Are You Blasting Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Today?


Here is Slate writer Ruth Graham:

Graham is correct.  The song is really dark.  Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago for Real Clear Politics after former Texas governor Rick Perry used this song at a campaign rally:

If the last several GOP presidential primaries are any indication, nearly every candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination in 2016 will claim to be a follower of Ronald Reagan.

Rick Perry, should he decide to run, will be one of those candidates. The former Texas governor has even decided to use one of Reagan’s old campaign theme songs.

Last Thursday, at an event in Washington D.C., Perry walked onto the stage to Bruce Springsteen’s iconic 1984 single, “Born in the U.S.A.” About thirty years ago this song peaked at #9 on the Billboard charts and it continues to be a quintessential American anthem and a crowd favorite at Springsteen concerts.

Like Reagan in 1984, Rick Perry and his staff seem to have no clue about the song’s meaning. Anyone who listens carefully to the lyrics of “Born in the U.S.A.” will quickly realize that there is little about the song that reflects conservative values.

“Born in the U.S.A.” is about veterans living in the wake of Vietnam War. The first verse describes a veteran who can’t find a job when he returns home. He is rejected by potential employers so many times that he ends up like a “dog who has been beat too much” until he “spends half his life just covering up.”

Springsteen also sings about a fictional “brother” who was killed while fighting the Vietcong. He’s dead, but they’re “still there,” while the woman who he loved is left only with a picture.

Like most Springsteen songs, “Born in the U.S.A.” is a lament for the American working class. It reminds us that Vietnam was a “rich man’s war” and a “poor man’s fight.” This is a protest song. It is a song of tragedy. It tells stories of young men who sacrificed themselves for their country and got nothing in return.

On Sept. 19, 1984, a few months before his overwhelming victory over Walter Mondale, Reagan made a campaign stop in Hammonton, New Jersey, a rural and hardscrabble community with a large Italian-American population. It was a perfect place to test out his new theme song, “Born in the U.S.A.”

After the song blared over the loudspeakers, Reagan stepped up to the podium and said: “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.”

On one level, Reagan interpreted Springsteen correctly. A lot of his music is about the way ordinary Americans yearn to live the American Dream. This theme in Springsteen’s music is what attracted conservative columnist George Will to bring The Boss’s songs to the attention of the Reagan re-election team in the first place.

But “Born in the U.S.A.” is also a song about what Springsteen has recently described as the large gap between American reality and the American Dream. The song is more about the tragic side of American life than the sunny pursuits of happiness that politicians, especially conservative politicians, like to talk about on the campaign trail.

“Born in the U.S.A.,” with Max Weinberg’s drum blasts and Springsteen’s rugged voice, is a musical assault on the purveyors of the American dream. It reminds us that for many people in American history the dream has been more like an illusion.

Springsteen heard about the way Reagan was using his song and he lashed back. Two days later, while playing a concert in Pittsburgh, Springsteen paused from the music to say few words of introduction for “Johnny 99,” a song about an unemployed New Jersey autoworker. “Johnny 99” is a cut from Nebraska, one of Springsteen’s darker albums. It is filled with songs that are about brokenness, hardship and death.

Before he played “Johnny 99” that night, Springsteen referenced Reagan’s Hammonton speech: “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album must have been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to that one.”

The chorus of “Born in the U.S.A.” may send chills of inspiration up the spines of Rick Perry supporters, but the former Texas governor should probably think twice about using it in any more appearances. 


11 thoughts on “Are You Blasting Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Today?

  1. Jim in STL,

    As someone who has spent a lot of time around the VA hospital system, I can tell you that I have never heard of anything Bruce has ever accomplished there. Obviously, I don’t know what might have occurred throughout the complete and entire system but am hoping you will give me the facts.


  2. Jim in STL,

    I hope Sean reads several of your recommendations. For the most part, they seem to be serious books on Mussolini with the possible exception of Albright’s book which was probably a ghost-written attempt to keep her name current.


  3. Not exactly in topic, and I’m sure I’m not the first to bring this to your attention, but thought you’d enjoy this:


  4. For the history buff and for context to the Duce’s letters, I recommend the book How Fascism Works (2018) by Jason Stanley.

    Or, maybe Madeleine Albright’s Fascism; a Warning (2018). Or, maybe, for a deep dive, Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism (reprint edition 2015). Or, for a lighter but still informative read, David Kirtzer’s Mussolini and the Pope (2014). And then there’s The Open Society and it’s Enemies (new-one volume edition 2013), written by Karl Popper during the height of the war on fascists and fascist ideology in the early and mid 1940s.


  5. Once again James, you show a profound ignorance in slavish devotion to a caustic ideology. I’d post links but we both know that you wouldn’t follow them. Let’s just say that his work on behalf of veteran’s has run into the many tens of millions of dollars. That would be tens of millions of dollars more than Cadet, now Commander, Bone Spurs has produced. By the way, if you’re on the Mall today/tonight don’t forget to pick up a free USS John McCain tee shirt that veterans will be handing out.


  6. John,
    How much of his fortune has he donated to them? When you say he is “an advocate for veterans” that is well and good. How much has he given?



  7. But Sean, Trump won on the “taking a knee” controversy. And it was not fascist. I recommend you study the writings of Benito Mussolini to learn more about that subject.


  8. If Springsteen thinks he is a man of the people and a voice for “down and out” veterans, maybe he could donate a large portion of his estimated sixty million dollar fortune to nonprofits helping these veterans. Are his songs simply reflective of liberal hypocrisy? Talk (and songs) don’t cost a lot.


  9. I don’t think Republicans care about the words of the song at all and understanding their meaning would make no difference. The.only thing that matters is the title and the American flag on the cover. This is a unique trait of conservatism: they fetishise the symbology of patriotism while deliberately avoiding any understanding of what their worshipped symbols really mean. The same trait gave us the ludicrous controversy over “taking a knee” at the national anthem during NFL games, which Trump with his fascist tribalism predictably turned into yet another us-versus-them battle.


  10. Sort of reminiscent of when the Lawrence Welk Show, illustrating the dangers of profound pop culture ignorance, enthusiastically performed “One Toke Over the Line” as a “modern American spiritual.” Apparently all they heard was the song’s “sweet Jesus” line. The YouTube video of the Welk show’s 1971 version is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen on the Internet, and that includes every day’s content at The Onion.


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