I don’t think that anyone in my 6th grade class really understood the socio-political context of Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album, but we sure knew some catchy songs when we heard them! Now that I have spent the past two decades in the work force, and having studied post-WWII American history both as a student and as an American who wants to understand how we got here, I can embrace this album even more deeply and thoughtfully than ever before.
In this election year where bullshit artists like Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan claim to love the music of Rage Against the Machine, I am thinking about how artists’ work has been misappropriated by politicians over the years. Ronald Reagan tried using “Born in the U.S.A.” to his political advantage during his 1984 reelection campaign. The Boss rebuffed Reagan with extreme prejudice. Really, don’t politicians—or, at least, their campaign staffers—think they should find out whether a particular artist agrees with their ideology before they attempt to co-opt their music to promote their agendas? There are some catchy pop songs on Born in the U.S.A., but even those tunes have a lot of social commentary. Take “Darlington County,” for example:
Driving into Darlington County
Me and Wayne on the Fourth of July
Driving into Darlington County
Looking for some work on the county line…
Driving into Darlington City
Got a union connection with an uncle of Wayne’s
We drove eight-hundred miles without seeing a cop
We got rock and roll music blasting off the t-top…
Fourth of July. Looking for work. Unions. Blasting rock and roll on the way there. Lots to deal with as far as subject matter, but it’s just a catchy song, so fun to sing along with, you might not immediately catch what it’s saying. And it doesn’t necessarily have a deep message, but these are all things that people can relate to. We’re all patriots who want to find work that pays a decent wage, and we all love driving around listening to music. Bruce seduces us with these images that working class people understand. He knows us. He wants to speak for us. And we happily let him.
As someone who has been through more shitty jobs than I can remember in the past twenty years, I am in love with the way Bruce speaks out for the working poor, the unemployed, the underemployed, those who have just given up.
I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going, mister, in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the car wash,
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?
Yes. That’s it. People just want to have normal lives. They want to fall in love, they want to have steady jobs that enable them to pay their bills and have some fun once in a while. But in this economy, as it was back in the glory days (gag!) of the Reagan era, it is difficult to find a good job. A lot of us have two work two crappy jobs, part-time, with no chance of advancement and no benefits. “Downbound Train” could have been written yesterday.
Of course, the economy is cyclical, and there will always be people who cannot find work. That is normal. I am now listening to Born in the U.S.A. as a 39-year-old woman with a BA and MA and two decades of work experience who just spent the past two years working seven days a week between two shit jobs. Since writing my MA thesis on rock and roll and race relations a few years ago I analyze music far more than I ever did before, and I am especially interested in the social commentary, the way the music is at once borne of and influences modern society. Every single thing on this album applies today. Bruce writes about the shameful way Viet Nam veterans were treated upon returning to the United States, and though vets coming home from our various wars in the Middle East are not being spat upon, they are coming home to few job opportunities, though the military promised they would learn valuable skills during their service. Thank God President Obama and the First Lady are going out of their way to change the experiences of so many of our vets and their families. You don’t have to be of any particular political persuasion to be disgusted that there are unemployed or homeless vets in this country. Nobody who served should ever have to go through that.
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “son, if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “son, don’t you understand”
Aside from the concern for vets and the working class, Bruce is nostalgic for the past that we enjoyed. Certainly he understands that we usually look at our youth through rose-colored glasses, but we all have times we look back upon fondly, times that can never be recreated. Those times could be last year, ten years ago, or when you were eight years old. But it’s fun and important to remember how carefree we were.
Glory days, well they’ll pass you by
Glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye
Glory days, glory days…
…I hope when I get old I don’t sit
Around thinking about it
But I probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
A little of the glory of,
But time slips away
And leaves you with nothing mister but
Boring stories of glory days
Listening to songs from the 80s definitely reminds me of all the fun times I had in elementary school with my friends, and all the time we spent with our cousins and other extended family just playing and laughing and enjoying life. Back in the day, we did not think about the future, about how we were going to get by when we went into the work force. We lived in the present tense. Kids should live that way. Adults should remember how to do that. Of course, now that we’re grown we do have responsibilities, and life is not just about having fun. But there has to be fun in there somewhere. For the past two years I have worked seven days a week between two low-paying jobs that I fucking hate. Each job has some things I like, and I try focusing on those things. But that does not work for long. I have been very frustrated, as anyone would be.
I am the daughter of immigrants. My grandparents brought my parents here with nothing, not even speaking the language. They struggled. They succeeded. They survived. As will everyone who keeps going forward. It is a time of uncertainty, and I know it is tempting to give up. I think about how much Born in the U.S.A. must have meant to people who were struggling back in 1984. Bruce was a multi-millionaire by then, and this album added more to his fortune. But he still knew how to speak out on behalf of the common man. More importantly, he felt an obligation to speak out. Anyone who has succeeded should do whatever they can to lift up those who are unable to reach the next level. That’s the only moral thing to do.
Blood brothers in the stormy night with a
vow to defend, no retreat, no surrender