|"Born in the U.S.A."|
|Single by Bruce Springsteen|
|from the album Born in the U.S.A.|
|"Shut Out the Light"|
|Released||October 30, 1984|
|Recorded||May 3, 1982|
|Studio||Power Station, New York City|
|Bruce Springsteen singles chronology|
|Born in the U.S.A. track listing|
"Born in the U.S.A." is a song written and performed by Bruce Springsteen, and released in 1984 on the album of the same name. One of Springsteen's best-known singles, Rolling Stone ranked the song 275th on its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time", and in 2001, the RIAA's Songs of the Century placed the song 59th (out of 365). The song addresses the harmful effects of the Vietnam War on Americans and the treatment of Vietnam veterans upon their return home. It is an ironic retort to the indifference and hostility with which Vietnam veterans were met.
This song was written in 1981 as the title song for a film that Paul Schrader was contemplating making and that Springsteen was considering starring in (Light of Day starring Michael J. Fox). Springsteen thanks Schrader in the liner notes of the album "Born in the U.S.A.".
Casual home demos were made later that year, following the completion of The River Tour. A more formal solo acoustic guitar demo was made on January 3, 1982 at Springsteen's home in Colts Neck, New Jersey during the long session that constituted most of the Nebraska album released later that year. Acoustic versions of several other songs that eventually appeared on the Born in the U.S.A. album were also on this demo, including "Child Bride" (prelude to "Working on the Highway") and "Downbound Train". However, Springsteen's manager/producer Jon Landau and others felt that the song did not have the right melody or music to match the lyrics, and also did not fit in well with the rest of the nascent Nebraska material. As a result, the song was shelved. (This version surfaced in the late 1990s on the Tracks and 18 Tracks outtake collections.)
In March 1982, Springsteen revived the song with a different melody line and musical structure. Full E Street Band versions were recorded on April 27 and 28, 1982, during the "Electric Nebraska" sessions, with the Born In the U.S.A. album take 9 completed on May 3, 1982, all at the Power Station. Much of the arrangement made up on the spot, including Roy Bittan's opening synthesizer riff and what producer Chuck Plotkin nicknamed Max Weinberg's "exploding drums". The famous snare drum sound on this record, notable for its gated reverb, was obtained by engineer Toby Scott running the top snare microphone through a broken reverb plate with a fixed four-second decay and into a Kepex noise gate. This is the version that appeared on the Born in the U.S.A. album, a full two years later. The studio recording also originally ended with a lengthy jam session, which was later edited for the song's commercial release.
In a 1986 speaking engagement at the University of Georgia, Max Weinberg (drummer for the E Street Band) stated that "Born in the U.S.A." was his all-time favorite song that the band had recorded. Later, in a separate question and answer session, Weinberg explained that it was his favorite because the song was not written in advance for the various instrumental parts. After a grueling studio session while members of the band were in the booth at the sound board, one member of the band at a time returned to the recording area joining in to make up their own new parts to the song that had been intended as an acoustic guitar-only song. Even Springsteen came out and started singing vocals. It sounded so good that they did it again and recorded it. Without reviewing the recording, Springsteen said, let's do that one more time. So they recorded the second take (or the third time the unwritten version had ever been played). That second studio take was the CD release on the Born in the U.S.A. album.
Superficially a flag-waving paean to America, the song is a commentary on the return of American soldiers to their country after the Vietnam War. The song presents a veteran as a tragic figure alienated upon his return from the war.
The song's working-class protagonist joins the armed forces to "fight the yellow man" and is disaffected upon his return to the United States. His brother [or buddy in some live shows], also a veteran, is "all gone".
I had a brother at Khe Sanh
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
Though the primary enemy combatants in the Battle of Khe Sanh were the North Vietnamese Army, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (Viet Cong) did aid the NVA forces in the fighting. For the song's lyrics, obviously, Viet Cong made more sense for poetic purposes, rather than to serve as the most accurate portrayal of the battle. Eventually the Americans prevailed and broke the siege, only to withdraw from the outpost a couple of months later. Khe Sanh thus became one of the media symbols of the futility of the whole war effort in the States.
Two scholars writing in the journal American Quarterly explored the song as a lament for the embattled working-class identity. Structurally, they noted that "the anthemic chorus contrasted with the verses' desperate narrative," a tension which informs an understanding of the song's overall meaning: the nationalist chorus continuously overwhelms the desperation and sacrifice relayed in the verses. They point out that the imagery of the Vietnam War could be read as metaphor for "the social and economic siege of American blue-collar communities" at large, and that lyrics discussing economic devastation are likely symbolic for the effect of blind nationalism upon the working class. The song as a whole, they felt, laments the destabilization of the economics and politics protecting the "industrial working class" in the 1970s and early 1980s, leaving only "a deafening but hollow national pride."
