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Springsteen's U.S.A.

Springsteen's U.S.A.

Music critic Steven Hyden's new book about Bruce Springsteen's iconic "Born in the U.S.A" album is the product of a lifelong passion for the music of "The Boss."

Matt Hanson

Is there an American song as iconic and yet as easily misinterpreted as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”? The title alone sure sounds patriotic at first glance, especially when those words are sung in the raw, charismatic way that Springsteen renders it. There’s precious little distance between singer and listener. The rousing stomp of the drum and the uplifting synthesizer riff lift you off your seat, your fist suddenly pumping in the air. It’s sheer excitement to hear, attractive to sing along to, and—as with any good rock song—compelling to believe in. But Springsteen’s song presents many different reasons for wanting to pump your fist. 

Despite the ostensible triumphalism of “Born in the U.S.A.,” the lyrics are hardly that, as even a quick scan reveals. The singer/narrator announces that he was “born down in a dead man’s town,” and compares himself to a beaten dog, admitting to spending half of his life trying to heal lifetime wounds. Harsh stuff. Referring both to his own and his dead brother’s service in Vietnam, and to the rampant unemployment and lack of support upon his return, the hopelessness seems to have settled deep into his bones: “nowhere to run/ ain’t got nowhere to go.” Hopefully, with every transition from the agonized verses to the exultant chorus, the listener thinks twice about the story and the sentiments that they’re really hearing—and stops to consider what’s actually being said about what life in this United States of America is really like. 

Veteran music writer and author Steven Hyden explains something similar in his new book, There Was Nothing You Could Do: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and the End of the Heartland. The book is the product of a lifelong passion for the music of “The Boss.” Bruce Springsteen’s record first rearranged Hyden’s mental circuits in a situation he describes as being much like a Springsteen song: as a six-year-old kid sitting alone in his dad’s car, staring at a cassette tape of a guy in blue jeans with an American flag behind him, having an epiphany he’d think about for the rest of his life.

All these years later, I am still chasing the rush of hearing that titanic BOOM! in my father’s car. And I seek the version of America that Bruce is singing about …. a mythical heartland where people can set aside their differences and always have each other’s backs. The real, and also imaginary, America. 

Hyden’s knowledge of Springsteen’s music is enthusiastic, encyclopedic, and yet nuanced. He’s no snob. He’s an impassioned expert who clearly enjoys sharing his insights and associations with his readers. These traits make him an excellent guide to a record that millions of people continue to listen to and take to heart, whether they have delved as deeply into its sentiments as Hyden has or not. “Born in the U.S.A.” —as poet Walt Whitman once sang in his verses of himself—contains multitudes. 

Naturally, as Whitman knew, those multitudes contain contradictions. The contradictions of the record—and of its composer—are American to the core, and hover around the charged space between perception and reality. “Born in the U.S.A.” is the creation of a working-class kid from Jersey, who by his own admission never worked a day job in his life and yet had achieved tremendous wealth and fame; who constantly sang about cars and ditching his dull hometown without actually driving much and ultimately living twenty minutes from where he grew up. “Born in the U.S.A.” is the collective effort of the crack team of the E Street Band that ultimately revolved around the vision of one man, Springsteen, ironically nicknamed “The Boss.” Hyden nearly oversells his extended comparison about Springsteen’s ability to combine Elvis-like masculinity with Dylan’s literary skill, but it’s an interesting and valid combination of influences. 

Hyden is also perceptive about the complexities of Springsteen’s politics. Conservative pundits hailed Springsteen as a good old-fashioned All-American role model with wholesome values (“he’s a man’s man … he’s clean, honest, drug-free, and unpretentious”). Yet Springsteen himself took inspiration from the radical class consciousness of Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, offering liberal reading recommendations in liner notes. He advocated for more localized activism, such as donating to local food banks, which he called “human politics.” A liberal, no doubt, but on his own terms. 

Given the number of clickbait articles offering lists of top ten or twenty Springsteen songs that keep popping up on my daily feed, it seems safe to say that “The Boss” has become something of an elder statesman in popular music. It’s impressive how the reputation of “Born in the U.S.A.”—which sold millions of copies, got the approval of President Reagan, and put Springsteen on the cover of both Time and Newsweek simultaneously—hasn’t shriveled up from overexposure. The perennially popular singles from the album still have new things to tell us. Aside from the title track, “Dancing in the Dark,” “I’m On Fire,” “Glory Days,” and “Cover Me” are arguably the most well-known songs on the record. 

