Born in the U.S.A: Bruce Springsteen, Ronald Reagan, and the Runaway American Dream

From Eddie Vedder to Aretha Franklin, a staple of the quadrennial U.S election circus is the trotting out by each major party of the famous musicians who number amongst their supporters, along with the appropriation of popular music for campaign purposes. One of the most famous instances of such was the Ronald Reagan campaign’s misguided attempt to use Bruce Springsteen’s massive 1984 hit “Born in the U.S.A” for the president’s reelection. The source of derision towards Reagan comes from the fact that, lyrically, the song is a dark tale of a working class man being shipped off to Vietnam, experiencing the death of his friends, and returning to America only to be unable to find work. Choices made in the recording of “Born in the U.S.A” in its construction as a pop song, however, as well as the public image presented by Springsteen, overwhelm the message of the verses, which serves to explain how Springsteen’s 1984 tour and Reagan reelection campaign became inextricably conflated in the fall of that year.

The connection between Springsteen’s album and Reagan’s campaign began when Republican journalist and unofficial Reagan adviser George Will misinterpreted “Born in the U.S.A” at his first Springsteen concert. Springsteen biographer Marc Dolan quotes Will’s article “A Yankee Doodle Springsteen:” “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.!’” (qtd. in Dolan). Though a request from Ronald Reagan’s campaign to use the song was turned down by Springsteen’s camp, Reagan brought up Springsteen at a New Jersey campaign stop: “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in [the] songs of a man 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,” (qtd. in Dolan). Reagan’s wildly misguided appropriation of Springsteen and his music is now the stuff of legend, but the fact is that, due to the choices of Springsteen and his production team, the antiwar, pro working class message of “Born in the U.S.A” is lost in the cacophony of its production.

 

Though “Born in the U.S.A” has as its lyrical center the conflict between the jaded verses and patriotic chorus, it is the decisions made in the arrangement and recording of the song that sway its impact to the latter. “Born in the U.S.A” could have been an entirely different song; Critics Cowie and Boehm trace its origin to the Nebraska sessions, Springsteen’s sparse, gloomy sixth album, for which high gloss studio recordings featuring the E Street Band were scrapped in favour of releasing Springsteen’s low tech acoustic home recordings. The original version has none of the “reason for pumping fists” of the version eventually released, as the patriotic chorus is “relegated to a reedy backdrop for the darkness that propels the song (360). Here a gloomy, reverb soaked acoustic guitar and Springsteen’s echoing vocals are the only instruments, and the vocals in the chorus are deliberately low, bouncing against Springsteen’s guitar and mixing into the song; hardly the sing along chorus of the studio version. The minimalist production, simply Springsteen at home with a 4-track tape recorder, stresses the bleak life of Springsteen’s Vietnam veteran protagonist. In this first version, the story of that protagonist is unmistakably front and center, but it was shelved from the Nebraska release, only to resurface as the title track to a wholly different album.

 

Springsteen and producer Jon Landau revived and transformed “Born in the U.S.A” as the title track for Springsteen’s next album. The studio track begins with only two instruments; Max Weinberg’s pounding snare drum underneath a synth line, which anticipates the melody of the chorus.  Antoine Hennion, in his analysis of the structure of pop songs, states that the introduction of any given pop song is crucial, as it “serves both as a signal to the listener, enabling him to recognize the song immediately, and as a foretaste, making him want to listen to the rest,” (165). Here, the two instrument arrangement continues through the first verse and into the chorus, where Springsteen’s vocal, “Born in the U.S.A I was / Born in the U.S.A” is growled along with the synth, as opposed to the melody defying echo of the acoustic version. Springsteen’s tone of voice is also markedly different; whereas in the original recording his voice is smooth and gives way to the echo effect, in the studio version it is a gravelly shout rising up through the layered production to soar along with the melodic synth line during the chorus. Finally after the first chorus, around the fifty second mark, the rest of the band comes in and the drum beat becomes a full 4/4 time rhythm. However, the snare’s militaristic bark on the two and four of each line continues through the entire song, as does the same melodic synth line. “Born in the U.S.A,” therefore, is an extreme example of what Hennion discusses as to the relationship between verse and chorus in pop songs: “In the verses, which are in a fluid, recitative-like style, the music subordinates itself to the lyrics, so that the story can unfold. The chorus, on the other hand, is more musical and etches the tune in the memory, a tune whose regular repetition right through the song is expected and gives all the more pleasure because it is eagerly awaited during the somewhat dull verses,” (166) From the intro to the song, then, the chorus is constantly anticipated by the repetition of its melody during the verses. Cowie and Boehm read “Born in the U.S.A” as the “story of a man dwarfed by a sonic wall of nationalism and abandoned to the confusion of guerrilla wars,” and in the track’s immense popularity as a pop song, the thread of protest throughout the song is erased through the manner in which the public consumes pop songs; constant anticipation of the chorus (376).

