By: Patrick Grant
Remember Y2K? I don’t really. My association with the potential worldwide collapse at the turn of the millennium really boils down to one strong memory of a scrolling text screensaver, upon which some clever person, likely my brother, had typed the words “I will self-destruct in 5…4…3…2…1.” Being a weird little sensitive kid with a hyperactive imagination, I immediately personified the computer and became very afraid that, when we all went to bed, the evil machine that provided Minesweeper in the day time was going to blow itself up and kill us all in the process. I remember breathing a sigh of relief when the millennium came and nothing happened.
I can only imagine what it must have been like whiling down the days of 1983 waiting for the mythical dystopian year of Orwell’s famous novel to begin. It’s a strange downfall of a many pop culture artifacts that their dream of the future will eventually be replaced with true events and create that weird nostalgia for, well, old futures. I’m sure a good many sighs of relief were breathed when January 1st came around and the world didn’t seem any more totalitarian than it had the day before.
Or did it? It was a banner year for North American misery in a lot of ways. Everyone was getting HIV and the Reagan administration cooked up the crack epidemic. The leader of free world actually said: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes,” while doing a voice check for a radio broadcast. Here in Canada, Trudeau retired and Mulroney’s PC party won the largest majority government in Canadian history. What a morbid political junkyard.
And, as always, there was so, so much music. New Wave was in full swing, disco was evolving at an insane rate, college rock and early indie were blooming and synthesizers were everywhere. In probably the most tragic and bizarre moment of irony in pop music history, Marvin Gaye was gunned down by his own father on April Fool’s Day. Fela Kuti was held in prison by the Nigerian government for 20 months for “currency smuggling.” In New York, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin had started Def Jam records and hip-hop was gearing up to take the world by storm. The radio was all Yes, Wham, Thompson Twins and the Culture Club. Where on earth could Bruce Springsteen possibly fit in all of this?
The Boss had already achieved significant commercial success since 1975’s Born To Run. His typical image of working class hero turned romantic rock star was definitely very solid in the hearts and minds of millions of people. The power pop and bleak folk of 1980’s The River saw his song writing grow laterally, creating a sprawling masterpiece of intricate human relationships and strange considerations of hopelessness, loss, death, and as always, romance. The album is now certified 5x platinum in the U.S. alone. The move towards folk on the title track and dark burners like “Wreck On the Highway” finally repurposed his original “New Dylan” hype and paved the way for 1982’s Nebraska.
If this article were about Nebraska, it would be very, very easy to write. The 4-track folk album is considered by many to be Springsteen’s greatest album, loved by Boss freaks and people who “just can’t seem to get into his other stuff” alike. I think the reason for this is because its form reflects its content. Creaky songs about death and poverty and meaninglessness go very well with the stark and minimal production and give the whole album a cohesive feeling. You can listen to what he says and the music analyses the emotions behind it for you. The sadness is spelled out.
My dad went to his first Springsteen concert at Exhibition Stadium in 1981. I’ve never gotten a totally accurate timeline of his record buying habits (new details keep coming to light, like how he’s had the same copy of Honky Chateau since he was 14) but I have always assumed that The River was the first Bruce album that really cracked him. I can only imagine how much strange it must have felt to see that live show and have his new hero release a lo-fi album full of murder ballads. It must have been fucked.
Born In the U.S.A is such a ridiculous anomaly of a record because it’s form and content are so opposing. Bruce opened up into a new kind of stadium rock that sonically allowed him to both fit in with the times and continue to expand his palette by blending his new political folk music with the sonic tenets of a generation of cheese rockers. The album is successful because most of its musical moves are BIG and LOUD and STUPID, yes, but therein lays pop music’s true opportunity. Hidden beneath the quarter mile of crushed beer cans lining the gutters of E Street is a message of hurt, loss, perversion, aimlessness and broken sexuality.
The album begins in Vietnam but it can certainly be argued that the horrendous jungle death mockery isn’t the craziest place it goes. The title track is renowned for its commentary on the brutal treatment of Vietnam veterans but its true place in the arc of the album is as a kind of source for what will happen to the characters. Compared with Born to Run opener “Thunder Road” ten years previous, where showing a little faith and barrelling off into the sunset was considered a legitimate solution to all the world’s problems, it’s 1984 partner, originally written on an acoustic guitar for the Nebraska sessions, seems to say “This is what you’ve done to us. Look at what you made.”
Born in the U.S.A’s protagonists all fall into one of two kinds of imaginary world. Here’s my arbitrary breakdown of these narratives and some speculation on where they fit and why.
Songs: “Working on the Highway”, “Downbound Train”, “Bobby Jean”, “Glory Days”, “My Hometown”
The songs on the first list are all nostalgic for simplicity that is just a thinly veiled idea of home. For “Downbound Train” and “Bobby Jean” home is a recently departed partner. In the former, it’s clear that the situation is because of a crumbling relationship and an emotional disconnect. “Bobby Jean,” on the other hand is a lot more ambiguous. There’s no indication as to Bobby’s gender, where they went or why specifically they don’t seem to want to talk to Bruce. Honestly, this song is always treated as a testament to the strength of friendship in tumultuous times, but it reads a bit like a suicide song. The only indicator that Bobby is still alive is that they might hear their rock star friend’s new tune about them while they’re out there finding themselves. But how does Bruce know where Bobby is if he keeps getting the brush off from the mom and the voicemail?
