‘Born in the U.S.A.’ found Bruce Springsteen at the perfect time to invade pop culture. Although he was already touted as one of rock music’s greatest songwriters and performers, Springsteen was an album artist, having only notched a single top five hit, 1980’s ‘Hungry Heart’, by the time MTV had changed the pop music landscape.
With 1982’s Nebraska, Springsteen purposefully turned his back on the glitz and glam of the music video revolution. A solo album in the truest sense, Nebraska was dark and folky, with lyrics focused on serial killers and desolate economic ruin. There was no triumphant Clarence Clemons saxophone nor any heart-thumping Max Weinberg backbeat. Just Springsteen, an acoustic guitar, and a ton of moody atmosphere – not exactly the ideal album for the exploding vibrancy of MTV.
But then Springsteen had a change of heart. During the recording of Nebraska, Springsteen wrote a number of tracks that were livelier and more exuberant than the downcast material he was leaning towards. He decided that the next album should take these songs and pair them with the modern style of gated reverb and synthesisers to create the most pop version of Springsteen he had ever attempted. Having just gone through a divorce, Springsteen coped by lifting weights, leading to a new physique that lent itself well to music videos. Everything was coming together: all he needed was a hit.
And he had one; ‘Dancing in the Dark’, the song with a purposefully cheesy arrangement that belied some darker lyrics of self-doubt and exhaustion. Nobody really looked that far, though, since ‘Dancing in the Dark’ had an earworm catchiness, shiny veneer of synth-pop, and a giddy Courtney Cox video attached to it that propelled it all the way to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 (egregiously, Springsteen has never had a number one song). Having the more basic elements of a song and video obscure the song’s actual message became a running theme on Born in the U.S.A, with songs like ‘Glory Days’ and ‘My Hometown’ becoming anthems no matter how clearly their lyrics dealt with faded splendour, racial tensions, and urban decay.
But the prize for the ‘Most Misunderstood’ song on Born in the U.S.A. went to its title track, a seething rebuke of the abandonment of Vietnam War soldiers upon their return to the United States. Being ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ means being “born down in a dead man’s town”, unable to find work and haunted by the memories of those you’ve lost along the way. It took to task not only the politicians who engineered and sustained the war in the first place, but the very fabric of America that keeps the poor and disenfranchised that way permanently with no hope for a better life.
Once again, not many listeners read into it that far. Released during the height of a Reagan-era boom of Republican ideals and patriotism, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ was stripped of all its meaning, dumbed down to simply its chorus, and blasted throughout a nation of flag-waving ignoramuses who were eager to have a superstar songwriter release a song that spoke to them. ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ came out only a few months after Lee Greenwood’s ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ (which very well might be the worst song ever written), and in the collective culture, they were one and the same, despite being complete opposites.
If Springsteen had kept his first draft of the song, there likely wouldn’t have been as much confusion. In this version, created during the Nebraska sessions, the song was titled ‘Vietnam’, had yet to include the anthemic chorus, and made a direct reference to cutting off President Richard Nixon‘s testicles. Springsteen had been playing veterans benefits and took note of how the most jaded and bitter of soldiers found their lot in life to be a direct result of Nixon’s frequently-delayed pulling out of the conflict. Springsteen felt sympathy for these individuals, and so his first draft of the song reflected this rancour.
By the time ‘Vietnam’ had first been demoed in 1981, the lyrics had changed to excise the more cutting references to Nixon. The words remained a dark and desperate tale of despondency, something that never changed as the song’s arrangement became brighter and brighter. The first version of ‘Vietnam’ was never recorded, but it remains a fascinating starting point for what would eventually become Springsteen’s biggest hit, and eventually his albatross.