Counterbalance No. 162: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’

You can't start a fire without a spark. This gun's for hire, even if it's the 162 most acclaimed album of all time. A misunderstood blockbuster from 1984 is this week's Counterbalance.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Born in the USA

Klinger: We’ve got a fascinating case on our hands this week, Mendelsohn, one that might take a bit to fully unpack. So the story goes that Sony, newly flush with Thriller money, sought to pull the record industry out of its early ’80s Donkey Kong slump by creating yet another major hit blockbuster LP. Right about that time, Bruce Springsteen was reconvening the E Street Band to record a clutch of tight, concise pop anthems after his starkly bleak, yet bleakly stark, all-acoustic Nebraska album. (In the interim, he also appears to have discovered the joys of Soloflex, which couldn’t have hurt.) The end result, Born in the USA, was one of the top-selling albums of the decade, and ultimately a mixed bag for its creator.

Has any album ever been so thoroughly misunderstood by the public? From Reagan and his cadre of enthusiasts citing the unfettered patriotism of the title track to something called the Glory Days chain of sports bars, so many people have missed the point that it’s hard to separate it all out. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some local business development group used “My Hometown” in their promotional reel. So I can see why the cognoscenti have misgivings about Born in the USA — I’ve been known to have them myself — but hearing this again I have to say that this is a pretty impressive statement of an album.

Mendelsohn: It is an incredibly impressive album. But I want to back up real fast. Are you insinuating that Sony had something to do with the creating this monster blockbuster? Like this was some sort of prefabricated, premeditated move? I know they pushed for a radio-friendly hit, which resulted in Springsteen writing “Dancing in the Dark”, but are you trying to tell me they put a synthesizer and a dumbbell in Springsteen’s hands and told him to go fix his music and his image? Because that’s what he did. Ignoring the fact that Born in the USA is just an uptempo extension of Nebraska’s stark reality, minus all the murder, Bruce and his handlers apparently did everything they could to turn Springsteen into an All-American, guitar-wielding heartthrob whose music, while apparently lyrically poignant, was undeniably catchy and spawned hit single after hit single and turned a well-regarded American rocker into a global superstar. Is that what you are trying to tell me?

Klinger: I don’t want that to sound too cynical, but this stuff doesn’t happen in a bubble. It really was a perfect storm of influences, artistic and commercial, coming together to produce this work. And ultimately there was something of a backlash, to the point where Springsteen got tagged as a multimillionaire heartland rocker selling out enormo-domes and just generally selling out. I remember people calling him the “Rambo of Rock”—although some people meant it as a compliment, if you can imagine. And speaking of backlash, I was kind of hoping for a little pushback from you here. Even if Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska have softened your Springsteen skepticism since we covered Born to Run all those years ago, I should have thought that the baggage of stadium-era Bruce (cheesy videos, dated synths, headbands, etc.) would be a bridge too far for you. Is it fair to call you a convert?

Mendelsohn: I don’t want to sound naive but I don’t think the music industry would ever attempt to pass off a prefabricated act in an attempt to sell records. The music industry has, and always will be, the paragon — the gold standard — of judicious business practices. They would never pursue commercial interests over artistic integrity, or seek to short-change their artists, or even sue the fan base on some sort of cockamamie idea that litigation will make fans see the error of their ways for downloading music. Never.

Seriously though, Born in the USA was a big reason why I had nothing but negative things to say about Springsteen when we started this project. As a child of the ’80s, this record exemplifies everything that was wrong with that decade (cheesy videos, dated synths, headbands, etc.), and as a teen in the ’90s (and later a college kid in the ’00s) I really sought to distance myself from the Rambo of Rock that I thought Springsteen had come to represent. After getting my hands dirty with Darkness on the Edge of Town and falling for the narrative of Nebraska, my perception of Springsteen has changed. I wouldn’t go as far as converted — I may have seen the light but there was a good chance I was just drunk and happened to stumble into oncoming traffic — but I have enjoyed my week with this record.

