Monday, October 4, 2010

Monday With The Boss: Part 7 - Born in the U.S.A.

Welcome to Monday, and here we are again stepping down the recording history of Bruce Springsteen. This time looking at the mega-hit album Born in the U.S.A., originally released on June 4th, 1984.

This album has a rather checkered reputation. It sold spectacularly (Seven weeks as Billboard's number one album), and seven of it's twelve tracks were Billboard top ten hits. Yet, there's a certain disdain for the record. It's got a more "pop" feel than likely any other Springsteen album, and the production is sheer 80's. There's a ton of synthesizer on the record, where piano or organ might have been previously, and after.

The Springsteen team had come to a point where the whole idea was to bring Bruce's music to the largest audience possible. All efforts were made to that end, including very "of the moment" production. I find it hard to fault the desire, any artist who says they don't want to reach as many people as possible with their art is either kidding themselves, or an elitist. One thing I find it impossible to accuse Springsteen of is being an elitist. They wanted to sell records, they wanted to reach a lot of people. You may call it a "sell out," but I think that's a lazy description from people who still smart at the idea that Springsteen isn't just for them, anymore.

Yet, what amazes me, and continues to hover around the album, is the misconceptions about the nature and tone of the songs. The fact is, almost every, last song on Born in the U.S.A was written at the same time as the tracks on Nebraska. The production and playing are very pop and upbeat, but, almost to a fault, the lyrical content is rather dark.

Take "Dancing in the Dark," which was added to the album late in the process because Manager/Producer Jon Landau felt they "needed a single." So, Bruce wrote one, a very danceable track, with an iconic video, to boot. A video that for many, many people, set their image of Springsteen for years and years to come;

Yet, when you look at the actual lyrical content...It's anything but peppy or joyous;
I get up in the evening
and I ain't got nothing to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain't nothing but tired
Man I'm just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help
Yeah, when you were a little kid, dancing around to this "fun" song, little did you know it was about a depressed, lonely guy looking for a cheap, anonymous one-night-stand. 

Thing is, this entire "lightweight" album is filled with rage, resentment, anger, and loss. I consider it a continual reminder of the surface-level obsession of the Reagan era that 'ole Ronny tried to co-opt "Born in the U.S.A." itself as some sort of call for national pride.
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go
Uh, yeah...OK.

Yet, these conceptions of the album live on, as some sort of flag-waving ode to the "boom years" of Reaganomics. Yet again, I have to go back to the idea that most of these songs came from the same creative burst that produced Nebraska. Springsteen was not happy, and not singing the praises of the then-current administration.

There's a really excellent example of what I'm taking about in the Tracks box set, and the 18 Tracks sampler, Springsteen put out in 1999. On there we find a very, very "Nebraska" version of "Born in the U.S.A." It's in this acoustic version where the wail of pain and sadness that drives the song is evident. The ultimate version released on Born in the U.S.A. drives the song more to a scream of rage, but...that is so easliy taken for shouting in pride.

Like I said, there were a lot of hits on Born in the U.S.A., "Dancing in the Dark," "Cover Me," "Born in the U.S.A.," "I'm on Fire," "Glory Days," "I'm Going Down," and "My Hometown" all charted in the top ten. Looking at it just in songwriting terms, the album is kind of a goldmine. Yes, yes, Springsteen had left behind the more spazmatic lyrical content, and the 80's production is slathered all over the songs. That doesn't kill the fact that Springsteen had learned to effectively get his message across, and still craft catchy, compelling songs. Sometimes, as mentioned before, putting those two elements in direct opposition to each other.

I'd go as far as to say there's only one true stinker on the album, "I'm going Down," which is a doozy. Seriously, I think it may, in fact, be the worst song Springsteen has ever released on a album. It suffers the George Harrison "I Got My Mind Set On You" problem. The song virtually consists of the title being repeated ad nauseum. Were as Harrison's track was famously lampooned as "This Song is Just Six Words Long," Springsteen cut that down to three. Just...not good.

The album was produced by Springsteen, with Jon Landau and Steven Van Zandt returning, adding Chuck Plotkin. After the record was completed, Van Zandt would leave the E-Street Band to pursue his solo career. Nils Lofgren took his place for the Born in the U.S.A. tour, and has been associated with the band ever since, both on his own, and alongside Van Zandt, when he returned. 

Born in the U.S.A. is not my favorite Springsteen album, but I think many people look down upon it simply because of the success it enjoyed. I think that success has served to mask the truly great songwriting and impassioned messages that Bruce had filtered into it. I'd hate to see that not remembered.

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