Hyden takes us through the highways and byways of each song, revealing more ambiguity and nuance than we might have initially expected. For example, “Dancing in the Dark” is an extremely fun, danceable hit (the Brian DePalma directed video features Courtney Cox, even if Bruce’s “Jersey James Brown” dance moves are a little goofy) about a lonely night person who wants to “change my hair, my clothes, my face” and longs to experience the joy he doesn’t seem totally sure about. The former high school baseball star in the deceptively jaunty “Glory Days” turns out to be merely another boring old townie. Then there’s the fascinating fact that “Born in the U.S.A.” was originally the title of a movie script intended for Springsteen to star in, written by Paul Schrader, who famously wrote (and apparently lived) Taxi Driver—and who still directs films about lonely men in empty rooms.     

I kept hoping that Hyden would reveal more of his personal experience of what he refers to as the “death of the heartland,” which is after all part of the book’s title, and certainly relevant to his subject’s social vision. To be fair, Hyden is neither a sociologist nor a political commentator. He is a rock music critic. It’s not necessarily his job to explain the various cultural, political, and economic factors that contributed to the partisan bitterness and economic precarity that Springsteen sang about. 

Hyden does use different bands and records as a map to explain the various ways that a term like “heartland rock” might mean, and how Springsteen’s work fits within such classification. For music nerds such as myself, this is my language. Nevertheless, I wish that Hyden had departed from his musical cartography and dug a little deeper into his personal experience. Not to have explained more about what Hyden himself grew up seeing and feeling as a proud son of the upper Midwest, in what he describes as “one of the decaying Rust Belt towns,” is a loss for author and reader alike. That kind of landscape is, after all, central to Springsteen’s social vision. It would have been interesting to learn more about the critic’s experiences as a person, not just how he processes them through listening to music.  

Deciding that a musician is speaking for you is a totally natural impulse, but tread lightly: there can be a world of difference between what a person thinks they’re hearing and what’s being said. Literary critics call this intentional fallacy: Just because an artist thinks they are making a specific statement in their art doesn’t mean that that statement will or should be interpreted in the way they intend it to be. Some have argued that intentions don’t really matter when interpreting the work, which might be going a little too far. 

 Hyden explains it this way:

It’s the horrible, necessary bargain you must make to set up a stage inside of the world’s arenas and stadiums. Not everybody is going to get it. Millions of people are not going to get it. And you will never be a pop star if you cannot accept this. What they think of you is out of your control. It’s just the way it is. 

Once you become a symbol of some kind for a specific group, it’s inevitable that people are going to project their own issues onto you, making you the outlet or the salvation for their fears and anxieties. This must be incredibly frustrating at best for any artist, especially one at Springsteen’s exalted level. At worst it can be dangerous—just ask Mark David Chapman. In Springsteen’s case, eventually he just had to shake off all the adulation, and revert to his preferred mode of solitude. He explained that he was pretty “Bruced out.” One can hardly blame him. 

Emerson wrote in Self Reliance that ‘to be great is to be misunderstood,” and this is inevitably part of the burden that someone of such eminence must bear. When an individual is declared to be everybody’s hero, it is inevitable that all those people do not see the hero accurately. Springsteen clearly knew all too well that once the show is over, you’re still left alone with your own all-too-human demons. 

That is the magic trick that Springsteen is brilliant at pulling off: He genuinely believes in the transformative power of rock and roll (“we learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever did in school”) while also being acutely aware of what that transformation costs (“I eat loneliness, man”). Mixing the agony and the ecstasy of American life into epic rock and roll is hardly as easy as Springsteen makes it sound. But it might be what makes Springsteen’s music so powerful, meaningful, and deeply valued by generation after generation of listeners. Even if he is exalted as an icon, for reasons both good and bad, he has earned the right to become a gold standard for “keeping it real”— fusing both an exalted dream and a bitter reality into the same resonant chord. 

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor of American Purpose and The Arts Fuse, Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine. His work has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and Three Quarks Daily.

Image: Bruce Springsteen performing at the New Haven Coliseum in New Haven, Connecticut circa 1977-1978, Carl Lender via Wikimedia Commons

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