Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up
Not very colorful lyrics, are they? Recognize them? They’re the first verse of one of the most popular American anthems of the last thirty years. They belong to a song that has been used by some of the most conservative institutions to incite feelings of nationalism and patriotism, particularly during the 1980’s, when a new brand of Republicanism ruled over our collective consciousness. And as we were proudly proclaiming our superiority over the Soviet Union, unions in the United States were being broken up, the groundwork for market-deregulation was being laid, and tax breaks were given to the wealthiest of Americans, setting off an era of inequality that still exists today.
So, what was this song that so feverishly incited a nation to feel so wonderful about itself? Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A..”
After the release of the album of the same name in 1984, Springsteen came to represent the mainstream for most rock ‘n’ roll fans. It was an album that, on the surface, seemed to be a collection of the shiniest pop trash imaginable. Silly, childish keyboard riffs like the main motif in “Dancing in the Dark” were found to be so laughable, it was difficult to view Springsteen as the prolific songwriter he had been years before. To many, he had become a popstar in the same league as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. Compared to the punk and heavy metal bands that were blossoming at the time, Bruce Springsteen seemed less threatening than Clay Aiken does today.
But rockers weren’t the only ones blind to the sentiments Springsteen was truly expressing in a brilliant song like “Born in the U.S.A..” Almost the entire country accepted the lyrics to “Born in the U.S.A.” as an anthem of pride. We were under the impression he was expressing his gratitude for being born in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” The Cold War was still a reality and the song’s chorus seemed to reflect our nation’s sense of righteousness compared to the Soviets’ “Evil Empire,” where people waited on lines for toilet paper and didn’t have the freedom to chose their own occupations. It had become a late twentieth century version of “This Land is Your Land,” which coincidentally was also misunderstood by the public.
In Woody Guthrie’s song, he sings how this country belongs to everyone, not just the landowners. Included in the entire set of lyrics of “This Land is Your Land” are the lines:
As I was walkin’ I saw a sign there
And that sign said, “no tress passin”’
But on the other side it didn’t say nothin’
Now that side was made for you and me!
It is a protest song on the subject of the inequality between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
Springsteen’s song, though saturated with the most hi-tech production of its day, along with a keyboard sound now affiliated with the Eighties exclusively, was, and is, as strong of a statement on inequalities in America as Guthrie’s. And it is more rich with social commentary than any other song since its conception. In fact, considering the numerous troubles Iraq War veterans currently find themselves in, after returning from service, “Born in the U.S.A.” is just as significant today than it has ever been before.
What confused listeners in 1984, more than anything, was the hi-tech, glossed over production. On Springsteen’s earlier records, like Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born to Run and Nebraska, the production is much more raw, accentuating darker tones that complimented the stark images projected in Springsteen’s lyrics. For instance, in the song, “Born to Run,” Springsteen’s first big hit, lyrics like “it’s a deathtrap, it’s a suicide rap,” referring to the home the narrator and his girlfriend live in, are screamed alongside one of the filthiest guitar sounds you ever heard, as well as the raunchiest saxophone solo in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The marriage of the words and the music help to create one of the most epic rock ‘n’ roll sagas of youth escaping a pre-determined, hopeless fate.
But on Born in the U.S.A., the album, Springsteen trades in those dark tones for the synth-pop sounds of the 1980’s, leading some to believe he was cornering himself into a time frame that would ultimately be considered an embarrassment by the handful of musicians that survived that period. And although there’s a good chance Springsteen was actually looking to get rich and sell millions of records and his choice of production was a product of those desires, in “Born in the U.S.A.,” he shrewdly manipulates the production to help tell hi story of a Vietnam veteran no longer welcome in the United States.
Originally written at the same time as the stark, depressing and mournful songs of his stripped-down masterpiece, Nebraska, “Born in the U.S.A.” tells the story of someone “born down in a dead man’s town” and will lead a difficult life accordingly. Early on, he gets in trouble with the law and is ironically handed a gun, forced to fight in the Vietnam War. He comes back but, because of the controversy the war has stirred up, he can’t get a job. Even his V.A. man (“Veteran’s Affairs”), whose job it is to assist veterans, can’t help him, asking the young man, “Son, don’t you understand?” Ultimately, as Bruce sings, he ‘s got “nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.”
Those that own the 1998 release, Tracks, are familiar with the earlier version of “Born in the U.S.A.,” from the “Nebraska Sessions.” This version’s kinship with the songs on Nebraska, musically and lyrically, is much more apparent, particularly in the tone of the guitar, which is eerily stark, echoing as if being played in a dirty tunnel somewhere on the outskirts of town. Springsteen also sings the song in a different key, which serves to articulate the narrator’s frustration and hopelessness as hauntingly as possible. There is no question as to what sentiment he is expressing in this version.
On the later version, the one the public knows above all others, 1980’s synth-keyboards, as well as Eighties production techniques, dominate the landscape of the song, creating the undesirable effects previously mentioned, as well as deceiving the listener into thinking he/she is listening to a pop anthem generated for the masses.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Although, Springsteen had been most effective in his earlier days when the rough and rugged recordings of his earlier albums matched the dark aesthetic of his lyrics, Springsteen actually uses the glossy production and Eighties synth-pop sound as counterpoint to the bleak, hopeless lyrics of “Born in the U.S.A..” It’s a cleverly deceptive approach, one that has been barely been recognized or celebrated.
