George Will got it wrong, once, sort of. On September 13, 1984, he wrote about a Bruce Springsteen concert he had attended, ears packed with cotton. He called the performance of the title tune “a cheerful, grand affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’”
The title track of the album released 35 years ago today, “Born in the U.S.A.” is about as cheerful as a suicide note from an embittered veteran suffering from PTSD. And yet Will was on to something. The passage in question reads:
I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: “Born in the U.S.A.!”
Ronald Reagan, running for reelection, picked up on Will’s theme six days later while campaigning in Hammonton, N.J.: “America’s future,” he said, “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.”
I’m not sure which detail seems more shocking today: That Reagan considered Springsteen’s work a “message of hope” or that he campaigned in Hammonton, N.J. (Reagan would carry the state by 20 points). Springsteen’s retort in a concert later that week was, “Well, the president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day, 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 kicked off “Johnny 99,” one of his many slit-your-wrists songs from his previous album, Nebraska.
Neither Reagan nor Will would have confused that one for a message of hope. Nebraska was so morose and dirge-like that it could have been dedicated to Walter Mondale. Born in the U.S.A. and “Born in the U.S.A,” though, marked a new Springsteen. Like the New York Times editor who said, “Let me control the headlines, and I shall not care who controls the editorials,” Reagan and Will were attuned to the big splash instead of the fine print. The lyrics mattered less than the tune.
Springsteen always wanted to be a rock hero — he may have worshipped the earthiness of Woody Guthrie, but he wanted to punch an Elvis-sized hole in the universe. Clive Davis, the founder of Arista Records, told the rocker in his early days that his performances were inert. Two years later, at the Bottom Line club in New York City, Springsteen invited the record mogul to see his new act: Now he was running crazily around the joint, jumping on tables. “Clive,” he asked after the show, “did I move around enough for you?”
When Born in the U.S.A. came out, Springsteen was 34 and had only one top-ten hit single to his name (“Hungry Heart”). He craved radio stardom. After six albums, he risked being pigeonholed as a critics’ darling. When Jon Landau, his manager, pointed out during production that the album lacked a hit single, Springsteen went away and wrote one more tune, “Dancing in the Dark” — a song about frustration and alienation that nevertheless built on killer synthesizer riffs that made it commercial, even danceable. “It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go — and probably a little farther,” Springsteen said at the time. Every single track on Born in the U.S.A. channels regret, fear, pain, loss, aging, and/or frustration — in its lyrics. Yet those songs filled stadiums. The album octupled Springsteen’s store of top-ten hits.
“Born in the U.S.A.” kicked off those fabled marathon shows on the Born in the U.S.A. tour. It may have been conceived in bitter irony, meant to capture the same hollowed-out shock as the Vietnam-ravaged characters from Pennsylvania who sang “God Bless America” at the end of The Deer Hunter six years earlier. But if you want your audience to feel despondent, don’t set your synthesizer to “triumphant.” For all of its gloomy words, “Born in the U.S.A.” became an American anthem malgré lui. The song roars. It defies. It conquers. It makes people holler and stomp and wave flags. Springsteen played it against a gigantic American-flag backdrop: If the goal is to depress everyone à la Nebraska, don’t play ringing rock riffs to an image of Old Glory the size of a billboard.
With the album’s release, the flag became the star image of the summer of 1984. Back then, hit LPs were a kind of American wallpaper: You’d see them everywhere. Everyone spent a lot of time in malls, all of the malls had record stores, and all of the record stores displayed their best-selling and most eye-catching albums. Sticking in the top ten all summer, Born in the U.S.A., featuring Springsteen’s white T-shirt and blue jeans in front of the flag’s stripes, was emblazoned on America’s retina. It was an unintended gift to Reagan’s reelection campaign. It helped make America feel good about itself, even great about itself. When, that August, America dominated in the Los Angeles Summer Games that were being boycotted by the Soviet Union and its lackeys, it was the most patriotic moment since the moon landing. For good measure, the hit movie at the time was Red Dawn. Reagan’s landslide was assured before election season even kicked off after Labor Day.
“Morning in America,” the title of a corny TV commercial, was often described as Reagan’s all-but-official reelection theme. Really it was “Born in the U.S.A.” There is only one upbeat line in it, but it’s the last one Springsteen sang: “I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the U.S.A.” Despite everything he’s endured, the narrator is still rockin’, still cool. Even those who paid close attention to the lyrics of the accidental anthem could take from it this: Dark as things got in a previous era, this is a new generation. The draft is no more. We have shaken off the pall of Vietnam. We are back. We are Americans, and it’s time to shout it out loud again. We were born in the U.S.A.