Ultimately, that the coincidence of Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A tour and Reagan’s reelection campaign caused a conflation between Springsteen’s music and the president’s politics is perfectly natural. Marc Dolan traces the prominence of images in Reagan’s campaign, which had taken the approach that most Republican voters would vote for the incumbent president anyway, and accordingly set out to woo traditionally democratic voters: “for the reelection campaign, Reagan’s team focused on images rather than issues, particularly in its advertising, which featured suburban homes, rural churches, forests, and gardens, all of them signifying a bucolic America that the ad copy suggested the president had restored,” (Dolan). The Reagan campaign’s bombardment of images was complimented by the imagery surrounding Born in the U.S.A, its chart success, and corresponding tour. Springsteen appears on the album cover shot from behind , against an American flag, from knees to shoulders, faded ball cap jutting from the rear pocket of his torn Levis, sleeveless white shirt tucked into gilded cowboy belt; the very image of eroticized working class. The flag in front of which Springsteen stands might as well have been the same one waving at the end of Reagan’s commercial. As critic Bryan Garman puts it:”the apparently working class Springsteen was for many Americans a white hard-body hero whose masculinity confirmed the values of patriarchy and patriotism, the work ethic and rugged individualism, and who clearly demarcated the boundaries between men and women, black and white, heterosexual and homosexual,” (qtd. in Cowie and Boehm 353). Springsteen’s image was of course carefully cultivated over a career that had already spanned seven albums; his portrayal of working class subjects is clearly reflected in his carefully selected clothing and poise in all of the promotional material and live performances surrounding Born in the U.S.A. It is the cultural capitol accrued from a decade, and Pierre Bourdieu puts it “a process of embodiment, incorporation, which, insofar as it implies a labour of inculcation and assimilation, cost time,” (48). It is Springsteen’s cultural capital, then, that both informs his image and the interpretation of his song, as its chorus becomes a celebratory, working class shout which glosses over the verses’ counter thereto.

 

For Reagan’s campaign, the loaded image of Bruce Springsteen and his successful fist pumping song must have been a tempting prize as they sought to convert traditionally democratic voters. Bourdieu questions how cultural capitol which, though more subtle than economic capital, is inextricably linked to the individual:”How can this capital, so closely linked to the person, be bought without buying the person and so losing the very effect of legitimization which presupposes the dissimilation of dependance? How can this capital be concentrated – as some undertakings demand –  without concentrating the possessors of the capital, which can have all sorts of unwanted consequences?” (48). As both men were firmly within the public consciousness in the fall of 1984, and with Springsteen’s and Reagan’s respective tours coinciding, Reagan needed only to make the association. Both men, in the sense of Guy Debord’s “spectacle,” were deindividualized in service thereof: “The individual who in the service of the spectacle is placed in stardom’s spotlight is in fact the opposite of an individual, and as clearly the enemy of the individual in himself as of the individual in others. In entering the spectacle as a model to be identified with, he renounces all autonomy to identify with the general law of obedience to the course of things,” (38) The very structure of the pop song that is “Born in the U.S.A,” which as I mentioned above derails its potential anti-institutional message, is also what allowed it to achieve immense success. The all-American image of Bruce Springsteen persisted and chants of “born in the U.S.A!” rang out across America in 1984. Springsteen’s track, and as Debord would have it his very individuality, were sucked into the machine of American capitalism, where “by means of the spectacle the ruling class discourses endlessly upon itself in an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise. The spectacle is the self-portrait of power in the age of power’s totalitarian rule over the conditions of existence,” (23). It’s hard not to read Debord here as at least somewhat prophetic; after all, the president in 1984 had begun his career in the service of the spectacle as a movie star before moving up the ladder.

Dolan notes that Springsteen was almost completely apolitical within the public sphere until the 80’s, and that his introduction into political discourse was actually largely a result of trying to distance himself from Reagan in 1984. Of course Springsteen is now a prominent figure in the Democratic election camp, having lent songs to both the Kerry and Obama campaigns is recent years. Perhaps if one’s commercialized artistic output is to be used in that greatest of American contests in service of the spectacle, the presidential race, the least one can do is choose a side.

 

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Print. 46-58.

Cowie, Jefferson R. and Lauren Boehm. “Dead Man’s Town: ‘Born in the U.S.A,’ Social History, and    Working Class Identity.” American Quarterly (2006): 58.2. Project Muse. Web. 30 Nov. 2012. 353-378.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books. 1995. Print.

Dolan, Marc. “Born in the U.S.A: When the president met the Boss.” Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll. W.W Norton and Company. Salon.com. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.

Hennion, Antoine. “The Production of Success: An Anti-Musicology of the Pop Song.” Popular Music (1983): 3. JSTOR. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. 159-193.

Springsteen, Bruce. “Born in the U.S.A.” Born in the U.S.A. Columbia Records: 1984. mp3.

— “Born in the U.S.A.” The Lost Masters 1. Labour of Love: 1981-2. mp3.

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