My only question is: did no one in the ’80s listen to the lyrics? I’m guilty of that from time to time, but “Born in the USA” is a searing indictment of Vietnam and the poor support for American war veterans. He says, clear as day, “Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man”. He’s not mumbling.

Klinger: Hey man, it was the Reagan years — people heard what they wanted to hear. And even though 16-year-old Klinger could suss out that “Born in the USA” wasn’t exactly the “God Bless America” that George Will wanted it to be, I was still guilty of glossing over a lot of nuance with this record. This is an album that was written with a 35-year-old’s eye for the choices and compromises that make up most adults’ lives, concepts that even transcend the class-based divisions he had written about on previous albums. As a result, there was stuff on here I just didn’t get. “My Hometown” is probably the best example.

As a teenager, I mostly thought of the song as that slow song he closed the album with for some reason. I didn’t care about my hometown, and I didn’t really understand why someone would. And (shame on me) it never registered with me that at the end of the song, when he tells his son to take a good look around, they’re leaving — and not in the “town full of losers” way, either. It’s done with a sadness and a resignation that you don’t often hear in mainstream pop music. Now when I listen to that song, and I understand the wrenching discussions that go into making a decision like that, I often choke up a little. Come to think of it, much as I love Springsteen, Born in the USA is the only album of his that chokes me up. Between “My Hometown” and “Bobby Jean”… well, excuse me I have something in my eye…

Mendelsohn: Pull yourself together, man. Every time we talk about Springsteen you get all blubbery. It’s weird.

Klinger: Do I well up every time? Huh, I guess I do. Oddly enough, the only Springsteen album we’ve covered so far that hasn’t choked me up has been Born to Run. Go figure.

Mendelsohn: We’ve hit a Springsteen record at pretty regular intervals since we started this project — Born to Run at 17, Darkness at the Edge of Town at 111, Nebraska at 122 and now Born in the USA at 162 — these albums have been in chronological order and for me, the uninitiated, it has helped to paint a complete portrait of an artist slowly evolving and expanding his sound. I’m still not a fan of the romanticism of Born to Run, I warmed to the creeping reality of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and found a Springsteen I could connect with on Nebraska, but it wasn’t until we reached Born in the USA that I realized Springsteen had managed to put all of those elements together. The sad realities of life that fill his lyrics are tempered by the driving arrangements, masking the despair of Nebraska but never tripping into the romance and escapism that fueled Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Born in the USA is an amazing exhibition of songcraft and it’s led me to the conclusion that this record is by far Springsteen’s best. I think the Great List got this one wrong. The critics messed up. They let outside factors — the cheesy videos, the synths, the headbands, Reagan Nation, the constant radio play, the stadium tours — get in the way of seeing an artist at the true pinnacle of his craft.

Klinger: Not so fast, Mendelsohn. Born in the USA is an undervalued album, but the dated synths aren’t an outside factor — they’re an integral part of the record, and it suffers a bit as a result. Lyrically, Springsteen was delivering the goods, with that same novelistic eye for detail that we talked about on Nebraska. I’m a huge fan of the way he turns a phrase in songs like “Darlington County”, and the way he sings about his friendship with Bobby Jean (“We told each other that we were the wildest, the wildest things we’d ever seen”) speaks volumes about just how outside these two really were. But when you hear the searing acoustic version of the title track that Bruce has been known to bust out in concert, you really get a sense that he and the other three(?!) producers (Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, and Little Miami Steven “Bobby Jean” Van Zandt) could have sought out some center ground between intimacy and blockbusting.

But for crying out loud, I never thought I’d have to argue this album from the other side. I thought I’d have to bring up how even minor tracks like “Cover Me” have a terrific guitar solo to push you through. Or how even those synths ended up being used to great effect in the moody atmospherics of “I’m on Fire”. Or just how stepping into a more wide-screen mainstream role made Springsteen’s approach seem even more universal. So you’ve surprised me yet again, Mendelsohn, but I guess that’s the power of Springsteen — his earnest belief in what he does is ultimately contagious, and it’s enough to give even those who try to resist it a reason to believe too.