Album by Album

Most of the album is just a lot of fun: ‘Born in the USA’ turns 30

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Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA was released 30 years ago today. As someone who has written a book about Springsteen’s work, a book that will be out in October and is available for pre-order now, it is my duty to tell you about the album from the perspective of my book that is available for pre-order. And out in October.

I’m kind of lousy with “duty” lately, however. Caryn Rose has an excellent track-by-track run through the record over at Billboard. This is isn’t that.

Born in the USA introduced me to Springsteen, and he existed for me on MTV. I was nine when it was released, fast approaching 10 and 10 was a big deal because it was double digits. But I didn’t go to concerts yet, and my parents weren’t exactly big music fans. They had a bunch of Carpenters records and not much else.

We didn’t have cable, but my friends on the top floor of our apartment building did. That might also have been the summer we started a break dance crew, but embarrassment has singed the details of that particular endeavor.

The summer of 1984 was, for me, the summer I became aware of culture. Big, bold, American popular culture. Van Halen. Michael. Prince. Madonna, and Bruce.

Born in the USA was the record that made Springsteen, already a rock star, an avatar for his country, something hyper-American. He knew the flag was a big, unwieldy symbol when he chose that album cover. He chose it anyway. He knew he was presenting a version of the title track that was as big and as difficult to control as the flag itself. A chorus built for a stadium can drown out the rest of the song if someone is willing to let it.

Very powerful someones allowed that to happen—intentionally made it happen, most likely. The only thing worse than reading George Will on baseball is reading George Will on rock and roll, and so we’d happily lose his Springsteen column to the decades but for the fact that it pulled Springsteen into the presidential election fray, which only reinforced his American-ness.

The complexities of the song “Born in the USA” are captured in an essay Vietnam War vet Douglas Bradley wrote for Backstreets.

…I heard Bruce’s voice, his anger and pain on that title song, and I realized that somebody cared what we were going through, somebody knew, as he put it, that “Vietnam turned this whole country into that dark street, and unless we’re able to walk down those dark alleys and look into the eyes of the men and the women that are down there and the things that happened, we’re never gonna be able to get home….”

All of which was lost on a nine year old. The size of that album is what I remember. It seemed larger than life, and it was. It was a conscious effort on Springsteen’s part to summit the mountain, and it worked. He was everywhere.

It would be years before I owned the record, which remains one of my favorite summertime listens (and is his second-best summertime album behind the 2-discs of The Promise). Most of Born in the USA is just a hell of a lot of fun. My daughter calls “Working on the Highway” the “fixing the road song” and I don’t have any interest in telling her it began as a song called “Child Bride.”

“Dancing in the Dark” is filled with frustration, and I’ll forever love the line “there’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me,” because I feel that just about every day. But then again, dancing. Not only dancing, but this first failed attempt at a video.

Bruce looks like a mime.

Eventually it turned into the version we all know, the one with Courteney Cox, the video that marks my first memory of Bruce Springsteen and his music.

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