Springsteen’s Born in the USA turns thirty today. I was a teenager when this album appeared and it has been with me ever since. I bought the cassette through Columbia House as part of those membership drives in which you got ten free cassettes in exchange for club membership.
There are other Springsteen albums that are better–Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, even the River–but as Pete Chianca writes at Blogness on the Edge of Town, this album showed that Bruce Springsteen was ready for the world.” Here is a taste:
Born in the USA succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, becoming the top-selling album of 1985 and eventually moving more than 15 million copies. It propelled Springsteen into stadiums around the world and elevated him to the status of cultural icon. It also became a sticking point for his longtime followers, many of whom felt that Springsteen had sold out his rock ’n’ roll principles – and attracted a new stripe of beer-chugging, bandanna-wearing fan they dread getting stuck next to at concerts to this day.
For anyone recalling the album strictly through hazy memories of mid-1980s top 40 radio – where the album’s seven top 10 singles lived alongside efforts by Culture Club and Wham! – it’s easy to overstate the album’s fluff factor, what with its surprising (for Springsteen) preponderance of synthesizers and pop-friendly beats and melodies. But listening to it today, it still holds its thematic own with the rest of his canon, and certainly deserves a place among any discussion of his best work.
The genius of Born in the USA, in fact, is the way it brought new fans into the Springsteen landscape through the back door. It’s deceiving in how it pairs a lively pop-rock sound with lyrics about discarded veterans, jailbirds, dying relationships, loneliness and ennui – not to mention sexual frustration. (It even fooled conservative columnist George Will, who famously declared, without irony, that Springsteen and his album proved that “There is still nothing quite like being born in the USA”).
The fact is, the themes that run through Born in the USA are the same ones Springsteen had been exploring at least since Darkness on the Edge of Town, but the newer album took the River formula – catchy rock ’n’ roll alongside darker meditations – and put it in a blender. With a few exceptions, most every song on USA finds dark and light inextricably intertwined. Masterfully, in fact.
That said, the album as a whole is imbued with irresistible rhythms, catchy hooks and sing-songy “sha-la-las” that fit in remarkably well with the bouncy pop landscape of the 1980s. Springsteen had always had a pop sensibility, but it usually reflected his earlier influences. While still a rock album, Born in The USA was (to the chagrin of some) on its surface unquestionably current and Top 40 radio-friendly.