Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. stands as one of the most successful, seminal works of the 1980s and as one of the Boss’s defining moments. The cover, a shot of Springsteen from behind, in ratty jeans and a beat-up ball cap sticking out of his back pocket, facing a large, foreboding American flag, is instantly recognizable, and the album’s 12 tracks are a veritable hits package on their own, containing seven Top 10 singles.
It’s a hell of a record any way you slice it: there are rockers, pop confections, and gems that for any other musician would be the highlight of a career, but in Bruce’s hands, and by virtue of appearing on this record, are destined for deep-cut oblivion. It’s tough, sensual, brutal, loving, agitated, and accepting. In other words, classic Boss.
It’s no surprise that Born in the U.S.A. was chosen to be a part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of books which take alternatively critical, wistful, and awestruck looks at albums important to both popular culture and the writer dissecting the album.
In this case, Geoffrey Himes, a writer, according to his bio on the back of the book, who has been writing about music for the Washington Post since 1977 while also contributing to Oxford American, Rolling Stone, No Depression, Paste, and Jazz Times, takes a crack at peering behind the curtain of Springsteen’s wildly successful album.
While Himes is obviously a fan of the album—a record he calls, along with The River, one of Springsteen’s “finest moments”—his writing about it is surprisingly dry and unfocused.
Born in the U.S.A. is an album that finds Springsteen balancing weighty subjects approached darkly, like returning from Vietnam in the title track, and serious subjects approached humorously, like wallowing in the past as your present crumbles around you in “Glory Days.” Himes is wise to point this out as one of the album’s best attributes. He spends a chapter discussing how comedy among the tragedy of Springsteen’s characters redeems what could have easily been a crotchety clunker of dread. Surely, the playfulness of songs like “Dancing in the Dark” and “Working on the Highway” contributed not only to the album’s success but also to its staying power. And Himes is astute in pointing this balance out, especially when it’s usually lost in most discussions of the album.
But where Himes goes wrong is with his bland writing. In one his dissections of “Glory Days”, for example, Himes goes verse by verse, all but reciting Springsteen’s lyrics, discussing how the characters in the song are acting and how it reveals Springsteen’s ability to look at the funny side of life. And that’s fine. But “Glory Days” is a huge song, one of the longest singles to come from the album. You don’t need to be a Springsteen fan to have heard the song or seen the video and know what’s happening in it, making Himes’s unsubstantial analysis of the song a waste of a page and a half. Himes’s bio states he won a 2002 ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for Music Feature Writing—you’d never guess it by such academic, overstated passages.
Himes also gets far too tangential and editorial, distracting the reader from the subject at hand. At one point, in an analysis of “I’m on Fire,” Himes states how sexed up a song it is, “Springsteen had obviously been listening to Prince a lot, and black pop would exert an increasing influence on his songwriting in this 1982-84 period.” Unfortunately, there is no mention of the Boss spinning any Prince while writing the songs that would make up Born in the U.S.A. in Himes’s piece, and if you’re reading the book closely you’ll find yourself searching the previous pages for the Prince albums that so influenced the Boss. So to claim that he “obviously” listened to Prince is a dubious claim at best.
What’s more likely is that Springsteen was influenced by working with Gary “U.S.” Bonds, a black rock and R&B singer who influenced Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt as youngsters. The two men plucked Bonds out of lounge-circuit obscurity and revitalized his career by producing two successful records, Dedication and On the Line. Himes writes about all that, but it amounts to nothing more than a tangent. Himes spends three pages discussing the working relationship between Springsteen and van Zandt and Bonds, how Springsteen wrote some unbelievable songs for Bonds, and how he had a hard time translating that to his own work. Then he connects Springsteen to Prince in a wholly unsubstantiated way while leaving Bonds’s possible contributions to Springsteen wallowing in the ether.
It’s these types of passages and claims, along with Himes’s back-alley surgical approach to discussing Born in the U.S.A., that doom his analysis. This entry to the 33 1/3 series should be explored by Springsteen fans, certainly; the information presented should be appealing even if it’s packaged poorly by Himes. Casual fans of the Boss, though, might be better served listening to the album itself and reveling in its magnificence.