"Born in the U.S.A." is a 1984 song written and performed by Bruce Springsteen. Taken from the album of the same name, it is one of his best-known singles. Rolling Stone ranked the song 275th on their list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". In 2001, the RIAA's Songs of the Century placed the song 59th (out of 365). Lyrically, the song deals with the negative effects of the Vietnam War on Americans, but is often misunderstood to be a patriotic or nationalistic anthem.
The song was initially written in 1981 as the title song for a film that Paul Schrader was considering making and Springsteen was considering starring in (which ultimately became Light of Day starring Michael J. Fox). "Born in the U.S.A." turned out so well that Springsteen used it for his multi-platinum album, and because of this, Springsteen thanks Schrader in the liner notes. Casual home demos were made later that year, following the completion of The River Tour.
A more formal solo acoustic guitar demo was then made on January 3, 1982 at Springsteen's home in Colts Neck, New Jersey as part of the long session that would constitute most of the Nebraska album released later that year. Acoustic versions of several other songs that eventually appeared on the Born in the U.S.A. album were also included on this demo, including "Working on the Highway" and "Downbound Train". However, Springsteen manager/producer Jon Landau and others felt that the song did not have the right melody or music to match the lyrics, and also did not fit in well with the rest of the nascent Nebraska material. Thus, it was shelved. (This version would surface in the late 1990s on the Tracks and 18 Tracks outtake collections.)
In March 1982, Springsteen revived the song with a different melody line and musical structure. A full E Street Band version was recorded, with much of the arrangement made up on the spot, including Roy Bittan's clarion opening synthesizer riff and what producer Chuck Plotkin nicknamed Max Weinberg's "exploding drums" . The famous snare drum sound on this record is known as "Gated reverb" by recording engineers. This is the version that would appear on the Born in the U.S.A. album, a full two years later.
The song was in part a tribute to Springsteen's friends who had experienced the Vietnam War, some of whom did not come back; it also protests the hardships Vietnam veterans faced upon their return from the war.
The song's narrative traces the protagonist's working-class origins, induction into the armed forces, and disaffected return back to the States. An anguished lyrical interlude is even more jolting, describing the fate of the protagonist's (literal or figurative) brother (in some recordings or live shows, the word brother is replaced with buddy):
I had a brother at Khe Sanh
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now
The Battle of Khe Sanh involved the North Vietnamese Army, not the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (the Viet Cong) heard in the song lyrics. Eventually the Americans prevailed and broke the siege, only to withdraw from the outpost a couple of months later. Khe Sanh thus became one of the media symbols of the futility of the whole war effort in the States.
Two scholars writing in the journal American Quarterly explored the song as a lament for the embattled working-class identity. Structurally, they noted that "the anthemic chorus contrasted with the verses' desperate narrative," a tension which informs an understanding of the song's overall meaning: the nationalist chorus continuously overwhelms the desperation and sacrifice relayed in the verses. They point out that the imagery of the Vietnam War could be read as metaphor for "the social and economic siege of American blue-collar communities" at large, and that lyrics discussing economic devastation are likely symbolic for the effect of blind nationalism upon the working class. The song as a whole, they felt, laments the destabilization of the economics and politics protecting the "industrial working class" in the 1970s and early 1980s, leaving only "a deafening but hollow national pride."
In late August 1984, the Born in the U.S.A. album was selling very well, its songs were all over the radio, and the associated tour was drawing considerable press. Springsteen shows at the Capital Centre outside of Washington, D.C. thus attracted even more media attention, in particular from CBS Evening News correspondent Bernard Goldberg, who saw Springsteen as a modern-day Horatio Alger story. Even more notably, the widely-read conservative columnist George Will, after attending a show, published on September 13, 1984 a piece titled "A Yankee Doodle Springsteen" in which he praised Springsteen as an exemplar of classic American values. He wrote: "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.!'" The 1984 presidential campaign was in full stride at the time, and Will had connections to President Ronald Reagan's re-election organization. Will thought that Springsteen might endorse Reagan (not knowing that Springsteen was very much a liberal and thus did not support Reagan at all), and got the notion pushed up to high-level Reagan advisor Michael Deaver's office. Those staffers made inquiries to Springsteen's management which were politely rebuffed.
Nevertheless, on September 19, 1984, at a campaign stop in Hammonton, New Jersey, Reagan added the following to his speech:
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.
The campaign press immediately expressed skepticism that Reagan knew anything about Springsteen, and asked what his favorite Springsteen song was; "Born to Run" was the response from staffers. Johnny Carson then joked on The Tonight Show, "If you believe that, I've got a couple of tickets to the Mondale-Ferraro inaugural ball I'd like to sell you."
During a September 21 concert in Pittsburgh, Springsteen responded negatively by introducing his song "Johnny 99", a song about an unemployed auto worker who turns to murder, "The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don't think it was the Nebraska album. I don't think he's been listening to this one."
A few days after that, presidential challenger Walter Mondale said, "Bruce Springsteen may have been born to run but he wasn't born yesterday," and then claimed to have been endorsed by Springsteen. Springsteen manager Jon Landau denied any such endorsement, and the Mondale campaign issued a correction.
With "Born in the U.S.A." Springsteen was wildly misunderstood, at least for a short period. With these sound bites from Reagan and other conservatives praising the song and Springsteen, himself, it seemed as though they'd missed the point entirely. Springsteen was lamenting the loss of a true sense of national pride. The working class no longer had a say in the foreign policy or decisions made by the government as a whole. The reverberating chorus of "Born in the U.S.A." was a cry of longing, of sorrow. It was a hollow cry of patriotism that once was, but now ceased to exist.
In Springsteen’s own words, the song "Born in the U.S.A." is about "a working-class man" [in the midst of a] "spiritual crisis, in which man is left lost...It's like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He's isolated from the government. Isolated from his family...to the point where nothing makes sense." Springsteen promotes the fact that the endless search for truth is the true American way. He was frightened by the government continually rationalizing the Vietnam War.
Journalist Brian Doherty has written: "The song’s lyrics are about a shell-shocked vet with 'no place to run, nowhere to go.' But who’s to say Reagan wasn’t right to insist the song was an upper? When I hear those notes and that drumbeat, and the Boss’ best arena-stentorian, shout-groan vocals come over the speakers, I feel like I’m hearing the national anthem."