In late August 1984, the Born in the U.S.A. album was selling very well, its songs were frequently aired on radio stations, and the associated tour was drawing considerable press. Springsteen shows at the Capital Centre outside of Washington, D.C. thus attracted even more media attention, in particular from CBS Evening News correspondent Bernard Goldberg, who saw Springsteen as a modern-day Horatio Alger story. Conservative columnist George Will, after attending a show, published a piece on September 13, 1984, titled "A Yankee Doodle Springsteen," in which he praised Springsteen as an exemplar of classic American values. He wrote: "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.!'" The 1984 presidential campaign was in full stride at the time, and Will had connections to President Ronald Reagan's re-election organization. Will thought that Springsteen might endorse Reagan (not knowing that Springsteen did not support Reagan), and got the notion pushed up to high-level Reagan advisor Michael Deaver's office. Those staffers made inquiries to Springsteen's management which were politely rebuffed.
Nevertheless, at a campaign stop in Hammonton, New Jersey on September 19, 1984, Reagan added the following to his speech:
America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.
The campaign press immediately expressed skepticism that Reagan knew anything about Springsteen, and asked what his favorite Springsteen song was; "Born to Run" was the response from staffers. Johnny Carson then joked on The Tonight Show, "If you believe that, I've got a couple of tickets to the Mondale-Ferraro inaugural ball I'd like to sell you."
During a September 21 concert in Pittsburgh, Springsteen responded negatively by introducing his song "Johnny 99", a song about an unemployed auto worker who turns to murder, "The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don't think it was the Nebraska album. I don't think he's been listening to this one."
A few days after that, presidential challenger Walter Mondale said, "Bruce Springsteen may have been born to run but he wasn't born yesterday," and then claimed to have been endorsed by Springsteen. Springsteen manager Jon Landau denied any such endorsement, and the Mondale campaign issued a correction.
Springsteen wrote "Born in the U.S.A." about the working-class man, who in Springsteen's words was facing "a spiritual crisis, in which man is left lost. It's like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He's isolated from the government. Isolated from his job. Isolated from his family ... to the point where nothing makes sense." Springsteen promotes the fact that the endless search for truth is the true American way.
In 2000, journalist Brian Doherty, noting that political song lyrics are often either misunderstood or not understood at all by fans, wrote, "But who's to say Reagan wasn't right to insist the song was an upper? When I hear those notes and that drumbeat, and the Boss' best arena-stentorian, shout-groan vocals come over the speakers, I feel like I'm hearing the national anthem."
"Born in the U.S.A." peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts in late 1984. It was the third of a record-tying seven Top 10 hit singles to be released from the Born in the U.S.A. album. In addition it made the top 10 of Billboard's Rock Tracks chart, indicating solid play on album-oriented rock stations. The physical single was certified Gold by the RIAA on July 23, 1999, and additionally it has sold over a million digital copies in the U.S. by July 2016 after becoming available for downloads. The song was also a hit in the UK, reaching #5 on the UK Singles Chart.
When Springsteen played the song live in East Berlin in 1988 the German audience widely followed the chorus line to express their bonds with the western world and their weariness with their own way of life in the communist system of the GDR.
Springsteen refused Chrysler Corporation CEO Lee Iacocca's request to use "Born in the U.S.A." in commercials for Chrysler cars, turning down an offer that would have been worth several million dollars.
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The music video for "Born in the U.S.A." was directed by noted filmmaker John Sayles. It consisted of video concert footage of Springsteen and the E Street Band performing the song, poorly synchronized with audio from the studio recording. Released on November 28, 1984, there supposedly had not been enough time to mix the audio from the concert.
This footage was intermixed with compelling mid-1980s scenes of working-class America, emphasizing images that had some connection with the song, including Vietnam veterans, Amerasian children, assembly lines, oil refineries, cemeteries, and the like, finishing with a recreation of the album's cover, with a grizzled Springsteen posing in front of an American flag.
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On January 10, 1985, Arthur Baker's 12-inch "Freedom Mix" of "Born in the U.S.A." was released. It was a fairly radical remixing, even more so than those Baker had done for the album's previous singles "Dancing in the Dark" and "Cover Me". The mix removed any (possibly misleading) anthemic elements and pushed the song's mournfulness to the front. Synthesizer, glockenspiel, and drums were chopped up and isolated against Springsteen vocal fragments saying "Oh my God, no," and "U.S.A.--U.S.--U.S.--U.S.A."
