In 1982, Bruce Springsteen released Nebraska – an introspective, acoustic album that was dark, seedy and no small part pessimistic. During the writing process, he penned a number of songs that in the end were not included; they did not fit the tone nor style of the album. Two years later, and representing arguably his greatest work, the hugely critically and commercially successful album Born in the U.S.A. was released.
The album was everything its predecessor was not – it was upbeat and pop-flavoured. Such a change helped Springsteen further his mainstream success, appealing to not only what the every-man liked to listen to, but also telling his stories. Up to this point and onwards, Springsteen’s musical origins and arguably his best works are those which have drawn on the average American, of small towns and big dreams, and told stories of escape and success. As of 1984 Springsteen was a well-known rocker, but it was the iconic image of his backside accompanying his album’s release that cemented Springsteen as a icon in households around the globe. With Born in the U.S.A., the legend of ‘The Boss’ was truly born.
‘Born in the U.S.A’ itself is one of the most delightfully misconstrued songs to ever exist. It has blasting rock rhythms, and you could easily be fooled into thinking that this is a song for American-football watching and beer guzzling and not, in fact, a song about the working class, the cost of war, and the terrible treatment received by Vietnam veterans. It’s repeating chorus is a stingingly sarcastic retort to the indifference that returning soldiers faced at the hands of a privileged, upper-class government. Going to show that you really can have a hit without anyone listening to the words, the song was taken up as a patriotic anthem and even used briefly in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Presidental campaign. Springsteen – a devout liberal, who was born in a working class home and even now in his concerts takes time to explain his left-leaning politics and humanitarian work – politely asked if the Republican could stop using his song, please. ‘Born in the U.S.A’ shows pretty clearly the depth of Springsteen’s songwriting, and his ability to effortlessly melt together depth of meaning, with a song that’s still fun to listen to.
This theme continues. ‘I’m On Fire’ is synthesised, smouldering and brimming with sexual tension. Soft-spoken words are bellied with heat and the element of the forbidden, underlain with a sizzling electric beat. In a testament to Springsteen’s ability to touch and inspire, the song is also clearly begging to be covered; at least 50 versions exist. For the most part they are fairly bland, direct covers which emulate but of course never quite match Springsteen’s style. Take John Mayer’s overwhelmingly boring interpretation, for instance. By contrast, the best versions of the song are those which spin it, and do something creative. Mumford & Sons perform it live with the accordion standing in for the synthesisers; that’s pretty neat. The un-ignorable and widely regarded as the best, however, is Bat For Lashes’ version. Both true to the original and entirely unique, a powerful voice that really pops certain words and rippling instrumentation give the song a breathless, haunting and almost creepy element. ‘Edgy and dull’, indeed.
The album blends themes so neatly, and in doing so captured Springsteen’s musical evolution. The heartfelt and soulful ‘No Surrender’, for the down-and-out average American; the self-effacing and a tiny bit bleak but nonetheless americana-laden ‘Glory Days’; and the mainstream and radio-ready ‘Dancing in the Dark’. The latter was a very late edition to the album, penned close to the album’s release and pushed forward by producers to be a sure-fire hit single. Springsteen notes that he wrote the song with trepidation, and that it went as far towards pop-music as he ever wanted to go, but later acknowledged in Songs, his book of lyrics, that “My heroes, from Hank Williams to Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan, were popular musicians. They had hits. There was value in trying to connect with a large audience.”
(This is, as an aside, my parents ‘song’. They met in 1984, the summer the album came out, and it played the first time they danced together. Plenty of other blokes also apparently wanted to dance with my mum that night, and my dad likes to complain that the song the DJ picked for his turn wasn’t particularly romantic. Then again, he did get to marry her, so perhaps he didn’t get that bad of a deal.)
Born in the U.S.A. was the best-selling album of 1985. It ranks in the top 20 bestselling albums of all time, selling 30 million copies worldwide and resulting in a string of seven Top 10 singles that matches the world records set by Michael and Janet Jackson. It is heartfelt, fun, and pure Americana, all at once, and shows the ability of Springsteen’s music to resonate with the listener, regardless of the package it comes in. It is an album that can be pushed into a CD player and left, with the knowledge that each and every track will be a corker. Very few albums then or since are able to inspire that breathless moment of, “God, I love this song”; with track after track after track, time after time after time.
Born in the U.S.A. was released on June 4th, 1984 via Columbia Records.