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Meaning

The red, white, and blue summer of 1984 found its perfect soundtrack in Born in the USA, a chart-topping new album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Released a month before the Olympics convened in LA, the record soon became an unavoidable presence on American radio; seven of the album's twelve tracks eventually became Top 10 singles. The title track, in particular, seemed to capture the nationalistic spirit of the moment in its anthemic chorus—"Born in the USA! / I was born in the USA!"—and in the star-spangled imagery of its cover art. Many listeners heard in the music a rock n' roll echo of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America." The program director of a major New York radio station called Springsteen "a spokesman for patriotism... the Ronald Reagan of rock n' roll." Conservative columnist George Will approvingly noted that in Springsteen's songs—as in Reagan's speeches—"the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: 'Born in the USA!'" And the president himself even got into the act, declaring on a campaign visit to Springsteen's home state that "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen."

Those who sought to cast Bruce Springsteen in the role of Ronald Reagan in tight blue jeans and a leather jacket only missed one small thing: "Born in the USA" was a protest record. Its patriotic chorus—the only lyrics most fans ever learned—stood as a bitterly ironic counterpoint to the song's verses, which told the heartbreaking story of a hopeless Vietnam vet. It's hard to imagine Ronald Reagan appreciating the song's full lyrics (reproduced here without the famous chorus):

Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
'Til you spend half your life just covering up now

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

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says, 'Son, if it was up to me...'
Went down to see my VA man
He said, 'Son, don't you understand?'

I had a brother at Khe Sanh fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go


This was hardly the stuff of "Morning in America." Springsteen rebuffed requests from the Reagan campaign to use "Born in the USA" as its official theme song, and responded to Reagan's New Jersey speech with a special dedication at his next concert: "The president mentioned my name the other day," Springsteen told the crowd, "and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album must have been... I don't think he's been listening to this one." He then launched into "Johnny 99," a bleak song about an unemployed millworker who drunkenly shoots a night clerk and ends up sentenced to 99 years in jail.

Springsteen later explained more directly his objections to his songs being heard as celebrations of Reagan-style nostalgic patriotism. "I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in," he said, "but what's happening, I think, is that that need—which is a good thing—is getting manipulated and exploited. You see in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, 'It's morning in America,' and you say, 'Well, it's not morning in Pittsburgh.'" Many of the songs on Born in the USA—"My Hometown," "Glory Days," "Downbound Train," and "I'm Going Down," in addition to the title track—captured with great poignancy the misery of life in struggling small-town communities where the American Dream no longer seemed attainable. A record associated by many—or even most—listeners with simple flag-waving patriotism actually represented Springsteen's attempt to offer a moving and powerful critique of what he saw as the iniquities of American society in the 1980s.
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