic, “Born in the USA.” However, this song should probably be retired as an Independence Day anthem, due to less-than-patriotic lyrics.
Play “Born in the USA” at a party and one thing will become abundantly clear: most people only know the eponymous words to the refrain. The lyrical dissonance allows the upbeat tune and instrumentation to mask the darkness of the lyrics. Rather than the patriotic anthem it is perceived to be, Springsteen’s lyrics describe the hardships Vietnam veterans faced returning home after the war.
The song’s first lines kickstart a song incredibly critical of the country. Springsteen opens by singing, “Born down in a dead man’s town,” a far cry from the ideal of American excellence highlighted in more traditionally patriotic songs.
The song goes on to describe the horrors of war and struggles of many veterans to readjust to a society unwilling or unable to help them. The final lyrics of the verses, before returning one last time to the refrain, paints an equally bleak picture of American life, as he sings, “Ten years burning down the road. Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.”
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The song has been misunderstood since its release, due to the ironic chorus. President Ronald Reagan, in a 1984 campaign speech in New Jersey, 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.”
George Will wrote a column that same year about his experience at a Springsteen concert, in which he explored the “American values” found in Springsteen’s music with nuance, writing, “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.!’”
Former New Jersey governor and passionate Springsteen fan Chris Christie explained the dichotomy of the song, when he reflected on many concert experiences, saying, “Bruce started every show with a really rousing, anthemic-type version of ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ With a bandanna on and a cutoff shirt and the fist-pumping, it felt like a celebration of being born in the USA — when really, it’s a defiant song about ‘I was born in the USA, and I deserve better than what I’m getting.’ I think plenty of people didn’t get what it was about.”
None of this is an indictment of the song — far from it. “Born in the USA” is a fantastic rock anthem, using its peppy tune and infectious hook to belie the anger of its verses. Springsteen’s vocal performance is impassioned and energized, which contrasts nicely with the peppy synth riff and steady drumbeat.
It peaked at 9 at the U.S. Billboard charts, and has since been cemented as a classic. Rolling Stone has ranked the song 275th on their list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Further, its lasting power and musical genius is highlighted by its continued ubiquity 36 years after its release.
The praise and love is fully deserved. It’s an absolutely fantastic song, and I’m not just saying that as someone who grew up in New Jersey. “Born in the USA” functions more as a protest song than a patriotic anthem. The young men whom the song follows are trapped by the raw deals they’ve received, and the anger is palpable in the intense lyrics.
There is something to be said about the song taking on new meaning, lyrics aside. Springsteen’s diction through the verses, while stylistic and enjoyable, leaves much to be desired in terms of clarity. And most people, when they listen, they are left with patriotic fervor, not a desire to upend the American system.
In a Reason article from 2000 exploring the far-left politics of rock stars, Brian Doherty wrote, “Who’s to say Reagan wasn’t right to insist the song was an upper? When I hear those notes and that drumbeat, and the Boss’ best arena-stentorian, shout-groan vocals come over the speakers, I feel like I’m hearing the national anthem.”
While my awareness of the lyrics makes any listening at an Independence Day Party (or similarly patriotic holidays) an odd situation due to the inherent dissonance, there is definitely a patriotic feel that overtakes the intended message when Bruce begins chanting, “I was born in the USA.” However, the true meaning inevitably takes some of the power out of the pro-America reinterpretation.
We are in no shortage of time protest songs are appropriate and even necessary. Yet, in a time when patriotism is reaching new lows, the Fourth of July is a time to celebrate what is great about America, and there are lots of wonderful songs to do just that. Save “Born in the USA” for any other barbecue — the song will be just as fun, and far better suited.