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Due to its thunderously uplifting chorus, infectious stomp of a musical hook, and perhaps its album art as well, Bruce Springsteen’s signature song (in competition only with, perhaps, “Born to Run”) “Born in the USA” has become a beloved anthem of American patriotism. How ironic it is, then, that such a spirit is not even close to what the song actually represents. I wouldn’t say that Springsteen is anti-patriotic, or that he dislikes America, he just has, or at least exhibits, an understandably critical view of some aspects of its institutions. Given how (at least in the past; the 2016 election has broken virtually all precedents) Republicans tend to be the more outwardly patriotic party, “Born in the USA” is often used in campaigns for its members, but in actuality, this use is very inappropriate, and demonstrates virtually a total failure to recognize the true meaning of the lyrics, and of Springsteen’s entire brand of sympathy for working-class struggles.
The song begins with an unnamed protagonist explaining firsthand a rough upbringing in a small town. The events of his life and childhood caused him to “End up like a dog that’s been beat too much,” signifying Springsteen’s understanding of, and empathy for, those in the rough, middle-to-lower class. Once the character gets in some kind of altercation, he is either forced or urged into joining the military, and he is sent off to fight in the questionable and controversial Vietnam War. These verses are bookended by the ubiquitous chorus, the very one that makes this song so popular for its inappropriate uses. The apparent patriotic pride expressed in the chorus strikes a poignant contrast with the grittiness and woe of the other lyrics, which will continue throughout the song.
Springsteen’s pessimism, or perhaps realism, is all the more clear in the next verse. When the protagonist returns home from the war, he finds a climate inhospitable to him. He loses his job at the refinery, and is given no help from the VA, all while being told essentially that this is just the way things are. Despite being “born in the USA,” he is treated with little respect throughout this story as he cuts his teeth in a downtrodden community, serves his country, and returns home and tries to re-enter civilian life. I wouldn’t particularly say this song is anti-Republican, but if the boot fits, wear it. This really is not a partisan song, and anyone who would take offense to its lyrical content ought to think about why they support an environment that made Springsteen feel it was necessary to write this song in the first place. It’s no wonder this song was and is so popular, as there are two levels of appeal, each of which encapsulate much of that which the other does not. There’s the surface-level appeal wrought from the chorus, as previously discussed, but also the appeal of the true meaning, which fits squarely with the image of Bruce Springsteen and his music. The man is a red-blooded, blue-jean-wearing, loud-growling American everyman, and his songs represent a harsh but not-unrealistic feeling of frustration over working-class struggles. While his strong support for unions, as well as gay rights, (and his public endorsements of John Kerry and Barack Obama) would realistically place him as a Democrat, his message seems to me to be something deeper and more human than party politics, making his songs, really, somewhat inappropriate for either side of the aisle to use, in my opinion.
The next verses describe in some detail the experiences of the protagonist in the war, and how he lost a brother (or, more likely, a friend) in the infamous and heavily-criticized battle of KheSahn. This specific battle is a prudent microcosm of the whole Vietnam War and its futility, seeing as how thousands of Americans died to claim KheSahn, only to give the area back up the Vietnamese soon after. This is surely what Springsteenrefers to when he sings “They’re still there; he’s all gone:” that the enemy is still alive and well, but this friend (representative of all fallen servicemen) is dead. He goes on to describe how this friend left a lover behind, again conveniently representative of so many other peoples’ situations.
Finally, the last verse simply again drives home the idea that veterans are left disaffected by society, and how life in the blue-collar underbelly of the country is tough. The downtrodden masses are left with “Nowhere to run” and “nowhere to go.” Truly, this is not a happy or positive narrative by any stretch of the imagination, but its darkness is largely eclipsed by that nationalistic chorus. It seems to me that the choice to do this, put a dark story among a blindly positive chorus, is a veiled criticism of what the US government tries to do to the people. They (at least in the mind of Springsteen; I’ll stay away from throwing my hat into the ring) do not act in the best interests of the American people, then, instead of responding to and easing the peoples’ concerns, simply skirt the issue by stirring up some patriotism. Essentially, they create an environment which fails and marginalizes the people, then convince them not to think or worry about it because they’re proud, hardy, patriotic Americans. “Born in the USA,” to me, appears to be a pointed satire of this strategy and culture.
This song, and Bruce Springsteen’s music at large, can and should be enjoyed by people of all affiliations. However, for this song to be picked up as an anthem for any kind of nationalist, Republican or otherwise, represents a total failure to understand what it is really about. Like I said before, it is not an anti-American song, and Springsteen is certainly not an anti-American artist, it and he just show a kind of patriotic respect that errs more on the side of humanity than sheerly of country. This is a large part of why it shouldn’t be hard to maintain respect for this song and artist, because its message is not one pushing a simple ideology (like John Lennon’s “Imagine” could certainly be argued as doing), but one about appreciating the people who fight and die for the safety of us all. There are very few who legitimately do not respect veterans, but to everyone else, this song ought to resound. Springsteen is not for unions and quality veterans’ care because he’s a Democrat, he’s a Democrat because he’s for them. That kind of legitimacy, along with the truly distraught but not-at-all whiny lyrics of his music, ought to allow all people to respect him. Until politics becomes a business of true service of the people, though, and not one of pushing agendas, this song, and all the Boss’ music, should really be left alone. It’s more legitimate and heartfelt than politics deserves.
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