Musically, “Born in the U.S.A.,” has no changes. Though instruments come in and out at different times, the same musical theme that emulates the chorus of the song, plays throughout the entire composition, which is significant in defining why “Born in the U.S.A.” has been interpreted as an anthem. Although, the truth is, the repetition of this theme actually symbolizes an American Dream that has been infused in every citizen’s consciousness since birth, which is why it is consistently repeated throughout the entire song without any changes. It emulates the concepts and ideas that are perpetuated in our schools, on our televisions, and out of the mouths of our leaders. They are bright, shiny, optimistic ideas about the possibility of everyone in America succeeding, as long as they gave it their best effort. It seems that even in our darkest hour, when we feel as if our country has failed us, as the narrator does in the song, the selling of the American Dream never fails to waver, much like the musical theme in “Born in the U.S.A..”
Regarding lyrical structure, like many of the songs written during the “Nebraska Sessions,” the song is constructed in the traditional folk format of verse/refrain, verse/refrain, etc.. Springsteen, however, plays with these conventions, creating a somewhat fragmented version of this structure, one that fits the theme of the song more appropriately. This change first becomes apparent at the end of the third verse. The final line of the verse is the V.A. man’s question to the narrator, “Son, don’t you understand?” It is very possible that it is at this point that the narrator has finally come to a realization that being born in the United States of America does not necessarily grant one the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as promised in the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps that is why Springsteen decides not to sing the chorus, although the music continues in the background. In place of the chorus, Springsteen just mumbles, “No. No. No. No. No.,” almost like a person that can’t accept a truth they are forced to confront.
Continuing with this redirection of how the song is structured, the fourth verse concerns the narrator’s brother, who had also fought in Vietnam. For the first three verses, four lines are used in their construction. Again, with the exception of the third verse, these verses are then followed by the chorus of the song. Contrary to these previous verses, the fourth verse has only three lines:
I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone
The fourth line is left out and a feeling of incompletion (for those who are listening) takes over. What happened here to differentiate these lines from the previous? Why is there no fourth line? One can only suspect that the narrator is broken up by the loss of his brother, he can barely finish the stanza. And once again, no chorus is sung, though the anthem-like keyboard continues, undaunted by this man’s struggle.
The fragmentation of the narrator’s state of mind then continues on with the fifth verse, if you can even call it that, since now there are only two lines:
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now
And for a third time, no chorus, only the keyboards that articulates the feelings of patriotism and American optimism that are associated with the American Dream. By this time, the keyboard melody seems to be looming so high above the narrator, at such an unattainable height, we can no longer question why he chooses not to sing along. It is a dream that he can never reach.
Finally, the song breaks down for a sixth and final verse. Here, Springsteen describes the narrator’s surroundings. It’s ten years later and he’s living ”in the shadow of the penitentiary, out by the gas fires of the refinery.” It’s a bleak vision. And although the narrator chooses to once again sing along to the chorus of “Born in the U.S.A.,” he punctuates that sentiment with the fact that he’s “a long, gone daddy in the U.S.A..” The final irony being, although this song was used as a propaganda tool to promote America’s superiority over the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, the truth was, there were many people, particularly the soldiers that fought for this country, that were forgotten and ostracized, forced to live lives as hopeless as those lived under the Soviet flag. In fact, to articulate the continuity of the hopelessness of soldiers returning home from war, including those today returning from Iraq, when Springsteen plays this song live, he sometimes returns to a more haunting key on his guitar and extends the line “I’m ten years burning down the road” to “I’m ten years, I’m fifteen years, I’m twenty five years down the road,” painting a picture of a never-ending dilemma that soldiers are forced to face. It has almost been twenty five years since the conception of this song and the treatment of soldiers returning from war are still somewhat troubling. Veterans’ Hospitals have been reported to be inadequate in their ability to treat the soldiers properly, soldiers have come back to America plagued by the trauma of serving in the war, families have not received some of the benefits promised to them by the government, and soldiers still have trouble finding employment once they finish serving their country. With the exception of the few lines that actually mention Vietnam, this is a song that could’ve easily been written today about a soldier returning from the Middle East.
By contrasting bleak and depressing lyrics with optimistic, finely polished American sounds, Springsteen had actually created what can be referred to as an “anti-anthem.” He had taken an American rock ‘n’ roll tradition and turned it upside down. And the truth is, very few people at the time understood what he was doing. It’s very possible that only Neil Young was able to pick up on what Springsteen was going for, since Young’s “Keep On Rockin’ In the Free World” is another song that rallies around a infamously misinterpreted chorus that “celebrates” our freedoms, while the lyrics address children being dumped in garbage cans and our country being ruled by a “kinder, gentler machine gun hand.” It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone how, over the twenty years later, both songwriters have remained at the top of their game and at the forefront of their profession. Their clever, sometimes deceptive approach to their craft is easily what makes them the smartest and most creative tunesmiths of our time.