Member of the Board of Directors Friends of the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection
It’s been 30 “years burning down the road” since the release of Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen’s seventh studio album, on June 4, 1984.
The album went on to become Springsteen’s most successful commercially, selling 15 million copies in the U.S. and 30 million worldwide. It became the best-selling album of 1985. Seven of the album’s 12 songs were released as singles and topped the charts during the course of the next two years. In agreement with record buyers, critics christened the album Springsteen’s best, and one of rock and roll’s classics. Three decades out, Born In the U.S.A. is decade-defining.
With its release, Springsteen debuted a new sound, a new physique and a new persona. It was like he listened to what he had written in the first single released a month prior to the album, “Dancing in the Dark,” where he expressed boredom with himself and the desire to change his clothes, his hair, his face.
Though the album’s first single to be released, “Dancing in the Dark” was actually the last song written for the album. Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau after listening to the final track list for the album decided it needed a sure-fire hit and asked Springsteen to see if he could come up with one more. It’s said that Springsteen poured all his frustration about how long it had taken to finish the album that was now still not done into the song’s lyrics, and all the synthesizers and urgent drumbeats he could muster into its music in “the most deliberate play for the mainstream he’d ever made,” according to Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin.
“It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go — and probably a little farther,” Springsteen wrote in his book “Songs.” “Dancing in the Dark” is his biggest hit song to date.
Many of the songs on the album were written years before and recorded as early as 1982 during sessions for Springsteen’s Nebraska album. Springsteen had written and recorded that album’s sparse story songs at his home, and then launched into recording sessions to explore them with the full band. During those sessions at The Power Station and at The Hit Factory in New York, he wrote and recorded those songs and as many as 60 to 70 others, but it was ultimately decided that the Nebraska album was essentially strongest on those solo homemade demos. The recording sessions weren’t wasted time, however, with some of the takes making their way onto BITUSA.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself over a long period of time to reproduce the intensity of Nebraska on Born in the U.S.A., “ Springsteen said in “Songs.” “I never got it. But “Born in the U.S.A.” is probably one of my five or six best songs, and there was something about the grab-bag nature of the rest of the songs that probably made it one of my purest pop records.”
There were four producers of the album: Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin and Steve VanZandt, who would soon leave the E Street Band to work on his own projects, prompting Springsteen to write the album’s “Bobby Jean” in honor of their lifelong friendship though the two have never spoken about the song. The tracks on Side One began with “Born In the U.S.A.”, followed by “Cover Me”, “Darlington County”, “Working On The Highway”, “Downbound Train” and “I’m On Fire.”
Side Two was a little lighter, starting with the anthem “No Surrender”, “Bobby Jean”, “I’m Goin’ Down”, “Glory Days”, “Dancing in the Dark” and “My Hometown.” All in just about 46 minutes of music.
While not unanimous, the critics’ choir felt Springsteen’s latest release was a much stronger album than he did. Many wrote about the importance of the serious subjects Springsteen was singing about on those soon-to-be pop hits, and the evolution of Springsteen’s themes.
“BITUSA finds the Springsteen pantheon of virtues – work, strive, endure, remember – still revered. What has disappeared is the promised land he once believed those virtues could earn,” Anthony DeCurtis wrote in “The Dream Fades” in the August 1984 edition of Record magazine.
“BITUSA hits all the stops along the lost highway of the American death trip: Vietnam, unemployment, imprisonment, class oppression, alienation, the fading of the dream.”
“Through the 11 years of his career, Springsteen’s American landscape has darkened so much that it’s hard not to see the flag he faces on BITUSA’s cover as an immovable, unscalable wall.” The album’s cover was shot by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz, and shows Springsteen from the back from mid-chest to mid-thigh, now so well-known he no longer needed to show his face on the cover.
“If Woody Guthrie was the Dust Bowl laureate, Springsteen has emerged as the brave voice of workers in modern America’s sunset industries, ” DeCurtis continued. “Many rock performers have spoken for one subculture or another, but none has ever defined the works and days of an entire class as their subject. Until now.”
Springsteen and the band had years and tours of experience together that prepared them for this role. Traveling abroad during The River tour, the band’s members had a chance to see their country from a different perspective. According to Ames Carlin, many of the younger audience members they met in the cities they played saw America “as a forbidding imperial presence.”
