Born in the U.S.A., which turns 30 this week, is Bruce Springsteen’s best-selling album to date, and that should come as no surprise. Its songs—“I’m On Fire,” “Glory Days,” “Darlington County” and others—are FM radio staples, their foursquare drum, piano, base and guitar parts perfectly at home in either a Jersey Shore bar or an East Texas roadhouse. If you hear a Springsteen song at your local supermarket, nine times out of 10 it comes from this album.
Born in the U.S.A. is also the Springsteen album whose songs have had the longest half-life in U.S. political discourse, from President Ronald Reagan’s attempt to co-opt Springsteen’s popularity right after the album’s release to John Kerry’s ploddingly literal use of “No Surrender” in his presidential campaign 20 years later. Even Barack Obama, probably the most broadly appreciative music fan ever to occupy the Oval Office, chose a Born in the U.S.A. track (“I’m On Fire”) for a 2008 playlist of favorite songs.
But the greatest political impact of Born in the U.S.A. was undeniably on Springsteen himself—turning him from a relatively apolitical performer from an avowedly working-class background to a passionate advocate for the rights of the disenfranchised—and that was all thanks to Reagan.
In 1984, President Reagan was running for his second term. Early on, his team had decided that the president’s core supporters would vote for him no matter what. The reelection campaign would therefore be more about wooing moderate and independent voters than about shoring up the committed Republican base. It would be about images rather than issues and would attempt to co-opt as much of mainstream U.S. culture as it could. If rock ‘n’ roll had been anathema to an earlier Republicans like former vice president Spiro Agnew—or even to then-current, musically clueless Secretary of the Interior James Watt—it was perfectly fine with most of the Reagan re-election team, particularly if the music in question could be viewed as inspirational. “If we allow any Democrat to claim optimism or idealism as his issue,” one adviser noted very early in the campaign’s planning, “we will lose the election.”
In late August, just after the Republican National Convention, conservative columnist—and unofficial Reagan campaign adviser—George Will attended a Springsteen concert in Largo, Maryland, and was highly impressed. “If all Americans,” Will would later write in his column about his backstage experience, “in labor and management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles—made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about protectionism.”
Perhaps significantly, Will’s fervent ode to the Springsteen work ethic did not appear until two weeks after the concert, when the presidential campaign was in full swing. Six days after the column appeared, President Reagan made a campaign appearance in Hammonton, New Jersey, and as usual his staff slipped a few local references into his standard stump speech. “America’s future,” Reagan told the small-town audience, “rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire—New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen.”
When asked about the president’s compliment between concerts that week, Springsteen tried to shrug it off. But when you have the No. 2 album in the country, publicity tends not to go away. By the time the singer next took the stage, two days after the president’s Hammonton name check, it was clear that Springsteen would have to address it head-on and in the only place where he totally controlled the message: onstage. “Well, the president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day,” Springsteen told his Friday-night audience in Pittsburgh, “and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know? I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.”
He then launched into “Johnny 99” from Nebraska, his last album before Born in the U.S.A.—much lower profile and much less “poppy.” It’s an austere set of songs about loners and criminals that Springsteen recorded himself in an empty rented house over a single night in the dead of winter. The song begins:
Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month
Ralph went out lookin’ for a job but he couldn’t find none
He came home too drunk from mixin’
Tanqueray and wine
He got a gun shot a night clerk now they call ‘m Johnny 99.
This was a big change for Springsteen—one of the first times he had really acknowledged his songs’ political roots—perhaps even to himself.
Aside from a small fundraiser for George McGovern at a New Jersey drive-in in 1972, months before he even released his first album, Springsteen had never declared his support for a political candidate. In fact, he revealed in an interview published in December 1984 that he might only have voted once, perhaps in that election 12 years earlier.
When Springsteen participated in the “No Nukes” concerts in the fall of 1979, a series of events held at Madison Square Garden by the Musicians United for Safe Energy collective, onstage he was virtually the least politically vocal artist on the bill. He pointedly omitted the one song he had actually written about the dangers of nuclear energy (“Roulette”). He left that song off his 1980 album, The River, as well as another song (possibly called “They Killed Him in the Street”) about the 1979 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, which, had it been released, would have been one of the earliest references in U.S. pop music to right-wing capitalist terrorism in Central America.
