The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, feels like a ubiquitous member of rock and roll’s elite. But, there was a moment where it looked like everything could change, and he would cast aside the roots of American folk that traversed his musical veins and set his sights on reaching pop stardom. He would make his play for the top of the pyramid with one record-breaking album — Born in the U.S.A.
This is the album that changed everything for Springsteen. Simply put, everything after this album had a chart-topping universally loved LP to match up to and, considering the album also saw the singer achieve the accolade of providing seven top ten hits from one album, it can rightly be seen as the moment The Boss finally got the promotion he so rightly deserved; from singer to an idol.
The album was the top-selling record of 1985 and has officially sold over 15 million copies. Springsteen has had a stellar career but nothing comes close to out-selling Born in the U.S.A., even his widely adored Born to Run only sold six million. But while those numbers have often pointed to Springsteen ‘selling out’, the truth is, he just hit his songwriting peak.
Despite its wild success, Born in the U.S.A. is an album that has suffered a great deal from its huge popularity. Sounding like Independence Day on crack, the songs on the album are intensely buoyant and supercharged with the red, white and blue, making it feel like a patriotic masturbatory session that few want to attend. Especially in the spectrum of rock and roll, a genre previously reserved for anti-establishment acts, the album felt like Springsteen trying to make bank managers and record executives happy.
However, to think that Springsteen had written the album only to gain such popularity would miss key indicators hidden in the album. There are certainly moments of his wry wit and unflinching honesty but, it is easy to see how this one is pulled out every July 4th; we just think it deserves some more airplay for the rest of the year as, when doing so, the truth behind some of the album’s best songs share a little more than what’s on the surface.
For example, let’s take a look at the standout hit from the album, ‘Dancing in the Dark’. Though it benefitted from huge airplay on MTV, thanks in no small part to Courtney Cox’s appearance, the song was born out of frustration. Springsteen’s management team were demanding a ‘hit’ and The Boss was exasperated by the procedure of writing for somebody other than himself. Equally, the title track, another huge hit within the album, also saw some underlying tension rise to the surface.
The title track sparked the album cover’s inspiration, and both have been misinterpreted over the years. Springsteen wrote the song from a place of anguish, a time when he was hugely disappointed and aggrieved about the issues Vietnam veterans encountered when they returned home after valiantly serving their country. The Boss was adamant that veterans deserved a hero’s welcome for putting their body on the line for their country when, in reality, they received anything but. Vietnam was the first war that the U.S. didn’t emerge from victoriously, and there was an unsettling feeling of trying to sweep it, and those veterans, under the carpet. Those who fought in Vietnam were treated like crap on America’s shoe when they returned to their homeland.
Within the album, despite its huge commercial hits, we see flecks of the man Springsteen was. Never one to shy away from a fight, especially when stood shoulder to shoulder with the little guy, Springsteen arguably proved he is one of the greats with this record. It not only achieved huge commercial success and widespread critical acclaim, but it championed the morals of The Boss.
Over the years, the imagery of Born in the U.S.A. has often overawed audiences into thinking that this album is all about the good graces of US policy. In truth, it acts as one of the most accurate depictions of one of America’s proudest sons.