Born in the U.S.A.
Bruce Springsteen (born 1949 in Long Branch, New Jersey/USA) is a successful American singer-songwriter and guitarist signed with Columbia Records. Drawing on an image as a working-class man and musically rooted in rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues of the 1950s and 60s. His well known songs include "Born to Run", BORN IN THE USA and "Streets of Philadelphia". He was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
Originally intended for a Paul Schrader movie titled Born in the U.S.A. the song was written in 1981/82 together with other songs for the album Nebraska (Springsteen 1982), but was subsequently left off that album (Cowie and Boehm 2006). After the album’s release Bruce Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band and started to work on his 7th album Born in the U.S.A.
Recorded in May 1982 by Toby Scott at the The Power Station the song BORN IN THE USA was mixed by Bob Clearmountain and produced by Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin and Steve (Steven) Van Zandt (N.N. n.d.; Buskin 2010). Besides Springsteen (guitar/vocals) the album version of the song is played by Steven Van Zandt (guitar), Garry Tallent (bass), Roy Bittan (keyboard/synthesizer), Danny Federici (keyboard) and Max Weinberg (drums). The seventh member, Clarence Clemons (saxophone) is not featured.
The album was released June 4th, 1984 (Thrill Hill Productions Inc. n.d.) with pictures taken by Annie Leibovitz and designed by Andrea Klein (Linernotes on album – Springsteen 1984a).
Seven Top 10 singles were released from the album including BORN IN THE USA on October 30th, 1984 (with "Shut Out the Light" on the B-side – Springsteen 1984b). BORN IN THE USA was also released in three remixed versions as a 12’’ (Springsteen 1984c).
Springsteen’s song writing shows a strong streak of social consciousness centered around the experience of working class individuals living in a time of deregulation, recession and Reagan’s "anti-union policies". Following in this tradition the album Born in the U.S.A. gives a bleak view of the state of the American working class from the declining industrial centers of the 1970s and early 1980s. As Cowie and Boehm (2006, 354) argue, the eponymous song "can stand as a compelling explanation of the redefinition of civic identity for white male workers from the early 1970s to the early 1980s."
The album can also be placed within a broader popular music context: After a decline in revenue of recorded music in the United States starting in 1978/79 the sales started to grow after 1983 – however this was concentrated around very successful hits linked to a small segment of rock/pop superstars like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince (Garofalo 2011, 292ff, 302ff). In part through a well planned marketing campaign drawing on radio and television airplay, music videos, the release of singles and media appearances (Pareles 1985) Springsteen joined the ranks of the pop/rock superstars through the commercial success of his album (cf. "Reception").
The song can also be seen in the musical tradition of rock anthems which were popular during the late 1970s and 1980s (e.g. Queen). Linked in part to the emergence of stadium rock concerts rock anthems serve to build participation and community between a band and their audience (cf. Dockwray 2005, 174). BORN IN THE USA’s structure supports audience participation through its clear rhythmic accents, easy-to-remember refrain and participatory gestures in the music video (cf. "Analysis").
Characteristic for this song is the snare prominently accenting the 2 and 4 throughout the whole song with a punchy, echoey sound followed by a rapid decay (gated reverb). Another sound present throughout the song is the keyboard/synthesizer playing the refrain or a slight variation of the refrain melody. Finally, the song’s catchy refrain with seemingly patriotic lyrics (see discussion below) encourages a sing-a-along participation contribution to making the song a rock anthem.
The song’s structure is built around a simple verse-refrain-structure (the only exception is verse 4 which is directly followed by the final verse, verse 5) with no difference in the harmonic progression between the verse and refrain (they are both based on 4 bars E followed by 4 bars B). Instead, the song's tension evolves around the arrangement and instrumentation: Starting only with snare and keyboard/synthesizer the complete band does not enter until the 2nd verse. Most of the band drops out again in verse 5 leaving Springsteen singing the verse and following refrain only accompanied by the snare and the keyboard/synthesizer before the complete band reenters at 2:55 vamping over the refrain. There is a false ending at around 4:00 with a drum solo accompanied by the keyboard/synthesizer and bass which leads back into the refrain at 4:12 and a gradual fade out. Springsteen adds to the tension by leaving out the refrain’s lyrics after verse 3 and including two silent passages in verse 4 (cf. following paragraph). The overall structure, however, is not affected since the harmonic progression continues as in the previous parts throughout the silenced vocals.
The lyrics describe the hard life of a blue collar Vietnam war veteran and his struggles with unemployment and an inefficient Veterans Administration after returning from combat. The experience of loss of one of his army brothers during the battle of Khe Sahn (verse 4) is underlined by an asymmetrical verse form with two bars of silence following "They're still there, he's all gone". This is repeated in the following two lines where "I got a picture of him in her arms now" is followed by 4 bars of silence. Instead of the usual 8 bars of the other verses, verse 4 thus consists of 16 bars of which 6 bars lack lyrics and are thus silenced. Within the context of the just discussed lyrics the seemingly patriotic refrain "Born in the U.S.A." takes on a sarcastic tone.
