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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' 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 U.S.A.," 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 U.S.A." just charged straight ahead, as unsubtle as it was hard and loud. The musical heart of "Born in the U.S.A." 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 U.S.A." 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 the basic recipe in "Born in the U.S.A." 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 U.S.A. / I was born in the U.S.A. / Born in the U.S.A. / Born in the U.S.A." 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 the 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.
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 U.S.A." 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 U.S.A." 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—or scream—along to.
For more than thirty years now, Bruce Springsteen's calling card has been what we might call "workingman's rock and roll."
Springsteen has always imagined himself as a spokesman for the ordinary blue-collar working Joe, singing out the heartbreak of the fading American Dream in the decaying Rust Belt cities of the United States' old industrial heartland. Springsteen is a natural storyteller, creating vivid characters in his songs, filling their hard lives with unforgettable details.
And those characters all seem to occupy a similar space on the desperate margins of American life.
(1) There's the kid in "The River" who gets his girlfriend pregnant:
And for my 19th birthday, I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisles, no flowers, no wedding dress.
(2) There's the desperate scammer of "Atlantic City," hoping that he can escape his problems by doing just one shady job for Mob-connected gambling bosses:
I been looking a job but it's hard to find
Down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well I'm tired of coming out on this losing end
So honey last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favor for him.
(3) There's the "Johhny 99" condemned murderer:
Well Judge, Judge, I had debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holding my mortgage, they were gonna take my house away
Now I ain't saying that makes me an innocent man
But there was more to all this that put that gun in my hand.
(4) In "My Hometown," there's the wistful native son:
Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more
They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain't coming back.
These are Springsteen's people, hardworking ordinary folks whose worlds are crashing down around them, usually due to forces outside their own control. If John Steinbeck was the voice of the Dust Bowl, then Springsteen is the bard of the Rust Belt.
And it's no accident that Springsteen once released an album called The Ghost of Tom Joad.
Wherever a factory is shuttered, a union man loses his job, or a Main Street shop closes its doors for the last time, Springsteen is there. Wherever the American Dream is hanging on by the most tenuous of threads, Springsteen is singing songs of hope and sorrow.
In a sense, "Born in the U.S.A." was two different songs: the one Bruce Springsteen wrote and the one Bruce Springsteen's fans heard.
The song Bruce Springsteen wrote was all about bitter irony. This was the story of a Vietnam vet who returned home to his own country scarred by his experiences in the war, only to discover that the economy in his hometown was crumbling and he had little hope of a better future or even a job. After serving his country, his country failed him, leaving him with "nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go."
This story, which fills Springsteen's four verses in "Born in the U.S.A.," is bleak stuff. It's these sad verses that give the song's anthemic chorus its meaning, as Springsteen intended it, anyway. "I was born in the U.S.A.!" is not so much a rah-rah patriotic cheer, in this context, as it is a heartbroken lament. Is this really what it means to be an American, to suffer in a pointless war and then suffer doubly in unemployment and hopelessness upon the war's end? Is this really the American Dream? I was born in the U.S.A.! It's not supposed to be like this...
In his songwriting, Springsteen employs a simple but effective lyrical structure, playing up the irony by offsetting his ringing choruses with dismal verses. The three bleakest lines in the song all lead directly into the iconic chorus:
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
'Til you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the U.S.A.!
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A.!
I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go
Born in the U.S.A.!
In only one case does Springsteen deviate from the song's regular architecture. After the third verse, instead of launching into the chorus, he instead adds an extra verse. It's no accident that that extra verse features the emotional apex of the song, emphasizing the many overlapping human tragedies of the Vietnam War:
I had a brother at Khe Sanh fighting off all the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of her in his arms now
Khe Sanh was one of the bloodiest—and also, perhaps, most pointless—battles of the Vietnam War, where American troops desperately fought off a communist attack against an isolated jungle outpost, only to see the U.S. military abandon the base shortly after winning the battle.
What was the point of the sacrifice of the men lost there? What did their deaths achieve? Why should they have left their lovers alone, left their children fatherless?
So, that was the song Bruce Springsteen wrote, as sad a song as you'll ever here on Top 40 radio. But that wasn't quite the same song most fans heard. Springsteen's songwriting depended upon a delicate balance of chorus and verses. But for most listeners, the chorus simply overpowered everything else around it. Most fans loved the chorus and didn't even hear the verses. Accordingly, most fans missed the irony entirely.
Millions of people shouted out their lungs, singing along with "The Boss" to "Born in the U.S.A. / I was born in the U.S.A. / I was born in the U.S.A. / Born in the U.S.A." But all the sad bits—Khe Sanh, the hiring man down at the refinery, the shadow of the penitentiary—simply faded away. "Born in the U.S.A." became a simple patriotic—if not jingoistic—new national anthem for the age of rock and roll.
So, which "Born in the U.S.A." is a better song, the one Springsteen wrote or the one most of us heard? You'll have to be the judge of that.