Bruce Springsteen – Born In The U.S.A.

Born In The U.S.A. (1984)

B+

1. Born In The U.S.A. 2. Cover Me 3. Darlington County 4. Working On The Highway 5. Downbound Train 6. I’m On Fire 7. No Surrender 8. Bobby Jean 9. I’m Goin’ Down 10. Glory Days 11. Dancing In The Dark 12. My Hometown

 

Bruce ditches the doldrums that plagued both him and his tragic characters on Nebraska and cheers up so much that he was able to make a record that was only the second biggest-selling album of 1984 because Thriller came out the same year. Indeed, not even the Level 10 Patriotism of the cover art (also known as the “spontaneously gives the Gipper an orgasm” level) could capture the record-buying public’s imagination quite like classics such as “The Girl Is Mine” and Weird Al’s “Eat It.” But the fact that it even existed in the same stratosphere says a lot about Mr. Navel-Gazing Artiste Springsteen’s suddenly unabashedly commercial approach on Born In The U.S.A.

OK, sure, Born To Run had obviously been a massive hit nearly a decade earlier, but the audiences for the two Born albums–intentional or otherwise–were not the same. Run was for the rock world; U.S.A. was aimed at general audiences. Sort of like the difference between The Godfather and Star Wars. Film aficionados can pontificate all day about the former’s artistic depth, just like how entire essays have been written about how the harmonica on “Thunder Road” is some kind of ingenious metaphor for the working class American experience or some bullshit. And they’d be right (I mean the Godfather people, not the up their own ass about Born To Run people). But at the end of the day, three hours of Italian guys sitting around talking is not going to strike the pleasure centers of folks who don’t really give a shit about the nuances of filmmaking craft–8-year old kids, 16-year old cheerleaders, 45-year old soccer moms, what have you–quite so directly as X-wings blowing up the Death Star. That doesn’t make Star Wars any less artistically valid than The Godfather, unless we’re talking about Attack of the Clones, in which case yes… it does. But it does mean there’s a sheen and ease of digestibility to both U.S.A. and Star Wars that are at odds with the traditional markers of what some might consider “serious” art.

But art ain’t supposed to be serious all the time! It’s supposed to be fun! It is for this reason that George Lucas is a brilliant fourth-dimensional genius for introducing the world to Ewoks. It’s also the same reason I probably reach for Born in the U.S.A. more often than Born To Run, even though they get the same grade. Are the synths cheesy and dated as fuck? Yes. Are some of the choruses overly blustery without having the melodic teeth to really sink into my skull? Sure (in particular, “No Surrender” and “Bobby Jean”). But it’s also catchy as balls for the most part, puts a smile on my face, and doesn’t force me to sit through fucking “Jungleland.”

So let’s be fair here. I don’t like U.S.A. for the same reason I like Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space.” “Blank Space” is a shallow piece of trash that also happens to be irresistibly fun to sing along to. And while most of U.S.A. is shiny, happy, All-American BBQ music, this is Bruce Springsteen we’re talking about, so there’s still some subversion and subtext and blue collar mythologizing going on here. It’s just a lot less in your face than usual. The obvious example is the galumphing title track, which does so well disguising its depressing saga of a beat down Vietnam vet with its triumphant synth riff and Bruce’s screaming vocal that it fooled Ronnie Reagan into thinking it was a patriotic anthem. Then again, it’s not like it was very hard to fool Reagan, a man who was severely outsmarted by a few mid-level intelligence guys in Iran whose logical capacity had not yet advanced beyond the 8th Century. But he wasn’t the only one. While I think the whole concept of disguising a trenchant social message inside an arena-sized pop song is brilliant, in this case I think it’s disguised a little too well. I hate the chintzy synth tone that also appears on several other songs and instantly dates this album to a clearly defined period during the summer of 1984; some of the more ham-handed rhymes bug me (“foreign land/yellow man” is especially annoying); and Max Weinberg’s aggressively arhythmic “drum fill” at around four minutes in gives me a headache. It’s a bit overly bombastic, to say the least. But had it appeared as a more congruently dour folk song on Nebraska–which is how it was originally recorded, believe it or not–it would have never induced arenas full of the Bud Light-swilling masses to sing along to lines like “Went down to see my VA man/He said “Son, you don’t understand.”

While the rest of the album essentially follows the same formula, but the lyrics are generally less overtly socio-political. Take “Glory Days,” which can obviously be construed as a comment on the fleeting nature of one’s prime the sadness inherent in living in the past. But it can also be enjoyed at face value as a straightforward song about a couple of old friends who have a good time hanging out at a bar. Either way, I love this song, in spite of its absurdly simple I-IV-V riff that could have been written by a 12-year old. Call it, and the rest of U.S.A., dumbed down if you want, but I’ll take overt melodicism, three chords, and subtle commentary over the reverse any day. Honestly, two of my other favorite songs on here are the ones on which Bruce doesn’t seem to attempt any semblance of social commentary, lyrical eloquence, or compositional ambition: “I’m Goin’ Down,” which is about blue balls, and “Darlington County,” which is about drinking beer and hitting on girls. They’re fun and catchy and they go down easy. What’s so bad about that?

It’s not like most of Bruce’s songs were ever that musically complicated anyway. Case in point: “Dancing In The Dark,” the biggest of the album’s seven (!) hit singles, which I gather rock critics are legally barred from discussing without gushing about how its melody is syncopated. 45 years of making records and I’m supposed to be impressed that he came up with one goddamn song in which he figured out how to subdivide the beat? Nice going, Bruce. But in all seriousness, it’s simple tools like that that make U.S.A. both blatantly, proudly commercial without being crass. Some syncopation here, a line about economic strife there, and melodies, melodies, melodies everywhere else. That’s all it takes to make widely appealing pop music that still has a beating heart.



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