Guitarist Steve Van Zandt told Ames Carlin in Bruce: “This kid accused me of putting missiles in his country and I was like, ‘What are ya talking about? There’s a guitar in that case not a missile. But it wouldn’t leave my head until I realized that when you leave this country, you’re an American. It’s not Democrat or Republican, taxi driver or rocker. It’s just American. And we’re supposed to be a democracy, so you are responsible for what your country does.” Experiences like these while traveling abroad gave the band new perspectives on what was happening back home.
BITUSA was draped in the American flag from birth, not only on its iconic cover but also in Springsteen’s red, white and blue working man’s wardrobe of jeans, tight T-shirt and bandanna. The album came into the world riding a patriotic wave that was about to crest. Not to mention it was also an Election Year. Not to mention it was an Olympic year, when U.S.A pride always reaches a crescendo. Not to mention the U.S. had home field advantage that year as the Summer Olympics were in Los Angeles. Not to mention Springsteen’s beefed-up body-builder’s physique, witnessing to blue-collar hard work, discipline and physical labor. Not to mention in the early ‘80s, American society had taken a sentimental patriotic turn toward pride in the country, toward conservatism, toward a new respect for Vietnam veterans, even seeing them as action heroes such as Rambo, toward a campaign commercial vision that America was back, united in purpose, bathed in the light of a new dawn.
Releasing an album and a song titled “Born In the U.S.A.” into this culture led to many assumptions that Springsteen’s opus was a nod to all this, when in actuality it was a knock on the trickle-down economics eroding the working class’ ability to make a living, on the thought that the American Dream was alive and well, on the Me Generation’s greed and need to amass wealth and not worry where or from whom it was coming. Springsteen wasn’t looking to get into the political discussion, but just to show the reality of the lives of the working class and to deliver the news that their American dreams were dying.
Telling Peter Ames Carlin for his biography Bruce: “I don’t think people come to music for political advice. They come to be touched and moved and inspired, and if you’ve written about political things as a part of what you’re doing — and you do it well — then you’re moving and inspiring them with those things. But people aren’t coming on an informational basis. I was attracted to Dylan because he sounded like he was telling the truth. I didn’t sit there with a lyric sheet. It was just in the way it sounded.”
Given the album’s instant popularity and reach through radio play and MTV videos, President Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign couldn’t resist the temptation to try to co-opt some of Springsteen’s patriots while misinterpreting his album’s and song’s statement about the state of the union. They thought he was harmonizing with the view of America they wanted to project to the electorate, when he was actually raising the alarm that that America was slipping away. Suggestions of an endorsement were floated and rejected. Deepening the misunderstanding, conservative columnist George F. Will attended a Springsteen concert at the Capitol Center in Landover, Md., in late August 1984, at the invitation of Max Weinberg, and then wrote about Springsteen’s cheerleading patriotism in his nationally syndicated column on Sept. 13, 1984, rolling out his misinterpretation of the new album and single to millions.
Then at a campaign stop in Hammonton, N.J., a week after the column had appeared, President Reagan invoked Springsteen’s name and message. “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about,” President Reagan said. Talking to his biographer Ames Carlin in 2011, Springsteen said, “It was part of a shopping list of things that needed to be done for the six o’clock news. And I didn’t want to be part of the shopping list, y’know?”
At his next concert, Springsteen and Landau decided he had to say something, according to Ames Carlin. After five songs, Springsteen noted the president had mentioned him the other day. “I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” Then he launched into “Johnny 99,” the story of an unemployed auto plant worker who goes on a killing spree.
Reflecting on the misinterpretation in an interview with Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone in the Dec. 6, 1984 issue, Springsteen explained, “When you think about all the men and women that died in Vietnam, and how many died since they’ve come back — surviving the war and coming back and not surviving — you have to think that, at the time, the country took advantage of their selflessness. There was a moment where they were just really generous with their lives.”
“I think what’s happening now is people want to forget. There was Vietnam, there was Watergate, there was Iran — we were beaten, we were hustled and then we were humiliated. And I think people got a need to feel good about the country they live in,” Springsteen said. “And you see the Reagan reelection ads on TV — you know: It’s morning in America. And you say, well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh. It’s not morning above 125th Street in New York. It’s midnight, and like, there’s a bad moon risin’. And that’s why Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey. I felt it was another manipulation, and I had to disassociate myself from the president’s kind words.”
