Does John Cougar Mellancamp owe his entire career to this album? I really don’t know, since I don’t know all that much about John Cougar Mellancamp, and I’m not sure I ever will. But anyways, let’s talk about Bruuuuuuuuuuce!
Album: Born In The U.S.A.
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Release Date: June 4, 1984
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 13.5 million
Why Was This Popular?
Because America Loves The Most Macho Version Of Itself
Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. is a bit of an odd case, in that it announced its creator as a bonafide superstar, even despite the fact that it came from a guy who had been putting out records for over a decade at that point. And it’s not like The Boss was just some unpolished diamond in the rough who’d toiled in underground obscurity before emerging with some break-out hit that finally let people know about this world-class talent that’d just been a bit off of everybody’s radar. Instead, it came from a guy who’d released a bunch of albums on a major label, had been on the cover of Time magazine, had a couple of top 40 hits, and had released at least a few undeniably classic albums. And yet, somehow there was still room for The Boss to excel upwards.
I think a simple way of reasoning why this happened, is that with Born In The U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen finally learned to embrace the moment. For his first few albums, he’d been chasing this Orbison-meets-Dylan-meets-Spector sound that was clearly obsessed with the past, and for that reason those records still sound refreshingly out-of-step with everything else that was going on in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. But with Born In The U.S.A., he finally learned to incorporate what was that sworn enemy of traditionalist rock music, yet seemed to be in every hit single at the time — the synthesizer. And by combining that with the kind of upbeat “heartland rock” sound that had been hinted at on 1980’s The River, you had the most chart-ready version of Bruce Springsteen that there had ever been (or there ever would be).
But it wasn’t just this new sonic approach that made Born In The U.S.A. such a monster seller. Being that this was the early ‘80s, the advent of this little thing called MTV, which ushered in a newer, shallower breed of pop star, Bruce (who was clearly a very handsome man) was able to conform in his own way to this new prerequisite for pop success. Still, the videos for this album seem very much emblematic of the way Springsteen has approached much of his career, as they took advantage of a new avenue for roping in more fans, but without forcing him to overtly “sell out”. The videos, a few of which were directed by John Sayles, have a very unflashy, workingman style to them, but while also pointing out the fact that yes, this newer, brawnier version of The Boss was, to quote one of the more ridiculous sayings ever invented, the kind of guy men want to be and women want to be with.
Though it does seem a little weird to say, the fact that prior to Born In The U.S.A., Bruce started lifting weights and continued to maintain his post-Darkness clean-shaven look probably did have a bit of impact on his new superstar status. And I don’t know how much authority I can speak to in regards to this album’s status as a product of the Reagan administration (since I had yet to be birthed), but when you look at it, for better or for worse, in 1984 The Boss did tend to come off as this over-emasculated embodiment of Reagan-era get-er-done-ism. Of course, Springsteen expressed no affiliation or endorsement of Ronald Reagan or his use of the song “Born In The U.S.A.”, but really, is there anything more American than taking a song about the injustices of being an American war veteran and misinterpreting it as an anthem about how awesome we are?
Did It Deserve To Be Popular?
If you’re a lifelong Bruce fan (as I undoubtedly am), Born In The U.S.A. tends to be the album that gets cast aside. Which probably has something to do with it being the least cool of his albums, not that Springsteen is an artist who has by any means ever been defined by his coolness. Or maybe it is just the fact that it was such a monster hit, and contains at least 3 or 4 songs that you tend to hear on a pretty regular basis, which can’t really be said for any other Bruce album, as “Born To Run” and “Hungry Heart” are really the only other songs that I feel like I ever hear in public. And I don’t know if coolness and “I’ve heard this enough already”-ism are two interdependent ideas, but they’re certainly related, and seem to be working in unison when it comes to most Springsteen fans’ perpetual fatigue over Born In The U.S.A., regardless that there are actually a lot of good songs here.
Yet even despite these good songs (which includes the kinds of songs that made money, i.e. the greatest songs of all), I also can’t shake the fact that Born In The U.S.A. hasn’t been one of the Bruce albums I return to a ton. Born To Run is of course his defining moment and just one of those rock albums that seems to have this kind of magic contained within its songs, while its follow-up Darkness On The Edge Of Town is a more jaded follow-up that has started to sound better and better as I’ve gotten older. Meanwhile, Nebraska is the Springsteen album for people who don’t really like Springsteen, and I can see why, with its hauntingly stark production. Hell, I probably end up listening more to tracks from Born In The U.S.A.’s follow-up Tunnel Of Love, just because it has that world-weariness that I often look for in Bruce Springsteen’s music, though when you look at it, you can’t entirely say that Born In The U.S.A. doesn’t have any of that.
First of all, I’ll admit there are a few songs here that at end of the day are just fun — if a little inconsequential — pieces of Jersey bar rock (“Darlington County” and the unkillable “Glory Days” come to mind). Also, the very ‘80s production as I said earlier was a big part of this album’s success at the time, so it shouldn’t come as much surprise that it’s also what dates some of these songs considerably. Still, even as someone who tends to be a synth skeptic, I think Roy Bittan’s keyboards do add an extra layer of eeriness to the lovesick sparsity of “I’m On Fire” or the being-a-workingman-sucks anthem “Downbound Train”. Also, even despite it’s unanimity as one of Bruce’s biggest hits, “Dancing In The Dark” I think happens to be one of those great world-weary Bruce songs, with lines like “I ain’t nothing but tired. / I ain’t nothing but tired and bored with myself” and “You sit around getting older. / There’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me”. And I have to say, I don’t think that song would be nearly as affecting if it weren’t for those moody keyboards making you feel like you’re literally dancing in the god damn dark when you listen to that song.
Would I Pay Money For This?
Hardcore Bruce fans can try to ignore this album all they want, but I don’t think it should be treated as an anomaly in Springsteen’s career. Many of the songs are just as bleak or introspective as anything on Nebraska, it’s just that a lot of the album’s ‘80s production tends to muddy how much the lyrics are as much of a piece with anything else The Boss ever did. Also, as far as the kind of white-t-shirt-sporting “heartland rock” that ruled the mid-‘80s (and even returned a little bit with that War On Drugs album from last year), you can’t do much better than Born In The U.S.A. So yes, I would spend money on this, and here’s a little bit of photographic evidence to prove it:
Next Time On The People’s Albums: I will be feelin’ groovy as I try to avoid the sounds of silence by listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits.