December 19, 2017 | by C.M. Crockford
“Born in the U.S.A.” is not just a song, but specifically a story. A story that was both willfully and unintentionally misinterpreted by politicians, op-ed columnists, and listeners of its artist Bruce Springsteen. The version of the story Ronald Reagan and George Will propagated was that “Born in the U.S.A.” was a patriotic campaign song of defiant pride in one's nation. For the people who heard it on the radio it was a towering rock anthem — a call to arms.
The track Springsteen had written was neither.
Not that you can really critique the album; I still regularly listen to the 1984 Born in the U.S.A. version when I need to get moving. The song, as produced by Jon Landau and Stevie Van Zandt among others, is enormous — the Weinberg-coined “exploding drums” and iconic synth line of the opening are like a pure burst of energy. It's easy not to listen too closely to Springsteen's shouted, urgent lyrics (though frankly they aren't difficult to make out) when everything around the vocals are so perfected, so confident. Springsteen wanted a rock hit and he got one… at a price. Infamously Reagan’s campaign, then running for re-election, figured “Born in the U.S.A.” was up his alley and they even asked Springsteen for an endorsement (he politely turned them down). Reagan, a guy who as California governor and sent cops armed with tear gas and buckshot after Berkeley anti-war students, hadn't listened closely.
Forever after Springsteen has toyed with the live arrangement of “U.S.A.,” playing both full band versions and snarling acoustic ones, putting the lyrics on full display so no one could misinterpret them. And the storytelling of “Born in the U.S.A.” is a masterpiece of craft and songwriting elegance. The images here contain unbearable emotional power, as if this is all the Vietnam veteran narrator can choke out before he stops cold every verse: “I had a brother at Khe Sahn / Fighting off the Viet Cong / They're still there / He's all gone.” This man's alienation and abandonment builds up until finally he's “10 years burning down the road,” more alone than he was in the jungle, lost in the dark, stranded in the country that abandoned him.
I listened to three different versions of the song for this column: the 1984 studio recording, a superb live take from the '96/97 tours, and the original demo included on Tracks. All of them reveal hidden depths in “Born in the U.S.A.,” each containing themes in performance and arrangement the other ones wouldn't consider including. Like classic plays in revival, every new take on the track by Springsteen shows how adaptive the text is to new ideas, how the skeleton is intact with every tinkering. “Born in the U.S.A.” was originally conceived as a folk song, of a piece with his previous album Nebraska, and like all great folk songs you can reconceive its purpose and still have something beautiful at the core.
The live version is stripped down to Springsteen's voice and his shining, brutal steel guitar lead part. The silence between notes can be heard, empty and haunted. His voice now is as if Bruce himself is a grizzled, older vet deep in his cups, less angry and more bitter, sorrowful. The steel guitar compliments the acceleration of the lyrics, the solo notes in the bridge creating the impression of prison bars being built around the narrator, trapping him forever. The final words are spoken into a vacancy of space. The song is a nightmare.
Nowadays, I think I'm gravitating towards the Tracks version. The demo is cut from the same cloth as “State Trooper” and “Open All Night,” acoustic rockabilly songs best heard stripped down and without much augmentation. It starts with a quick few notes then launches straight into hell, taking us down into darkness. Springsteen's reverb-baked voice is like if Gene Vincent was ravaged by PTSD and things best not spoken of. Electric guitar emerges in the last half, shading on the furious, desperate acoustic playing that can't find its way out of paranoia and panic and stays there forever
What the demo and the official studio recording have in common are those barbarous, glorious howls that punctuate the bridge and ending. The album version's yelps are coming from a place of joy, but the Tracks demo features cries of pure, raw terror. It was as if Bruce was trying to embody those collective calls and individual trauma he and others keenly felt over the years: from seeing teens in body bags, villages on fire, protests all over campuses, from killing women and children on barked orders, from firebombings over green humid jungles, and from witnessing the bleakest corners of humanity then arriving home and getting shit in return.
Like many of Bruce Springsteen's best works, “Born in the U.S.A.” is a story functioning as music. It’s not a story anybody wanted to hear but it was always there, easy to find if you looked carefully. Hell it was in the title: over and over the narrator cries “Born in the U.S.A.” At first it can seem like a call of jingoism, but as Reagan had to find out it was the furthest thing from it. “Born in the U.S.A.” isn't about how good it is to be an American, how great that can feel. It's a stance on what that means, how being born here can be a condemnation in certain circumstances, a show of the wide gulf between what we are and what we want to be. Over the course of the song, the phrase changes according to the verse: The narrator says “born in the usa” in turmoil, then rage, then finally agony. Because the truth is that being born in the USA, if you're working class and seeing nothing but dead ends, means nothing at all.