“I think there’s always been a nostalgia for a mythical America, for some period in the past when everything was just right. And I think the president is the embodiment of that for a lot of people. He has a very mythical presidency. I don’t know if he’s a bad man. But I think there’s a large group of people in ths country whose dreams don’t mean that much to him, that just get indiscriminately swept aside. I guess my view of America is a real big-hearted country, real compassionate. But the difficult thing out there right now is that the social consciousness that was a part of the sixties has become like old-fashioned or something. You go out, you get your job, and you try to make as much money as you can and have a good time on the weekend. And that’s considered okay.”
Before and after the high-profile misinterpretation of “Born in the U.S.A.” in the late summer of 1984, the record took the airwaves and MTV by storm. The radio was filled with the album’s songs and MTV played the album’s four videos in frequent rotation, marking the crossover between the old and new record company marketing strategies. In another instance of changing technology for the recording industry, BITUSA has the distinction of being the first commercial compact disc produced in the United States, giving the album’s name another dimension, when CBS and Sony opened a CD manufacturing plant in Terre Haute, Indiana in September 1984. Before this, the new-fangled CDs were imported from Japan.
“Many of these songs found themselves in concert with my audience,” Springsteen wrote about BITUSA in his book Songs. “My heroes, from Hank Williams to Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan, were popular musicians. They had hits. There was value in trying to connect with a large audience. It was a direct way you affected culture. It let you know how powerful and durable your music might be. But it was also risky and forced you to confront your music’s limitations as well as your own. … Born in the U.S.A. changed my life and gave me my largest audience. It forced me to question the way I presented my music and made me think harder about what I was doing.”
While the album’s commercial success grew, critics applauded Springsteen’s musical and lyrical work in its songs. “At one time, escape appeared to be part of a youthful, rebellious attitude. Now, the characters in Springsteen’s lyrics have grown from that youthful, innocent stage to a point where escaping from a humdrum lifestyle is more than just a part of growing up. It’s a matter of life and death,” Rich Lee wrote in the June 13, 1984 Aquarian Weekly article, “Not One Weak Track.”
“In an age where many albums are just excuses to surround a good single or two with mediocre tunes, BITUSA is an exception to the rule,” Lee wrote, disagreeing directly with Springsteen on his grab bag of other album tracks. “There’s not a weak track on the record.”
“BITUSA is Bruce Springsteen’s hardest-rocking and most accessible album since Born to Run.” Robert Hilburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times on May 26, 1984. “There’s such a raucous, party-time flavor to most of the tracks that Springsteen must have had the concert stage in mind when he recorded these songs. … There is a sense of lost opportunities and hard times running through tunes like “Cover Me,” “Downbound Train” and “I’m On Fire” that recall the stark emotional landscapes of Springsteen’s 1982 LP Nebraska.”
“On the flip side, however, many inventive performers who’ve made superior artistic statements will abandon a particular style if they fail to garner enough public support. One example is Bruce Springsteen’s new album, BITUSA, which is now No.1 on the record charts,” wrote Hugh Wyatt in the New York Daily News, July 13, 1984, under the headline “What Price Artistic Integrity?”
“The recording is clearly a departure from his last, more esthetic work, Nebraska, which was not a huge financial success. But even with all its gimmicky ties, BITUSA is unquestionably one of the most important works to come out of the rock and roll genre in at least a decade. So it is possible to produce a commercial recording while at the same time maintaining artistic integrity.”
In the Christian Science Monitor on June 12 1984, David Cheezem wrote: “The album is a crisp, wide-angle portrait of a generation of working-class America still quivering from the shock of Vietnam and the disappointments of a fickle economy. At the same time, it is a proud, vibrant, country-infused rock album with music that understates the strong emotions of the lyrics. … Maybe Springsteen’s trying — in depicting working class troubles — to tell us something we already know. But in the process, he has created a throbbing but sensitive rock album.”
Rolling Stone gave the album 5 stars (a Classic rating) in its July 19/Aug.1, 1984 issue. “Though it looks at hard times, at little people in little towns choosing between going away and being left behind, BITUSA, Bruce Springsteen’s seventh album has a rowdy spirit.”
“The people who hang out in the new songs fear getting stuck in the small towns they grew up in almost as much as they worry that the world outside holds no possibilities.”
