Sex in the U.S.A.: Male Sexuality in Springsteen’s American Dream

[19 July 2009]

By Charles A. Hohman

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.

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. 

Side 2: "Ready to Grow Young Again"

Side 2: “Ready to Grow Young Again”

The dark clouds that overcast Born’s first side lift somewhat when you flip the record over (or progress to the second half of the CD). Every song on the second side on Born is nostalgic: dealing with the difficulties of (primarily male) aging, the resignation and sometimes the tragedy of maturity. While side one features men attempting, however fruitlessly, to flee their fates, side two offers men accepting them, finding comfort where they can, in memories, in music, and yes, in sex. Ennui and uneasiness give way to equanimity and compliance: the once inflated American Dream is adjusted and revised. And so attitudes towards male sexuality shift somewhat as well, but remain every bit as vital to the characters’ motives.

“No Surrender” proudly announces this perspective shift, as Springsteen pleads for his “blood brother” to keep fighting for their adolescent dreams. It could be the Wayne from “Darlington County” singing to its mellowing narrator, once both have a few more years under their respective belts. Maturity is often a process of retreating, of surrendering, of compromising your dreams of escape and accepting your place in the world. Fighting for those grandiose hopes can be grueling, and after some hard-fought battles, domestic stability can seem mighty appealing. And so Springsteen revisits the sentiments of “Cover Me” in the final verse: “There’s a war outside still raging / You say it ain’t ours anymore to win / I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover’s bed / With a wide open country in my eyes / And these romantic dreams in my head.” At a certain point in life, one’s most romantic dreams are permanently confined to the head, to the realm of memory and fantasy rather than reality.

Memory also fuels the unsent love letter that is “Bobby Jean”, another tribute to a friend from yesteryear, this time female and probably a former sexual partner. After considerable time apart, the narrator realizes Bobby Jean as the one that got away, the right girl for him. As he states, “There ain’t nobody, nowhere, nohow / Gonna ever understand me the way you did.” His rambling days are over, and his thirst for adult tranquility has brought him back to his teenage love, but in Springsteen’s world, it’s never that easy: Bobby Jean has escaped, finally off chasing her own dreams instead of settling for her circumstances—whatever life the narrator could provide her would not be good enough. Here, the implicit subtext of rock-music-as-power, which underscores much of the album, is made explicit, as Springsteen exhausts his only avenue to reach her: the airwaves. He vows:

There’ll be a radio playing and you’ll hear me sing this song
Well, if you do, you’ll know I’m thinking of you
... And I’m just calling you one last time
Not to change your mind, but just to say I miss you, baby
Good luck, goodbye.

Like the standard Springsteen stock players who find salvation in the promise of rock and roll, “Bobby Jean”’s long-lost boyfriend finds culture his only resource, a way for him to achieve power in a situation where he feels powerless. Furthermore, getting a song on the radio is a way to show Bobby Jean that he has become successful, to establish himself as something more than a teenage fuck-up, and to prove he’s made good on his own unreachable aspirations.

Those aspirations, like so many, are quickly dashed in the album’s closing quartet. “I’m Goin’ Down” illustrates a failing relationship, one where the romantic fire has been extinguished. The longtime girlfriend routinely rejects the protagonist’s advances, in sharp contrast to the unbridled passion they once held for each other. “I pull you close but when we kiss I can feel a doubt / I remember back when we started, my kisses used to turn you inside out,” he complains. Such is the trajectory of millions of relationships that get too serious too early, and the physical intimacy dies before the emotional attachment. Thus, “I’m Goin’ Down” demonstrates the dangers of settling, the forces that compel young people into early marriages, because they think it’s the proper path to adulthood. It’s a troubling inversion of the woman-as-savior theory, as the woman who once offered his sexual fulfillment is now continually rebuffing his advances, leaving him on fire and with an unquenched desire. “Goin’ down” can refer either to a softening erection, or the more common connotation of cunnilingus, in a situation echoing the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” dynamic, as though pleasuring the woman is his only hope of deriving any sexual contact whatsoever.

The dangers of settling too soon, jumping head-first into the American Dream before you know any better, are emphasized in the second verse of “Glory Days”, where the narrator visits a once-beautiful high school peer, now a single mother two years separated from her husband. She and the narrator share some drinks, and she confides that “when she feels like crying / She starts laughing, thinking about / Glory days.” Like many of the characters on the second side, she’s living in the past to suppress the harsh realities of the present. “They’ll pass you by / Glory days / In the wink of a young girl’s eye,” Springsteen continues, subtly suggesting how young love can lead to deferred dreams, and eventually, unhappy predicaments like those in “Down” and “Glory”.