And even on Nebraska, for all that Springsteen’s stripped-down songs identified with the downtrodden and excluded, he never even began to consider in those songs what could be done to improve those characters’ lives. No matter how socially conscious Springsteen’s work might be, it was never about activism.
In fact, as much as Springsteen wanted to distance himself from Reagan, there were some undeniable similarities between Reagan’s 1984 tour and Springsteen’s. Both men liked to talk a lot to their audiences about freedom, and both tended to define that freedom in terms of the agency of the individual. Both men instinctively distrusted structures and institutions, precisely because they saw them as limiting individual freedom. If the title track of Born in the U.S.A. contained less historical amnesia than the average Reagan mention of the Vietnam War, the album’s concluding track—“My Hometown”—would not have been wholly out of synch as a soundtrack for Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” campaign ad.
At their most fundamental level, the president and the rock star shared a common ideological base: They both started as New Deal Democrats who didn’t like technocracy. The real difference between them was generational: the difference between a political consciousness formed by the early Cold War and one formed by the Vietnam War at its height. In public, however, the difference was harder to grasp. In Maryland the night George Will saw him, Springsteen spoke about the Revolutionary War Monument in his boyhood home of Freehold before performing “My Hometown” as reverently as the president had spoken about the Statue of Liberty when accepting the Republican nomination in Dallas a few nights earlier.
All that changed drastically after Reagan’s Hammonton speech. Although the introduction to “Johnny 99” that night in Pittsburgh was the only direct reference to the president that Springsteen made, his usual story before “My Hometown” about the Revolutionary War Monument in Freehold and the two-year-old Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington became more explicitly political that night. Rather than simply mourning two centuries of dead U.S. veterans, Springsteen now expressed a sense of dissatisfaction and even ownership of contemporary America. “It seems like something’s happening out there where there’s a lot of stuff being taken away from a lot of people that shouldn’t have it taken away from,” the singer told his audience. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember that this place belongs to us, that this is our hometown.”
To anyone listening closely, a lot of what Springsteen said that night was already in his songs—and not just on the Nebraska album. Take, for example, Born in the U.S.A.’s title track. George Will might have interpreted the chorus to “Born in the U.S.A.” as a “grand cheerful anthem,” but the verse is something very different:
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “son don’t you understand now”
Had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there he’s all gone.
Patriotic rallying-cry of a cold warrior? Try angry, inarticulate wail of a Vietnam veteran. And not exactly the “idealism and optimism” that the Reagan campaign was searching for.
Three nights after the Pittsburgh concert, in Buffalo, it was the story about Elvis Presley before “Born to Run” that got revamped. When George Will had heard it a month before, Springsteen had spoken vaguely of Presley that “his music and the best of rock and roll always said to me ‘Just let freedom ring.’” Now, Springsteen was careful to add, “but it’s no good if it’s just for one, it’s gotta be for everyone.” When his tour resumed in Tacoma after a two-week break in mid-October, Springsteen was cracking wise about the president and arms control before singing “Reason to Believe,” the final track from Nebraska, the sort of direct reference to a contemporary political issue that would have been unthinkable a month earlier.
But even late-night talk show hosts can joke about the president. The more significant change that Springsteen made in his concerts starting with that October 1984 stand in Tacoma was to make space for local, liberal charities, now dedicating “My Hometown” to them and to their active attempts to improve local problems. Perhaps because he had spent significant chunks of his early twenties as a squatter, Springsteen often publicized food banks. He also showed considerable interest in strike-relief funds, particularly those run by United Steelworkers Local 1397 in Pittsburgh and the Steelworkers Oldtimers Foundation in Los Angeles. Three years after the president had forcibly ended the air traffic controller strike, and three years before the dispossessed of U.S. cities became so impossible to ignore that the term “homelessness” was first applied to them, raising money for food banks run by unions was one of the least Reaganesque things that a public figure could do.
And ever since, on every Springsteen tour for the last 30 years, there have been tables for local charities at every venue, usually food banks and other poverty-focused causes, and the singer has reminded his audiences to help those organizations with the work of improving their hometowns.
