A Brief Thought on Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”

29 May

Not a few times I’ve been in the presence of someone who pointed out how ironic it was that Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” was used by the right wing in the eighties as a sort of nationalist anthem; after all, the song is about protest, blue-collar suffering, and the dangers of unbridled national pride. The people that point out this irony seem to think that the joke is on conservatives, on Reagan and Mondale; how naive of them to use “Born in the U.S.A.” when a great deal of its lyrics directly oppose their own ideologies! But the more I think about it, the more I think that the joke is, in fact, on Springsteen. He wrote a song whose central message could be easily ignored, with a nationalist chorus the right could easily co-opt. He (heroically, some claim) juxtaposed America’s working class struggles (i.e. the verses) with America’s relentless spirit (i.e. the chorus) but ignored the fact that the choruses were catchier and more memorable than the verses and that this would upset the balance of this juxtaposition. Reagan and his campaign managers weren’t stupid; they knew what the song was about. They knew well enough that using the parts of the song that were in harmony with right-wing ideology was a more effective way of diffusing its power than simply ignoring it. So: is a protest song still great if everyone can easily ignore the fact that it’s a protest song? I mean, do you think Alabama’s gubernatorial candidates were using Neil Young’s “Southern Man” at campaign rallies? No, but I’m willing to bet good money they were using “Sweet Home Alabama” and waving to the crowd as Ronnie Van Zant told Young to go fuck himself. – Dominick

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