Born In The USA

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records, 1984

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Sometimes an album becomes so bound up in the context from which it emerged that it's tough to view it accurately through the prism of passing time. Take, for example, Born In The USA, the album that catapulted Bruce Springsteen from cult-favorite critics' darling to stadium-rocking global superstar. It's an album whose context informs every inch of its content.

That context includes: the splintering of popular music into an ever-expanding list of subgenres and niche markets, leaving old-time rock and roll -- particularly mature, thoughtful, literate old-time rock and roll -- on the outs, and sheeny, over-produced pop at the top of the charts; and a conservative Republican administration that, while presiding over a disastrous economy, massive budget deficits and a militaristic foreign policy that leaves even our erstwhile allies questioning our motives, uses a mixture of propaganda and bald-faced lies to undermine any real debate over issues while questioning the patriotism of anyone with the courage to dissent.

Oh, wait. (I guess it's true -- the more things change, the more they stay the same.)

While 1974's Born To Run was Springsteen's artistic breakthrough, with its expansive tales of youth on the run from encroaching adulthood, Born In The USA, his commercial breakthrough, is a bittersweet and often despairing look at what happens when maturity eventually sets in. The characters are no longer scruffy hoods with colorful names like the Magic Rat, they're nameless working stiffs brooding over unfulfilled dreams ("Downbound Train") and unfulfilling relationships ("I'm Going Down"), or indulging in premature nostalgia over old times ("Glory Days") and old friends ("Bobby Jean").my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

This dark vision is often obscured by the album's production and arrangements, which are also very much of the moment. Although the instrumentation is the same as on previous Springsteen albums -- twin guitars, piano, organ, sax and rhythm section -- the guitars and drums are a little punchier, the organ moodier, and for the first time, synthesizers are featured prominently on several tracks. Springsteen -- sometimes derided as being musically trend-proof -- gives "Working On The Highway" a tight, frenetic Elvis Costello arrangement, layers "Dancing In The Dark" with poppy synths, and includes a song he initially wrote for Donna Summer (!), the heavy-guitars-over-a-disco-beat "Cover Me."

This experimentation has the contradictory effect of giving the music greater bounce and sheen even as the lyrics grow darker and gloomier, leaving the songs more open to misinterpretation than anything Springsteen has ever recorded. Amazing as it seems if you actually paid attention to its brutally downbeat Vietnam-vet-on-the-skids lyric, the ringing/stinging "Born In The USA" was heard as a patriotic anthem by some listening-comprehension-challenged moron inside the Reagan re-election campaign. And while Springsteen made sure to correct the record there -- to this day, he rarely plays the song in its full-band arrangement, preferring the stark, impossible-to-misinterpret acoustic version -- he played along when it came to the second most misunderstood song on this album. "Dancing In The Dark" is as unlikely a lyric for a hit single as the world might ever see, a bitter self-interrogation whose catchy synth melody and cheesy Hollywood video amounted to an exercise in post-modern surrealism.

Some longtime Springsteen fans remain grumpy about this album twenty years later. It's a phenomenon I've witnessed with numerous popular acts -- the initial fan base resents "their" artist reaching out for a wider audience and reacts negatively to anything that dilutes their status as the quote-unquote "real fans." The problem with applying that logic to Born In The USA is simple: how could you call yourself a fan and not want songs this good to find the widest possible audience? "No Surrender" is a friendship anthem for the ages, one of the best tunes the man has ever written. "Darlington County" is a classic buddy/road song, "I'm On Fire" a smoldering look at unrequited passion. And the title track, despite its unfortunate entanglement in '80s politics, retains unquestionable musical potency; Max Weinberg's thundering drum fills at the climax of the song still give me chills after hundreds of listens.

It's true that Born In The USA is an album very much of its time, and some of the keyboard tones may sound a little dated now, but that's true of just about any '80s rock album that mattered. It's also become iconic, an album that captured the imagination of both a listening audience tired of being force-fed slick, pre-digested, insincere music, and a dumbass political operative looking for a quick media hit with the youth demographic. The real question, though, is do the songs hold up? The answer is a resounding yes.

Rating: A-

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© 2003 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.