It is the Fourth of July. A great day for Americans to grill hot dogs, watch a ballgame, and totally misuse Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” The 1984 song has been added to almost every Fourth of July playlist that I have listened to (particularly during fireworks displays). It should not be. “Born In The U.S.A.” has been around longer than I have been alive and yet it has been misrepresented as a patriotic song on every Independence Day that I can remember.
Sit back and picture yourself in an open field as fireworks burst overhead. As you sit on the blanket fighting off mosquitoes, imagine listening to the bombast of John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars And Stripes Forever.” Popular songs like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The U.S.A.” and Neil Diamond’s “America” help the spirit of the Fourth of July come alive.
Insert “Got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand. Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man.”
Martial music. A patriotic standard. Huddled masses. Vietnam.
One of these things is not like the other.
At first glance it is easy to see how the song can be confused for a more patriotic standard. The words “Born in the U.S.A.” are a frequent refrain in the song. Max Weinberg’s drumming and Roy Bittan’s keyboard work add an anthemic flair to the music itself.
Aside from the house-rocking music of the track, there is very little about this song that comes off as being in the same vein as proud, patriotic music. I enjoy the song. It is one of the New Jersey songwriter’s finest pieces of music. If you listen to the complete lyrics it is easy to see that the song is not in the same vein as “The Stars and Stripes Forever”
“Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “son, don’t you understand”
I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now
Springsteen is critiquing nationalism’s effect on working class people. He references the tough experiences of Vietnam veterans. His character enlisted under harsh circumstances. This narrator bemoans his problems of assimilating into society upon his return from the conflict. The harshest lines come at the end, when the character references his dead brother.
“Born in the U.S.A.” is the quintessential Springsteen song. No singer has created as much popular music that empathizes with the working class as Springsteen. His blue collar point of view is constantly presented in work like “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” and “Seeds.” Despite the frequency with which he channels this perspective through music, none of his songs have such a clear message that has been lost in translation as often as the single that shared a title with his chart-topping album in 1984.
By including “Born In The U.S.A.” as a patriotic anthem at occasions like firework spectaculars, whoever created the playlist is missing the point. While Springsteen is being pro-veteran, he is being critical of the country that sent his character overseas.
It is a perspective that needs to be kept separate from Lee Greenwood’s work. The context with which both songs reference veterans is completely different. One is a proud piece. The other is a somber observation. This is important because this perspective needs to be kept intact to understand the experiences that men and women in the armed services go through.
“Born In The U.S.A.” and George Will
Firework displays are not the only times that the song has been misappropriated. Springsteen was accidentally ensnared in the 1984 presidential race after candidates Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale claimed different interpretations of his music.
“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.!”
In a sign of how times have changed, the column observes how affordable E-Street Band tickets ($16) were at the time. It is also hard to believe that there was a time when Springsteen’s politics were not known.
Most importantly, Will’s column is an unintentionally well-written example of how the song’s meaning has become so obscured. Will, and so many others, have missed the point behind the chorus “Born In the U.S.A.” It is not a cheerful affirmation, but a declaration of sad irony.
Springsteen’s character is not happy that he went to Vietnam, that his brother was killed, or that he cannot find work in an indifferent society. Instead, he is observing the reality of many American veterans.
The Musical Tone Of “Born In The U.S.A.”
The lyrics unfortunately contrast with the tone of the music, an issue that Springsteen began to intermittently address in the mid-Nineties. He has mixed in acoustic versions of “Born In the U.S.A.” into set lists. The stripped-down music masks the effects of the studio version’s pop sounds. In doing so, the intended tone of the song becomes even more obvious.
It is not that the song should not be celebrated as a powerful tune about America. It is. “Born In The U.S.A.” just shows an uncomfortable underside of the country that many prefer to forget about on the Fourth of July. Whether it is intentional or not, mislabeling the song as a patriotic anthem shows the United States we prefer to live in on Independence Day and not the one that Springsteen is singing about.