As hard as it is to believe, this is the 30th anniversary of the release of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. To get the obvious stuff out of the way: wow, time flies and this makes me realize just what getting older feels like. I was 15 when it first came out. I’ve listened to it regularly since it came out. I’ve argued with people who thought the title and title track was some sort of stupid patriotic anthem, I’ve teared up to the songs because of the sound and I needed a good cry (Springsteen is a genuinely moving singer, in addition to all the songwriter accolades he rightly gets), and I’ve felt connected to political moments because of his lyrics and stories. Not just on this album, but all of his stuff that came before Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A., though, is really its own kind of event.
I’m not really a rock fan and haven’t been for most of my life. My preferences have long, long been Memphis music (Hi and Stax since late high school and college), 30s and 40s blues, and the soul traditions that come from all that stuff. Springsteen’s music is an exception for me, though. I like all the albums. I like the way the music itself sounds, well before any political anything. It’s nice that it has all the sounds and words of people struggling at the very same time, and that’s no small part of the sound. Born in the U.S.A. came out right in the middle of Reagan’s presidency. Bleak times. We’re in the same sort of bleak time now, and I’ve wondered where the recession songs are on pop radio. Maybe that’s just a sign of the last victory of consumer capitalist desire. Sure, there was Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” which is a real recession anthem, but it also completely lacks sincerity – that’s part of the appeal, honestly. I thought, too, about Lorde’s “Royals,” which had that voice objecting to the desire to be a wealthy person, to even be that class, to be that kind of human. But that’s one song. I’m sure there are some others here and there, but my point is that Born in the U.S.A. was pop music when it came out. So much so that the whole Backstreets (remember that magazine?) crew freaked out that The Boss had sold out. This isn’t sellout music. Wasn’t then, isn’t now. It was popular, top ten music in its moment. Seriously. Really hard to believe.
What I remember first about the album: the title track.
It sounded then, and even more today, like that “what the fuck?!” statement to his generation of white working class men, who’d been used by their government for years in Viet Nam (name-checking my own dad here), been shit on for ideological warring purposes, then mobilized against poor people of color and immigrants, redirecting their downbound train resentments into a familiar American habit: racism. War, abandonment, alienation, racism. The album gets that done.
And it gets it done with an unromantic (as Springsteen always is) take on place. “My Hometown” is obviously the go-to song on this album, because it does the whole journey.
Racism, poverty, jobs leave and never come back – what is left when that happens? What is that place, now? There is still connection. People still say “I’m from here, I love this place.” That’s why the song is beautiful even when it is bleakest. The singer puts his son behind the wheel to steer the car. Look, I love doing that with my sons. It’s a real moment. It’s intimate and feels like you are showing him something about the world. Then Springsteen tells him, look around son, this is your hometown. Abandoned. Hope is gone. But it’s still your town.
There is no better song from the album about just that abandonment than “Downbound Train.”
This song could be written today. It’s a simple song, and the title tells it all. I once had a good job. Lost that. It ain’t coming back, that job, so now I have a terrible job. I lose it all, because my job isn’t just work. It’s also income, relationship, love, place, and all those things that make, then in this case unmake, a sense of what’s your future.
The album isn’t all despair, because that’s not how humans live. And it is an album, first and foremost, about the humanity of humans (true of all his work, really). I guess what I love most about Born in the U.S.A. is just this: Springsteen taps into the American folk musical tradition perfectly, remembering, as blues and white folk musicians always have, that with all the pain in the world comes also all the pleasures that come with being human.
“Darlington County” is that song. Not as redemption – it’s anything but that – but as a reminder that for all the despair we want to document about this cruel place (is the U.S. anything but a machine of cruelty in these songs?), there are the spaces outside that cruel place that also live and make life possible. “Darlington County” is about having no work and just driving until you find something. And so it’s about that driving. Friendship, drinking, flirtation and romance, and all the shit that happens that’s just human and exists alongside all the terrible bullshit of unemployment, abandonment, and hopelessness. I’d call this his James Baldwin moment: the folkways and complexities of life, that thing simply called humanity. Baldwin put it in novels and non-fiction. On Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen put it in music.
A last thought, less important. I’m sure I wasn’t the only guy who looked in the mirror and hoped his jeans made his ass look like this. Don’t think I every quite had that look (who did, right?), but god knows I wanted to. It’s too late. The 30th anniversary is plenty reminder that my chance at looking like that are gone. But, there’s always nostalgia. Ain’t that always been what’s beautiful about Springsteen’s music? It’s the beautiful melancholy that’s all over Born in the U.S.A., for sure.
Happy anniversary to this album. I’ve owned you as an LP, cassette, CD, and now .mp3 and that truth is that you never stopped being great.