Which brings us to “Glory Days.” This classic country-rock banger is easily my least favourite popular Springsteen tune. That being said, it honks and tonks its way through three verses that outline exactly how useless and pathetic it is to keep on keepin’ on in this old life. Springsteen’s speaker gets drunk in every verse, first with a washed up baseball player who is almost certainly drinking and driving (it’s a roadside bar), second with an objectified divorcee who he bangs after her kids are in bed and third, alone, wondering what’s happened to his life. Good ol’ G-Days is easily the most depressing song the Boss has ever written and nobody even dies in it. Bonus points for his pronunciation of “crying”, which always sounds to me like “cran” and then I imagine the divorcee on a Friday night in her cosmopolitan past throwing down some Ocean Spray and going out on the town.
This last bit is a comparison between the earliest song on list one and the latest one. To me, both “Working On The Highway” and “My Hometown” are actually songs about how terrifying it is to raise children in this world. “Working On The Highway” is an upbeat number sung from the perspective of an incarcerated romantic whose crime is the abduction of an underaged girl. It’s gross and weird and leans towards a hyper-masculine criticism of his incarceration and bemoaning his lost love. It reminds me a bit of how effortlessly and unintentionally scary songs like “Don’t Talk” by the Beach Boys are. It’s like they’re meant to be romantic but they miss the mark in a freaky way. Here’s the original version:
It’s funny because I like quiet covers of songs like the Misfits’ “Last Caress” and almost anything by David Pajo but I find it really perverse to listen to a fun song about statutory rape. At least in the (sort of boring) original the sadness is spelled out a la Nebraska. It’s less disturbing when it’s honest.
“My Hometown,” on the other hand, uses nostalgia to move the gaze from a father to a son. The song begins with the protagonist buying a paper for his father, living through disparity and racial violence and coming out the other end with a son he can impart his knowledge upon. In the song’s final verse, Bruce discusses the possibility of leaving and heading south, but the prospect doesn’t seem real like it did in 1975. The circle of life seems to live and breathe in small town America for this character and really, where would they go? Who would they be? Who are they anyway except a vessel to teach their son how to perpetuate the same meaningless change and existential dread? Aimlessness, even within family.
Songs: “Cover Me”, “Darlington County”, “I’m On Fire”, “I’m Goin’ Down”, “Dancing In the Dark”
The second list is where the sex is. It would be very dishonest to engage in a discussion of this album without pointing out that, by 1984, Bruce has become a big strong man who slapped his big strong ass on his red white & blue album cover. Gone is the Jersey Devil with his paperboy caps and jazzy rhythmic tendencies. This dude rides horses now.
All of the songs on this album are written from the perspective of a man. Not only that, but the type of man who’s all pent up inside from not being able to express himself properly. He can’t tell you what he saw in ‘Nam, he can’t even say he loves you! Damn America! He’s seen enough, don’t want to see anymore. He wants you to cover him, like sex is war. It feels like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull and cut a six inch valley through the middle of his skull. What a graphic lyric! Anyway, the point is that the men in these songs are all baby, baby, baby, cool my desire. The depiction of women on Born In The U.S.A. is a lot different than on his last album with female characters to speak of, The River, in which Bruce actually takes some steps towards learning what it means to be a partner rather than just running off with girls down by the boardwalk. Here, he’s not on the boardwalk anymore but he still wants to get wasted with Wayne and petition you to rock all night with, or possibly for, $200. He needs a love reaction.
The only song on the album that contains any real hope, this sweet brotherhood rager doesn’t really fit in a grouping with any of the other tracks. “No Surrender” dwells in nostalgia that seems to come from Springsteen’s real life: he sings about playing in a band in earlier, simpler times. His friend’s sister is calling them home from practice to somewhere warm and innocent. It’s unclear whether this character is supposed to have been successful in his rock n’ roll dream. What becomes clear is that the dream itself seems to make him feel claustrophobic in light of reality. It’s a very tingly moment.
On the street tonight the lights are growing dim,
The walls of my room are closing in,
There’s a war outside still raging, they say it ain’t ours anymore to win,
I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover’s bed,
With a wide open country in my eyes and these romantic dreams in my head.
I’ve written a few articles about Springsteen in my life and this one has proven both the easiest and the most difficult. I can’t really remember a time in my life when I didn’t have some kind of relationship with Born In the U.S.A. Despite the fact that I sort of ripped on some aspects of the record here, it’s founded in the love and respect that you have for something that’s genuinely a part of you. If you ever want to pull on someone’s coat about the finer details of “I’m Goin’ Down,” you know where to find me. For now, I’m just going to go repurpose a classic scrolling text screen saver to say “Bruce will self-destruct in 1…2…3…4!”