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Technique

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band rode to stardom in the late 1970s largely on the back of a series of richly textured, sonically complex hit songs. Tunes like "Born to Run" and "Thunder Road" brought an almost cinematic sense of pacing, starting slow and quiet before gradually building up to a crescendo of unstoppable musical power. Songs that began with a quiet harmonica or piano part would end in a wall of sound, with Max Weinberg's drums and two or three or four guitars and soaring keyboards and "Big Man" Clarence Clemons's wailing saxophone doing all they could to blow out your speakers.

It was a bit ironic, then, that Springsteen's biggest hit ever, "Born in the USA," was one of the most musically simplistic tunes the band ever produced. The sonic nuance and careful pacing that marked most other E Street Band compositions were nowhere to be found here; "Born in the USA" just charged straight ahead, as unsubtle as it was hard and loud.

The musical heart of "Born in the USA" is revealed with its very first notes, which unveil the two key elements that will drive the entire song: a synthesizer clarion previews the vocal melody of the iconic chorus, while Max Weinberg's drums lay down a hard-driving, straight-ahead beat.

The percussion work at the outset of "Born in the USA" might almost be called caveman drumming, with Weinberg simply taking a ferocious whack at the snare on 2 and 4. Drumbeats don't come much simpler than "Born in the USA's" basic recipe of "BAM… BAM… BAM… BAM…" (About a minute into the track, Weinberg finally kicks in with a bit of adornment for his banging backbeat, adding increasingly chaotic fills as the song develops… but crashing snare hits on 2 and 4 remain the song's steady rhythmic essence right through to the end.)

While Weinberg's work on the drums resembles a runaway freight train, Roy Bittan's synthesizers aren't much more subtle. Echoing almost exactly the vocal melody of the chorus, Bittan's synths effectively start singing "Born in the USA / I was born in the USA / Born in the USA / Born in the USA" from the song's very first note, beating Springsteen to the punch by a couple verses and never, ever stopping. No matter what else is going on in the song—whether Springsteen is singing verses or chorus or nothing at all, whether Weinberg is banging away only on the backbeat or filling in the beat with wild solos, whether the bass and guitars are wailing away or holding quiet, the synthesizers are repeating the same five notes, over and over again, electronically humming the iconic tune: "Born in the USA… Born in the USA… Born in the USA… Born in the USA… Born in the USA…"

The combined effect of Weinberg's straightforward drumming and Bittan's simple, repeating synth line is powerful, almost mesmerizing in its loudness and repetitiveness. The song also features bass, guitar, and keyboard parts, but everything but the drums and the synthesizer and Springsteen's voice tends to fade away, reduced to little more than noise in the back of the mix.

And that is, perhaps, the point. "Born in the USA" may be one of the least interesting (or at least, one of the least complex) musical compositions in the vast E Street Band catalog, but the simple, hard-charging instrumentation provided Springsteen with the perfect platform for his anguished, almost screaming vocals. (By the end of the track, you can hear his voice breaking up, his vocal chords shredded from screaming out that chorus one time too many.) It's probably fair to call "Born in the USA" simplistic, and even repetitive… but the song's very simplicity and repetition made it a huge radio hit and a reliable scorcher with stadiums full of screaming fans. It's the perfect song to sing (scream?) along to…
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