This remix was the least commercially successful of Baker's efforts, however, as unlike the prior two it failed to appear on Billboard's Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. Young thug also made a remix
On Springsteen's 1984-1985 Born in the U.S.A. Tour, "Born in the U.S.A." almost always opened the concerts, in a dramatic, crowd rousing fashion. One such version is included on the Live/1975-85 album.
On the 1988 Tunnel of Love Express Tour, "Born in the U.S.A." generally closed the first set, and on the 1992-1993 "Other Band" Tour, it appeared frequently at the end of the second set. These were both full band versions, although the latter stressed guitar parts more than the familiar synthesizer line.
Beginning with the 1995-1997 solo acoustic Ghost of Tom Joad Tour and associated promotional media appearances, Springsteen radically recast "Born in the U.S.A." once again, playing an acoustic guitar version that was unlike both the original Nebraska and full band performances. This was a stinging, snarling rendition that only included the title phrase twice. This was both in connection with the Tom Joad Tour's wan moods as well as Springsteen's attempt to make clear the song's original and only purpose; in his introduction to the song in this shows he said he still wasn't convinced the song had been misinterpreted, but now as the songwriter he was "going to get the last say." Fan reaction was divided, with some greatly liking the new arrangement and others thinking the song's musical ironies had been lost.
During the 1999-2000 Reunion Tour, "Born in the U.S.A." was not always played, and when it was, it was the stinging solo acoustic version, now on 12-string slide guitar. Such a performance is included on the DVD and CD Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: Live In New York City. Not until 2002's The Rising Tour and 2004's political Vote for Change tour did the full band "Born in the U.S.A." make a regular comeback; only in the U.S., foreign audiences still got the acoustic one, but a foreign example of "Born in the U.S.A." is heard on Live in Barcelona, in which the full band version is heard.
But then towards the end of Springsteen's solo Devils & Dust Tour in 2005, the most challenging "Born in the U.S.A." yet was unveiled, when he performed it using an amplified "stomping board" and an ultra-distorting vocal "bullet microphone", two devices designed to render any song utterly incomprehensible to all but the sharpest of ears. This slot was normally reserved for the dourest of Nebraska material, and "Born in the U.S.A."'s appearance in it solidified the impression that its origins in those sessions had not been an accident after all.
During the Magic and Working on a Dream Tours, the song was played just 15 times, even though other songs from the album, such as "Dancing in the Dark", "Bobby Jean", and "Glory Days" continued to be regulars. It was famously used as an opener on the radio broadcast July 4, 2008, show in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Sales and certifications
The song has appeared on recordings ranging from instrumental bluegrass collections to children's music albums (sung by groups of children). Even the London Symphony Orchestra has performed their take on the song.
In 1985, Patti LaBelle covered the song on her live album. Jazz-funk bassist Stanley Clarke recorded the song for his 1985 release, Find Out!. The Allmusic describes this version as "a black man's parody of white arena rock, with Springsteen's bitter lyric ground out rap-style by Clarke."Eric Rigler has recorded an instrumental bagpipe version of the song that has appeared on various Springsteen tribute albums since 2001. Swedish-Argentinian singer-songwriter José González performed a solo acoustic version for a time, choosing not to sing the song's title refrain. Singer-songwriter Richard Shindell covered the song in concerts, performing solo and playing bouzouki. Shindell recorded the song for his album South of Delia. This Morning presenter Matt Johnson performed the song as Bruce Springsteen on week 6 of the ITV show 'Your Face Sounds Familiar'. At the 2013 MusiCares Person of the Year ceremony, the song was covered by Neil Young & Crazy Horse with the help of Nils Lofgren; this is ironic for two reasons: one, Neil Young was born in Canada and Lofgren was a member of both Crazy Horse and the E Street Band.
There are a number of "Born in the U.S.A." parodies. For example, Cheech and Chong's 1985 comic-political "Born in East L.A." and Mad featured a parody written by Frank Jacobs in its July 1985 issue, called "Porn in the U.S.A.". A group of Sesame Street characters (billed as "Bruce Stringbean and the S. Street Band") performed a version of the song called "Barn in the U.S.A." for the album Born to Add. In Canadian Bacon, a Michael Moore film about a Cold War scenario between Canada and the United States, a group of Americans are travelling across Canada while singing along to "Born in the U.S.A.". In an apparent nod to the widespread misunderstanding of the lyrics, the characters are only capable of singing the chorus of the song and trail off during the verse. With Springsteen's permission, rap group 2 Live Crew released "Banned in the U.S.A.", a parody of "Born in the U.S.A." released to draw attention to 2 Live Crew's First Amendment troubles.