Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA turns 25 this year. The iconic song is perhaps one of the most misunderstood pieces of art in the history of global popular culture. Read it carefully, and it conveys a message that is at odds with the mythology and misplaced anti-Americanism that surrounds it. It is worth reflecting on both the history of the song and how the message it contains is as relevant in 2009 as it was in 1984. We may also reflect on how, in recent years, Springsteen has thrown his own legacy into question, as one-time voice of the working classes, by engaging in commercial activities that have disappointed loyal fans (and added a new layer of complexity to our understanding of the relationship between artist, art and fan).
Born in the USA is one of a small number of songs, films or television programmes (produced in large part in the United States) that can generate near-physical negative reactions with a mere mention of the title. (Films like Rambo and TV shows like The Jerry Springer Show fall into this category.) When the song was released, my own response to Springsteen’s creation, as a 15-year-old American boy living in the United Kingdom, was in line with those of many of my British friends: bemusement and indignation toward what appeared to be little more than a mindless anthem trumpeting the virtues of patriotism and American egomania. The song was brash, bragging and – to the irritation of people who despised the politics of Thatcher and Reagan – amazingly popular.
The apparent conservatism of Born in the USA was highlighted through the ways in which the Reagan right in the US embraced the song, as a celebration of the American Dream. While the lyrics were clearly anti-war and critical of the treatment of the working classes, the image of Springsteen (with his faded Levis, white t-shirt, American flag and thousands of adoring fans) fell into line with the ideology of the US conservative right: Bruce was a working-class boy who made it to the top through a combination of hard work and talent.
The conservative columnist George Will (editor of the ultra-conservative National Review during the mid-1970s) wrote the following in the Washington Post in September 1984 after attending a Springsteen concert: “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 USA’!” (1).
Six days after Will’s article was published, Ronald Reagan himself made reference to dreams of the American people, and how those dreams could be found in the “message of hope” in Springsteen’s work. Such was the cultural impact of the song, and so strong was the impression that it was an upbeat melody on the virtue of being American that the Chrysler Corporation reportedly offered Springsteen $12m for the rights to use Born in the USA in their car advertisements.
In his study on the politics of Springsteen and his music during the 1980s, Jim Cullen reached the conclusion that regardless of the singer’s own ideology “Springsteen’s work functioned more effectively for the right rather than the left” (2).
Will and Reagan’s references to Born in the USA mirrored the general misunderstanding of the song (in the US and around the world) that endures to the present day. Springsteen, meanwhile, attempted to distance himself from these conservative, pro-US interpretations of his work.
Reagan’s reference to the song prompted an on-stage response from Springsteen during a concert in Pittsburgh in which he sarcastically wondered what Reagan’s favourite album might be, doubting it was his dour and depressing 1982 album Nebraska (which contained a number of songs addressing the suffering of the American working classes). Springsteen also turned down the multi-million dollar offer from Chrysler. Yet in the 1980s he was rarely overt in his political affiliations; for example, he did not openly endorse the 1984 Democratic presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, who was running against Ronald Reagan.
Since the mid-1980s – despite the critical lyrics of the song and Springsteen’s increasing visibility as a voice for the American left – Born in the USA has remained in a patriotic time capsule. In a 2004 interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Springsteen was philosophical about the relationship between himself and his fans, noting that audiences often engage in selective listening, suggesting that the meaning of popular music is as much the creation of the fan as it is of the band or the musician. Perhaps he was thinking of the various interpretations of Born in the USA when he said: “Pop musicians live in the world of symbology. You live and die by the symbol in many ways. You serve at the behest of your audience’s imagination. It’s a complicated relationship” (3).
Power, class and warfare
Yet despite Springsteen’s recognition of the power of the audience to interpret music to suit their own beliefs and desires, and despite the enduring tendency of seeing Born in the USA as nothing more than an anthem for American exceptionalism and a relic of the 1980s, the song continues to provide listeners with a reminder of the relationship between power, class and warfare.