“Dancing in the Dark” is, like “I’m on Fire”, a feverishly impassioned disclosure of a lonely man’s sexual frustration. The protagonist is tired and bored—dissatisfied with his position and his place, to quote one of Springsteen’s idols. Why such aggravation? Mainly because he’s not getting laid. In “Dark”, as on “Fire” and “Down”, a man’s unsatisfied sexual desire is a deprivation, and Springsteen finally equates poverty with celibacy in its final verse: “They say you gotta stay hungry / Hey baby, I’m just about starving tonight / I’m dying for some action / I’m sick of sitting ‘round here trying to write this book / I need a love reaction.” Thus, Springsteen’s men are hindered not simply by their economic statuses, but their sexual virility as well. As long as both elements are hindered, the American Dream remains firmly out of their grasp.

Born in the U.S.A. closes with the heartbreaking “My Hometown”, a reflective portrait that ends in what constitutes the fulfilled American Dream for so many: resigned domestic contentment. As with the title track, the woman’s presence here is severely limited, granted only a couple lines, but revelatory all the same:

Last night me and Kate
We laid in bed
Talking about getting out
Packing up our bags
Maybe heading south
I’m thirty-five
We got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel
And said, ‘Son, take a good look around’
This is your hometown.

The narrator has a wife, a kid, and a house, but remains in the same dismal town that has dominated, even sucked away, his life. The thirst to escape remains, as does the tacit realization that escaping is economically and socially unfeasible. He is stuck and he needs to make do, taking solace in his family. Only in this final cut is the woman-as-protector dream achieved rather than desired, and like so many of the paths on Born in the U.S.A., the dream’s victory proves hollow.

"Son, Can’t You See That She’s Just a Little Girl?"

“Son, Can’t You See That She’s Just a Little Girl?”

From the hypermasculine stance on the cover to Springsteen’s forcefully vigorous vocals throughout, Born in the U.S.A. is an album about masculinity, clearly operating from a man’s point of view. To Springsteen’s credit, his women are seldom sex objects, and when they are, such as on “Darlington County”, that objectification is punished. However, there is little subversion of assigned gender roles within Springsteen’s portraits. In fact, his women are largely powerless, kept firmly in the private sphere, functioning as trophies or even as entitlements for the male protagonists. Such blind traditionalism was especially notable in 1984, when everyone from Madonna to Cyndi Lauper to Chrissie Hynde and Tina Turner were subverting the standard rock masculinity. Hell, even Springsteen’s mega-selling male rivals, Michael Jackson and Prince, did more, in both appearance and sound, to challenge the common expectations of masculine performance. In being a rock and roll revivalist, Springsteen also revived the less savory aspects of rock and roll, namely the Eisenhower-era female submission that coursed through so much early rock.

If Born puts forth the male version of the American Dream, one glaring question left unanswered is what is the woman’s American Dream? The album’s two most empowered female characters, the unnamed love interest from “Downbound Train” and Bobby Jean, both shun their oppressive circumstances for the promise of the unknown, striking out independently rather than in service of a man. Yet neither is given her own story: their murky disappearances are relayed exclusively through the men they have let down. While the “Bobby Jean” narrator offers begrudging respect, the “Downbound Train” sadsack almost villainizes the woman for leaving, as if she had no interest in him once his income declined, and she became complicit in his torturous downward spiral. But in the rest of the songs, women are confined to the standard patriarchal roles: supportive protector, shrewish tease, object of a lustful male gaze. On “Working on the Highway”, the “little girl who don’t know nothin’ about this cruel, cruel world” is torn between two forms of patriarchy, her domineering male family and her overzealous male suitor, with no conceivable hope of transcending patriarchy by her own means.

Born, especially its second half, drops hints of the fractured adult relationships that Springsteen would explore in full on 1987’s Tunnel of Love, as well as throughout the ’90s. Aside from “Darlington County”, there is little actual fucking taking place. “I’m Goin’ Down”, “I’m on Fire”, and “Dancing in the Dark” are, like so many rock songs before them, specifically about not fucking. The interaction between the narrator and the once untouchable looker on “Glory Days” is fraught with sexual tension, but contact never materializes, as the two are content to relive old memories rather than create new ones. This contrasts much of Springsteen’s earlier work, where sexual payoffs were constantly implied, if not directly stated. But Born completed Springsteen’s gradual transition from romantic ideologue enamored with the dual promises of America and rock and roll, to a cynical journeyman keenly aware of the hollowness at the core of such promises. And both the American Dream, in its emphasis on the American values of family and virility, and rock and roll, with its rebellious attitudes towards sexual inhibition, affirm (male) sexuality as core components of their promises.

But ultimately, their promises are myths, as alternately alluring and disappointing for men as the myths of monogamous love and predestined romance that characterize more feminized forms of entertainment, from Jane Austen novels to romantic comedies, are for women. The American Dream is an ideal we chase, not a birthright we’re automatically awarded. Just as people work hard their entire lives to no great avail, so people spend their lives in search of love, romance, and sexual satisfaction as well. America produces dozens of failure stories for every story of success. And thanks to Bruce Springsteen, twelve of those failure stories, unflinching warts-and-all portrayals, found their way on to Born in the U.S.A.

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