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Friday, June 3, 2011

June 3, 2011: Born to be Misunderstood?

Of all Bruce Springsteen’s songs, “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984) is definitely the most split-personality: the thundering, anthemic music and the gritty, dark lyrics rub against each other in ways that challenge any listener to pin the song’s tone down. Springsteen originally wrote the song for the previous album, Nebraska (1982), and in that version, recordings of which he has included on recent compilations and versions of which he has played in concert many times (and which I’ve linked below), the music was acoustic and spare, a perfect complement to the lyrics. But the released version will always be the main and best-known one, the opening and title track of Springsteen’s best-selling and most famous album; and its contradictions cannot be elided by later versions or shifts. As a kid, I definitely fell for the music first, air-drumming along with Max Weinberg’s beats and singing along to the catchy chorus; it took years for me really to listen to (and certainly maturity and historical knowledge for me to understand) the lyrics. I can even understand Reagan’s attempt to adopt the song as a campaign anthem, although in that case, yeah, having a staffer vette the lyrics first would have been a good call.
I’m thinking about the song and these questions today because of a very interesting article, Ben Schwartz’s “Viva Vietnam: The History of the Political Battleground Otherwise Known as Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.’” It’s an online article for a music site, available at the first link below, and speaks for itself, addressing the many complicated issues and topics to which this song and its political, cultural, and historical moment can be connected. But there's one moment that diverges from my perspective, a spot at the end of the article's first half in which Schwartz (quoting but also it seems agreeing with critic James Wolcott), argues that Springsteen should have expected his audience (any audience) to connect more with the song’s rousing side than with its darker and more challenging lyrics. “Not everybody wants to be evangelized,” Wolcott argues, and certainly that’s true—when Springsteen talks in concert (as he has for the last decade or so, much more than ever before at least) about his political views, he gets boos as well as cheers, and although I agree with just about every one of those views, I understand the boos too; those fans have come to hear one of the great rock artists put on one of the great live shows, and not necessarily to hear about politics (although by now it shouldn’t come as a surprise).
And yet. For one thing, I certainly don’t agree with the whole notion of “shut up and sing,” for reasons that I might have addressed in an earlier post (I’m nearing 200 and can’t quite remember!) and will probably address again. But in this case I would respond through a different lens, one with which, to his credit, Schwartz definitely engages despite that aforementioned paragraph’s mini-argument. To me, “Born” is not a political song, not in any evangelizing or partisan or argumentative sense anyway. It’s a story, an incredibly well-told (particularly given the brevity of its lines and images) story of an American life, and more exactly the life of a Vietnam veteran before and especially after that service. The speaker does not oppose the war, at least not in so many words; he does not even overtly complain of or criticize his treatment after the war. He just tells his story—and if the story is one of a war to which he never should have gone, a return which entails mostly loss and failure and pain, a future which feels bleak and hopeless and unchanging, that just makes it a story (fictional but very much based on the experiences of specific vets whom Springsteen had met and befriended in the years prior to writing the song) that is particularly worth our hearing and understanding and sympathy. I’d call that political in the best sense, the sense that demands that we acknowledge and engage with the stories and histories of all Americans, including and especially those that if would be easier to forget.
None of that, of course, means that it’s not possible to sing and fist-pump along to the music and miss that story and history. But on the other hand, the anthemic music and number one album and stadium tour and magazine covers and music videos and etc. meant that many more millions of Americans were hearing Springsteen’s songs, and the odds are pretty good that I’m not the only one who started listening more to the lyrics, who went back and listened to Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), who made Bruce an ongoing and evolving part of our historical and cultural and political and national narratives and identities. Of, you could say, our full births as Americans. More this weekend,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Schwartz’s article (part 1, with a link to part 2 at the bottom):
2)      Acoustic version of “Born”:
3)      OPEN: Any songs you’d call political in this better sense? Any in the worse?

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