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Two minutes and ten seconds into Born in the U.S.A., the first of the album’s many female characters appears. She is given no physical or character traits; just two lines detailing her relationship with a fallen male hero. “He had a woman he loved in Saigon / I got a picture of him in her arms,” Bruce Springsteen proclaims, in the voice of a destitute Vietnam vet recalling his departed brother, killed in the same war that ruined the narrator’s life. It is a telling image, and properly foreshadows the role of women in the U.S.A. where Springsteen and his characters were born.


cover art

Bruce Springsteen

Born in the U.S.A.

(Columbia; US: 4 Jun 1984)

That is the U.S.A. of the American Dream, where meritocracy is accepted as gospel until it’s proven as myth, where all men may be created equal, but are born into grossly unequal circumstances. It is also the U.S.A. of rock and roll, which helped liberate bored teenagers like Springsteen, and even helped ignite a sexual revolution. Throughout his career, Springsteen has grappled with the shortcomings of the American Dream: that great myth that hard work will pay off with material comforts and prosperity. What is less established is that sexual satisfaction is an integral part of Springsteen’s American Dream; a basic human right every bit as essential as life and liberty.


His ouevre is teeming with vaginal metaphors (“The River”, “Candy’s Room”, “Tunnel of Love”, “Pink Cadillac”) where the female anatomy provides some sort of sanctuary from a dark, spirit-crushing world where innocent, hard-working men are denied their entitlement. Like rock and roll itself, women are a surrogate release, pillars of stability and tokens of success. In women, both Springsteen and his characters (as much as they can be objectively separated) often find the promise that has been denied them elsewhere, but they just as often get denied here as well. Sex, like the other aspects of the American Dream, offers a lot of seductive promises, but no inalienable guarantees.


Side 1: “I Got a Bad Desire”


Born in the U.S.A. is a masculine album, and even the cover asserts this. The tight, ass-hugging blue jeans, the tucked white t-shirt, the bulging bared biceps, the red cap dangling off the back pocket, all converging before a giant American flag: it’s an assertive, in-your-face image, one that evokes the superpower that had won World War II and was about to win the Cold War, and its ethos of rugged individualism. Viewed from the back, Springsteen could be any of a million salt-of-the-earth guys who, often thanklessly, keep that superpower thriving. But guys is the operative word here: the various perspectives on the album are uniformly male, and within their viewpoints, women are limited in their capacity, doomed to sexual subservience and distressing domesticity. And yet, the pursuit of these women motivates much of the action on Born’s powerful first side.


Nowhere is this more blatant than “Cover Me”, which follows the title track, and turns “Born”’s brief image of woman-as-protector into a motif. In it, Springsteen recoils at the horrors of this rough old world, and pleads for the most desirable solution: “I’m looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me.” Here, a woman, that one special woman and the sex she would ideally provide, offers asylum from natural disasters and manmade catastrophes. When Springsteen sings, “Promise me baby you won’t let them find us/ Hold me in your arms, let our love blind us”, one can almost envision the “Born” soldier’s late brother whispering those very words to his Saigon sweetie, as sniper fire audibly rages in the distance.


 


But just as women can protect from the storms raging in the cutthroat, rough-and-tumble working world, they can be the storm as well. The pursuit of women, like the pursuit of money and prosperity, can lead to danger, corruption, even punishment. And so after championing the safeguarding contentment that women can provide once attained, Born launches into two hard-luck delinquent tales, tragicomic and almost cinematic narratives of men chasing women as one more essential piece to their ideal American life. “Darlington County” and “Working on the Highway” are Born’s most linear, and arguably most obscure, compositions, but both illustrate the troubles that can trap men in search of female companionship.


In “Darlington County”, two scofflaws flee New York City in search of “work on the county line”, and yes, women. Complains the narrator about the Big Apple: “The girls are pretty but they just wanna know your name.” In other words, they ask too many questions: who you are, what you do, where you’re going, and once your answers are insufficient, they quickly move on to men with bigger wallets than dreams. And so the narrator and his buddy Wayne drive 800 miles to South Carolina, where conditions are a bit more desperate. In this new setting, plunking down 200 dollars in one night makes them “big spenders”, big enough for girls to believe their fathers own the World Trade Center towers. But while the narrator grabs a girl, and makes her enough lofty promises that she not only puts out but breaks away from Darlington with him, Wayne ends up “handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford”.


“Darlington County” contains the album’s first mention of “rock and roll”, which triggers an infectious chorus of “sha la la/ sha la la la la la”s. That seems anachronistic in 1984, until one considers that rock and roll’s “sha la la”s, among its coded language of nonsense syllables, often signify sexual ecstasy, the kind that negates mere English. Springsteen concedes as much before the second chorus, when he promises his newfound female conquest, “Just me and you we could… sha la la / Sha la la la la.” By the end, both the driving music and unison voices fade out in an ad-nauseam string of “sha la la la la”s, as Wayne heads to jail and the narrator “sees the glory of the coming of the Lord”, as he and his newfound girl drive into their uncertain but sky’s-the-limit future.


 


The forces that captured Wayne rear their ugly, oppressive heads again on “Working on the Highway”, a jaunty story of a road laborer, who spends his day “laying down the blacktop”. He’s out sweating, working his body raw, while promising his girl “a better life than this”. That girl is his main motivator—he keeps a picture of her in his back pocket, just to remind him of the purpose of all that backbreaking labor. But like Wayne, he too gets punished for trying to subvert his position. He elopes with the girl, and her disapproving family calls the authorities, landing him in jail doing the exact same physical labor he was doing before, this time with no lovelight to get him through the day.


 


“I had a girl / I had a job” recalls Joe, the storyteller on “Downbound Train”, the album’s most somber and melodramatic track. Those opening lines encapsulate Springsteen’s vision of the American dream: financial and sexual security, albeit a fragile one. For when the job goes, the girl goes as well, and Joe cannot get his life back on track. He labors for chump change at the car wash during the day, and at night, has intense visions of the girl’s return, the kind of miraculous dreams from which waking up is life’s ultimate curse.


 


“I’m on Fire” is an anomaly on the album: the most sonically quiet and melodically simple of its twelve tracks, with a pulsating beat, a barely-there finger-picked guitar, and a haunting synth riff. The song sounds naked, apropos for an uncommonly frank confession of sexual desire. Springsteen’s vocal is alternately frisky and creepy, as the girl’s wishes remain willfully obscure. “Hey, little girl, is your daddy home / Did he go away and leave you all alone,” he asks, before insisting his own sexual prowess, and his overwhelming desperation to get in there and fuck her. “At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet and a freight train running through the middle of my head,” he rambles, as though his proto-emo histrionics will sway her. It fades out with brief falsetto “ooh-ooh-oohs”, once again nonsense syllables, the kind of uninhibited noises a man would make when being pleasured, or more likely in the song’s context, pleasuring himself. That side one closes with a sexual act is significant: here is fun unfettered, not tempered with tragedy, a penalty-free release from the struggles that have thus far commanded the disc. Unlike the previous three narrators, the horndog of “I’m on Fire” suffers no consequences for his bad desires. He simply funnels his aggression into sexual release, and in a forecast of the second side, sounds positively youthful. 


 



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