Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 masterpiece, Born In The U.S.A., cemented his status as a true American hero. From the title track to the patriotic cover, everything about the album made Springsteen seem like the ultimate American, and he became a national treasure.
While Springsteen loves his country, his pride as an American means that he can’t bring himself to stand idly by and not show his disgust at what the US government was doing in his name. The dual meaning of the album cover wasn’t cottoned on by the masses. They didn’t pick up on his nuanced takedown of the Reagan regime and, instead, read the song as a love letter.
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 the country when, in reality, the actuality was anything but. Vietnam was the first war 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. It disheartened Springsteen and put the need to speak his mind under the spotlight.
The album cover used this feeling to create a landmark shot. Taken by Rolling Stone photographer Annie Leibovitz, the image sees The Boss pictured wearing red, white and blue, before a backdrop of stars and stripes. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with an image that screamed America harder than the cover. The red cap hanging out the back pocket of his blue jeans shows that Springsteen is just like your average guy from Astbury Park, New Jersey.
There’s a heart-warming tale as to why the cap featured. The item initially belonged to the father of Bruce’s friend, Lance Larson. When Larson’s father died, he handed Springsteen his dad’s favourite red baseball cap, and The Boss included it on the album cover in tribute after telling his friend that his father would live on through the album.
Staggeringly, the cover was interpreted by many in the opposite way to the title track. Listeners misread the track as a love letter to the regime, and the people who picked up on the song’s true meaning assumed that Springsteen was relieving himself on the flag on the cover, but it wasn’t that deep.
Rolling Stone probed Springsteen in 1984 and the singer pleaded his innocence on this front. “No, no. That was unintentional,” he maintained. “We took a lot of different types of pictures, and in the end, the picture of my ass looked better than the picture of my face, so that’s what went on the cover. I didn’t have any secret message. I don’t do that very much.”
The image isn’t a celebration of America, nor is Springsteen pissing on his country, it’s just an honest look at the state of the nation in 1984. Few album covers have epitomised a record in the same way as Born In The U.S.A. captures American life, just as Springsteen does across the tracks.
Just because Springsteen couldn’t bring himself to look past America’s shortcomings – and how they mistreat their veterans – didn’t mean he hated the flag. Far from it, in fact. He criticised their actions on the album because of the utter adoration he holds for the land of hopes and dreams, which the cover celebrates. The reality, of course, is that album is about how the regime disappointed its people.