Close your eyes, and you can envision the iconic album cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA: red cap in the pocket of his blue jeans, white t-shirt, that confident lean in front of the American flag.
In 1985, the year it was released, Springsteen’s seventh album was the top seller. It spawned an astonishing seven Top 10 singles, and kicked off Springsteen’s two-year worldwide Born in the USA tour.
This album chronicled a major shift in Springsteen’s sound. His previous record, Nebraska, had a much darker, acoustic sound. His vision for Born in the USA was to make a radio-friendly commercial album, and the combination of ’80s synth and Springsteen’s distinctive croaking achieved that end.
But don’t be fooled. This album isn’t a patriotic tribute or a collection of anthems, which is part of its appeal, and why it’s an important part of musical history.
Springsteen’s storytelling power shines through on the title track, which is partially a tribute to those who served in the Vietnam War, and partially a protest against what Vietnam veterans faced when they returned home.
Part of the beauty of the oft-misunderstood song is its juxtaposition of the anthemic chorus and the painful story told in the verses. One could imagine the chorus as a triumphant cry, but alongside the rest of the lyrics, it seems callous and empty — the cry of someone who needs to hold on to the idea of a perfect America because they have nothing else.
The entirety of the album runs in the same lyrical vein. All the songs are about the hardships of regular citizens of the U.S.A. But somehow, perhaps purely because of the synth ‘n rock sound, Born in the USA is imbued with a sense of hope. All of these things are happening, but we can change them if we try, Springsteen seems to be saying.
At the core, this album is about the American dream. There is no promise that it is easy, and many warnings of the hardships, but it is heavy with the promise of change and redemption. The lyrics keep referencing fire and sparks, including “Dancing in the Dark” and “I’m on Fire.” It’s hard not to think of the phoenix, and rebirth. The lyrics cry for the old to be burned away so something new can begin. They speak of a fire burning underneath every person’s weariness that begs to be unleashed.
The emotional depth of Springsteen’s voice and his lyrics give his songs a powerful one-two punch. Rolling Stone appropriately called Springsteen the “Voice of the Decade.” He’s the voice of everyone who tries to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as it were. He’s the voice of the common people, and Born in the USA is his magnum opus.