Many of its themes present from the early 1980s – troubled young men sent to war, the horrors of conflict, depression upon return from battle, industrial decay, unemployment, a general sense of hopelessness – bear a striking resemblance to newspaper stories over the past few years. A 2007 report said that up to 25% of all US troops returning from active service in Iraq and Afghanistan had a mental health diagnosis and a third had a psychological diagnosis.
The unemployment rate in 2007 for US veterans of 20-24 was around 12% – that’s 50% higher than the national rate for adults in that age bracket. Of those who were working among the veterans, half made less than $25,000 a year (4). And a report in the New York Times in early 2008 showed that the number of homicides committed in the US by active-duty military personnel and new veterans was 89% higher in the six years following the invasion of Afghanistan than in the six years before it (5).
Distance between image and reality
However, as the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan continue and the global economic crisis deepens, the continued misunderstanding of Bruce Springsteen’s song has taken on a surreal quality. Springsteen’s support of the American left and his advocacy on behalf of the working classes are in sharp contrast to his great financial success. In addition to a recent seven-album deal with Columbia Records worth $110m, Springsteen & The E Street Band were the second-highest grossing live act in 2008, taking $204m (tickets for his 2009 tour cost $60-100). While Springsteen’s tour takings and record deals could be seen simply as reflections of his global popularity, the companies he has chosen to do business with, and the appearances he has made, indicate an increasing distance between (working-class, pro-union) image and reality.
Ticket sales for Springsteen’s concerts in the US are handled by Ticketmaster, a company notorious for “processing fees” that can increase already expensive prices by 20-50%. In January, Springsteen made an exclusive deal to release a “Greatest Hits” album with the rabidly anti-union Wal-Mart chain. Fans’ reaction to this apparent hypocrisy forced Springsteen to offer a public apology in an interview in the New York Times (6).
The final insult was Springsteen’s decision to play during the break at the 2009 US Super Bowl, a show that is seen as the ultimate in kitsch and commodification. What made this particularly upsetting for fans was that, as sports writer and critic Dave Zirin noted (7), it was sponsored by Bridgestone-Firestone, a multinational with a long history of maltreatment of rubber plantation workers in Liberia.
The Reagan years saw the revitalisation of American conservatives who had suffered during the “counter-culture” era of the 1960s; and the appropriation of Born in the USA came from one part of the American right reclaiming cultural power – whether Springsteen liked it or not. Ironically, as his most famous song turns a quarter-century, the singer has begun to shed the aura of authenticity that was his trademark, and was also what made songs such as Born in the USA so moving to fans who were willing to ignore the hype and listen to the lyrics.
Springsteen’s 2004 comment in Rolling Stone says as much about the 25-year misunderstanding of Born in the USA as it does about his increasing economic separation from his fan base. The singer noted that when an artist’s work meets reality, the results can be painful for fans. “The audience and the artist are valuable to one another as long as you can look out there and see yourself, and they look back and see themselves,” he said. “When that bond is broken, by your own individual beliefs, personal thoughts or personal actions, it can make people angry. As simple as that” (8).
(1) George Will, “Bruce Springsteen’s USA,” Washington Post, 13 September, 1984.
(2) Jim Cullen, “Bruce Springsteen’s Ambiguous Musical Politics in the Reagan Era”, Popular Music and Society, summer 1992.
(3) “Bruce Springsteen: “We’ve Been Misled””.
(4) “Young Veterans Face Financial Battles”, USA Today, 26 December 2008.
(5) Of the 349 homicides committed by ex-military personnel since October 2001, 75% were committed by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
(6) New York Times, 01 January 2009.
(7) See Edge of Sports.
(8) “Bruce Springsteen: We’ve been misled”, see note (3).
CHRISTIAN CHRISTENSEN is associate professor of media and communication studies at Karlstad University in Sweden; his work focuses on political, economic and cultural aspects of global media.
This article originally appeared in the March edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.