Friday, December 1, 2017
December 1, 2017: 80s AlbumStudying: Born in the U.S.A. and Patriotism
[November 30th marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, one of the most popular and influential 1980s albums. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such albums, including Jackson’s and other greats from the decade. I’d love your AlbumStudying thoughts, on these or any others, in comments!]
On two ways to argue for the patriotic possibilities of an easily misunderstood song and album.
In one of my first-year blog posts (back in those silly mid-2011 days before I used hyperlinks, dear reader), I used an article by music journalist Ben Schwartz on the battles over Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (the song) to think about questions of audience readings and misreadings, of whether and how an artist’s choices can contribute to them, and of why I’d still make the case for “Born” as representing some of the best and most thoughtful (rather than most bombastic or simplified) visions of American identity and community. Many of those same questions and lenses can be applied to the Born in the U.S.A. album as a whole, of course, which consistently weds arena and bar rock sounds to dark and painful lyrics and situations. No fewer than three of the album’s songs end with main characters under arrest or in prison, and yet two of them (“Darlington County” and “Working on the Highway”) are also among the album’s most upbeat-sounding rockers. As I argued in that post, I believe audiences should be and are capable of looking beyond sound and music to hear and engage with songs on lyrical and thematic levels as well—but I also called “Born” a split-personality song there, and the same can definitely be said about the album as a whole.
The most overt way to read “Born” as uber-patriotic is, as I also wrote in that post, likewise both a misreading and a further emphasis on sound over lyrics (the first line of both the song and album is “Born down in a dead man’s town,” after all). But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other, and important, ways to think of both song and album as patriotic nonetheless. In recent years Springsteen has consistently described one of his central and lifelong artisitic goals as charting “the distance between American reality and the American Dream,” and the album’s opening and closing songs (“Born” and “My Hometown”) chart particular aspects of that distance with clarity and force. Like another easily misunderstood song of Springsteen’s, “We Take Care of Our Own” (the lead single from and first song on 2012’s Wrecking Ball), “Born” creates an especially clear representation of that distance between ideal and reality in the back and forth between its patriotic chorus and its far more dark and critical verses (although the same could be said of “My Hometown,” with a chorus that recognizes the value of a foundational place even while the verses chart that place’s decline and limits). I’ve written a lot in recent years, including in my most recent book, about the concept of critical patriotism, and both this overall idea of distance and the specific representations of it in these songs and their structural shifts exemplify critical patriotism.
There’s another, even more overarching way to think about Born in the U.S.A. as a patriotic album, however. The album’s most optimistic song is its exact midpoint, “No Surrender,” an anthemic tribute to Springsteen’s lifelong musical companion Steve Van Zandt and to the power of rock and roll (“We learned more from a three-minute record, babe, than we ever learned in school”). But what if we read that central song as a mission statement for the album itself? That is, to put it in first-year writing terms, what if “No Surrender” is the album’s thesis, “Born in the U.S.A.” and “My Hometown” are its introduction and conclusion, and the remaining songs are the evidence paragraphs? In that case, even if the songs are consistently darker in their themes and images, the acts of creating and performing them, of assembling them into an album, of sending that album out into the world, of touring to share it with audiences, and so on are all optimistic recognitions and extensions of the power and importance of rock and roll, and of the role it can play in helping America move toward a better future. Perhaps that future comprises the “romantic dreams” that the speaker of “No Surrender” still has in his head, dreams that animate—if not without challenge and complexity—the critical patriotism of Born in the U.S.A.
November Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other ‘80s albums you’d highlight and analyze?