Christian Christensen explores the quarter-century long misunderstanding of Bruce Springsteen’s most famous song in a short, but incisive critique published in yesterday’s edition of CounterPunch.
Born in the USA is one of a small number of songs, films or television programmes (produced in large part in the United States) that can generate near-physical negative reactions with a mere mention of the title. (Films like Rambo and TV shows like The Jerry Springer Show fall into this category.) When the song was released, my own response to Springsteen’s creation, as a 15-year-old American boy living in the United Kingdom, was in line with those of many of my British friends: bemusement and indignation toward what appeared to be little more than a mindless anthem trumpeting the virtues of patriotism and American egomania. The song was brash, bragging and – to the irritation of people who despised the politics of Thatcher and Reagan – amazingly popular.
The song was embraced by the right as an anthem of triumphant nationalism in the 1980s, despite it’s critical lyrics. Springsteen’s politics in the eighties where not so well known and allowed listener’s to easily construct contradictory meanings.
In a 2004 interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Springsteen was philosophical about the relationship between himself and his fans, noting that audiences often engage in selective listening, suggesting that the meaning of popular music is as much the creation of the fan as it is of the band or the musician. Perhaps he was thinking of the various interpretations of Born in the USA when he said: “Pop musicians live in the world of symbology. You live and die by the symbol in many ways. You serve at the behest of your audience’s imagination. It’s a complicated relationship”.
Despite the right’s co-optation of Born in the USA, Christensen argues “the song continues to provide listeners with a reminder of the relationship between power, class and warfare.” And I agree. Indeed the same could be said of the majority of Springsteen’s oeuvre. But Christensen argues there is huge gap between image and reality when it comes to Springsteen work these days and points to the contradictions of his musical themes and images against his exclusive distribution deal with Wal-Mart, playing the Bridgestone/Firestone Super Bowl Half Time Show, etc.
The singer noted that when an artist’s work meets reality, the results can be painful for fans. “The audience and the artist are valuable to one another as long as you can look out there and see yourself, and they look back and see themselves,” he said. “When that bond is broken, by your own individual beliefs, personal thoughts or personal actions, it can make people angry. As simple as that.”