The music video (Springsteen 2011) supports the lyrical content of the song with footage from industrial parts of the United States, rundown neighborhoods, wounded individuals, army training, a war cemetery and what seems to be a loan/pawn shop. These are mixed with footage from a live show with Bruce Springsteen and ends with a jeans clad Springsteen in a plain white t-shirt standing in front of an American flag. The live footage supports the song's anthemlike character by showing Springsteen's participatory gestures. The two silences are portrayed through Springsteen's empty microphone from the live show footage.
Following his commercially not too successful acoustic album Nebraska (Springsteen 1982, 775 000 sold copies by August 1985 – Pareles 1985) the album Born in the U.S.A. with the eponymous title song was a commercial success. Eventually replacing Prince's 1984 album Purple Rain on the number one position the album spent 96 weeks in the US Top Forty Charts – five weeks more than Michael Jackson's 1983 album Thriller (Garofalo 2011, 304,310) – and sold 7.5 million copies in the first year (Pareles 1985). Another sign of the album's success are the 7 singles culled from the album – a number previously only achieved by Michael Jackson and his album Thriller. This elevated Springsteen to a superstar on the same level as Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna.
Due to the song's popularity and ambiguous refrain the presidential candidates Ronald Reagan (Republican) and Walter Mondale (Democrat) tried to capitalize on the song for their election campaign in 1984: Following the conservative columnist Georg Will’s embrace of the song as an "example of conservative American values" (Garofalo 2011, 306; cf. also Cowie and Boehm 2006, 359) Reagan invoked Springsteen and his work in a speech in Hammonton, New Jersey on September 19th, 1984 (Clines 1984). Mondale rebutted Reagan’s use of Springsteen at a campaign stop on October 1st in New Brunswick, New Jersey, claiming to have Springsteen’s endorsement. Springsteen, however, did not endorse any of the candidates (Garofalo 2011, 304f). This was repeated in October 1997 when presidential candidate Bob Dole tried to appropriate the song in his campaign by playing it while visiting central New Jersey. This drew a sharp rebuttal from Springsteen who had not given permission for the song's use (Dawidoff 1997).
This misinterpretation of the lyrics has inspired songs with similar refrains in other languages like DDT’s ambivalent "Rozhdennyi v SSSR" (Born in the USSR) and Oleg Gazmanov’s nationalistic (and nostalgic) "Sdelan v SSSR" (Made in the USSR – cf. Wickström 2007; Wickström 2011).
Songwriter: Bruce Springsteen
Lyrics: Bruce Springsteen
Producer: Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Steve (Steven) Van Zandt
Vocals: Bruce Springsteen
Band: E Street Band: Roy Bittan (keyboard/synthesizer), Max Weinberg (drums), Danny Federici (keyboard), Bruce Springsteen (guitar), Garry Tallent (bass), Steven Van Zandt (guitar) – Clarence Clemons (saxophone) is not featured
Recording: May 1982
- Dockwray, Ruth (2005): "Deconstructing the Rock Anthem: Textual Form, Participation and Collectivity." Institute of Popular Music, University of Liverpool, Liverpool.
- Garofalo, Reebee: Rockin' Out – Popular Music in the U.S.A. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall 52011.
- Wickström, David-Emil: Okna Otkroi! – Open the Windows! Scenes, Transcultural Flows, and Identity Politics in Popular Music From Post-Soviet St. Petersburg. Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society. Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag 2011.
- Buskin, Richard. 2010. Bruce Springsteen ‘Born in the Usa’. Sound on Sound, March. URL: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/mar10/articles/classictracks_0310.htm [13.12.2011].
- Clines, Francis X. 1984. President Heaps Praise on Voters in the Northeast. The New York Times, 20.09. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/1984/09/20/us/president-heaps-praise-on-voters-in-the-northeast.html?scp=5&sq=reagan+springsteen&st=nyt [02.12.2011].
- Cowie, Jefferson R., and Lauren Boehm. 2006. Dead Man's Town: "Born in the USA," Social History, and Working-Class Identity. American Quarterly 58 (2): 353-78. URL: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/american_quarterly/v058/58.2cowie.html [11.12.2011].
- Dawidoff, Nicholas. 1997. The Pop Populist. The New York Times, 26.01. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/26/magazine/the-pop-populist.html [02.12.2011].
- N.N. n.d. 6. Bruce Springsteen, 'BORN IN THE USA'. Rolling Stone. URL: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-best-albums-of-the-eighties-20110418/bruce-springsteen-born-in-the-u-s-a-19691231?print=true [13.12.2011].
- Pareles, Jon. 1985. Bruce Springsteen – Rock's Popular Populist. The New York Times, 18.08, [02.12.2011].
- Thrill Hill Productions Inc. n.d. BORN IN THE USA brucespringsteen.net. URL: http://www.brucespringsteen.net/albums/bornintheusa.html [25.11.2011].
- Wickström, David-Emil. 2007. The Soviet Union in Soviet and Post Soviet Popular Music. (post) soviet popular music / (post)sovetskaia populiarnaia muzyka. URL: http://ps-popular-music.blogspot.com/2007/12/soviet-union-in-soviet-and-post-soviet.html [13.12.2011].
About the Author
Prof. Dr. David-Emil Wickström teaches Popular Music Studies and Ethnomusicology at the Popakademie Baden-Württemberg – University of Popular Music and Music Business.
David-Emil Wickström: "Born in the U.S.A. (Bruce Springsteen)". In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/bornintheusa, 2011 [revised 10/2013].