But it wasn’t until the 1990s that Springsteen really became a political singer. As he pursued a more sporadic solo career, he educated himself, became a more politically aware human being, opposing anti-immigrant initiatives in California, where he was living at the time. Starting with John Kerry in 2004, Springsteen eventually began endorsing candidates, most notably articulating Barack Obama’s vision during the 2008 election—for precisely those “swing” segments of the U.S. electorate that might be most disinclined to vote for him.
In Kerry’s case, the candidate had endorsed the singer first, adopting “No Surrender” as his campaign song months before Springsteen ever endorsed his candidacy. By contrast, Springsteen had looked favorably on Obama as early as March of 2008, telling a Montreal audience, “I do feel a new wind blowing back home.” On April 16, shortly before the crucial Pennsylvania primary, in which all polls showed that older working-class white males in the heart of Springsteen Country were disinclined to vote for Obama, Springsteen heartily voiced his support. Obama, he told fans on his website, “speaks to the America I’ve envisioned in my music for the past 35 years, a generous nation with a citizenry willing to tackle nuanced and complex problems, a country that’s interested in its collective destiny and in the potential of its gathered spirit. A place where nobody crowds you, and nobody goes it alone.” (The last line was a quotation from “Long Walk Home,” one of the strongest tracks on Springsteen’s most recent album, Magic, which was in part a response to George W. Bush’s U.S.A.)
After the Magic tour wrapped up that fall, Springsteen played solo sets at a number of voter registration rallies across the country. “I’ve spent most of my creative life,” he told attendees at a rally that fall, “measuring the distance between that American promise and American reality … and I believe Senator Obama has taken the measure of that distance in his own life and in his work.”
It is the distance, we might note, between some of the more optimistic tracks on Born in the U.S.A. and many of the songs on Nebraska—between “My Hometown” and “Reason to Believe.” It is also the distance measured in both the song Springsteen performed at all his campaign appearances that fall (“The Promised Land”) and the speech on race that Obama had delivered at the Constitutional Center in Philadelphia earlier that year (“A More Perfect Union”). At the time the speech was delivered, some academics noted the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson on Senator Obama’s ideas about the United States, but they might just as easily have looked to Freehold, New Jersey, as to Concord, Massachusetts.
Some Republicans continue to claim Springsteen as their own, but it has been less and less common as time has gone on and Springsteen has clarified his own political beliefs. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the most famous Republican Springsteen fan, explicitly embraces the singer’s work without the ideology that imbues it, specifically rejecting in particular Springsteen’s frequent injunction that “nobody wins unless everybody wins.”
In 2000, when Springsteen premiered “American Skin,” his song about the NYPD’s shooting of Amadou Diallo, Bob Lucente of the New York chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police suggested that Springsteen’s politics had changed over time, but they hadn’t really. Springsteen had never been a yellow-dog conservative and he would never be a yellow-dog liberal. After 9/11, he supported military action in Afghanistan but not Iraq, and while he could praise Governor Christie for his actions after Hurricane Sandy, a few years later he could make fun of him on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon over the George Washington Bridge lane closings. Whatever his ideological beliefs, Bruce Springsteen is not a creature of party. He’s a democrat—lowercase “d.”
Last month, at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncas, Connecticut, Springsteen concluded his most recent tour, which had run for over two years. Both nights in concert, Springsteen collected for local food banks and performed a fiery version of his Steinbeck-inspired “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which declares solidarity with the homeless and victims of police brutality, among other disenfranchised groups.He performed only one song from Born in the U.S.A. (the unavoidable “Dancing in the Dark”), but the album’s songs were still in Mohegan Sun that night, on the music that aired over the casino’s speakers: “I’m Goin’ Down,” “Glory Days,” “I’m On Fire,” the most widely heard music of Springsteen’s career, all played around the slot machines and craps tables as the singer tried to keep his audience focused on his post-1980s output.
In a moment of serendipity, Melissa Bailey, a reporter for the New Haven Independent, noted that Springsteen’s tour-ending dates at the casino coincided with the Connecticut State Republican Convention in the same facility. For the most part, the two sets of attendees didn’t overlap, but a few Connecticut Republicans readily told Bailey that “Born in the U.S.A.” was their favorite Springsteen song. “It’s just uplifting,” one of them noted. “It’s an everyone song. Next to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ it’s next.”
Republished with permission from POLITICO.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image of Bruce Springsteen receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House from President Barack Obama (detail) is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.