In the September 1984 Downbeat magazine, Bill Milkowski gave the album 4 out of 5 stars (a Very Good rating) and wrote: “While the music is often upbeat and punchy, the tales of layoffs, love affairs gone bad, and lost youth strike an emotional chord, especially if you have been there. … His characters in BITUSA are older and sadder. They have come to accept their lives and are now left to cope with harsh economic realities and broken dreams.”
In the Reading Eagle on July 17, 1984, Al Walentis wrote in his article, “Rock for the Downwardly Mobile: “BITUSA is a real blue-collar funk. Springsteen’s anthems about adolescent yearning and restlessness have matured into laments for working class heroes whose lives have been shattered by economic distress. This is an album about despair and disillusionment about dead ends about loss of self-esteem, about descents into madness. The American Dream, for the most part, is in tatters.”
The June 9, 1984 Sounds magazine gave the album 5 stars under the headline, “Labour of Love”:“‘Dancing in the Dark’ shows it most: Bruce has been listening to the radio, and now he’s made a record to fit there. Don’t touch that dial!”
The Sunday Star-Ledger on June 17, 1984, ran the review “‘The Boss’ now resigned to pessimism,” by George Kanzler. “The people in this barren landscape he’s created remain mostly nameless, with the exception of Bobby Jean, who’s gone away, and Wayne, last seen handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford.”
“Then the Springsteen of 1984 is a disillusioned cynic who no longer finds respite anywhere, not in fantasies of the open road, nor in the togetherness of love, not even in the passion of rock ‘n’ roll. … There are more ashes than embers on BITUSA, a profoundly pessimistic album despite the presence of the often high-energy rock of the E Street Band, rock that offers an ironic contrast to the enervated world view of the singer-personas presented on most of the songs. … Most dreams suffer stillbirth on the new album. …”
In the New York Times on May 27, 1984, Steve Holden wrote in “Springsteen Scans the American Dream”: “BITUSA teems with characters and incidents related to a common theme — the decline of small-town working class life in the post-industrial society. … Mr. Springsteen would apparently rather not prettify the brute facts. Most of the songs use only two or three chords and reiterate abrupt melodic fragments that suggest the bones of more developed folk and country songs. Some have so little sense of melody as to be just a step away from speech-song.”
“For some of Mr. Springsteen’s newest characters, the workplace and prison are virtually indistinguishable. ‘Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/out by the gas fires of the refinery/I’m 10 years down the road/Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go,’ muses the narrator of the title song.”
“Mr. Springsteen recognizes rock and roll as a product of the working class culture he writes about. Forged from the simple vernaculars of blues, fold, country, and gospel, this hard Saturday night party music for the common people wasn’t invented to help examine the hard realities of life, but to find a release from those realities. But on BITUSA, Mr. Springsteen used the music to do both. He has transfused rock and roll, and social realism into one another, and the compassion and the surging brawn of his music makes his very despairing vision of American life into a kind of celebration.”
Robert Christgau gave the album an A in the Village Voice on June 26, 1984, writing: “Even his compulsive studio habits work for him: The aural vibrancy of the thing reminds me like nothing in years that what teenagers loved about rock and roll wasn’t that it was catchy or even rhythmic but that it just plain sounded good.”
“Hardly ride off into the sunset stuff, at the same time it’s low on nostalgia and beautiful losers. Not counting the title powerhouse, the songs I love most slip by at first because their tone is so lifelike: the fast-stepping ‘Working on the Highway,’ which turns out to be about a county road gang; ‘Darlington County,’ which pins down the futility of a macho spree without undercutting its exuberance; and ‘Glory Days,’ which finally acknowledges that among other things, getting old is a damn good joke.”
Steve Morse in the Boston Globe on June 10, 1984 called the new album, “a blunt but instantly likable record that reaffirms his standing as the leader and conscience of American rock and roll.”
“Nebraska was judged as too downbeat for significant radio airplay, and so might BITUSA were it judged strictly by some of the lyrics, especially in today’s climate of brainless, inoffensive radio fare. But Springsteen circumvents that problem by wrapping his lyrics in joyous rock and roll, forcing the songs to be heard.”
“Despite the title BITUSA, Springsteen is anything but a rah-rah patriot as he scans the lingering woes of the Vietnam War and the smoldering resentment of dead-end kids who raise hell because they fear the future.”
Bob Carlton gave the album 5 stars in the Birmingham News on June 21, 1984, writing “America isn’t that pretty at all, Springsteen is saying, but, hey, we get by. And he makes his point in a delivery that covers most all the bases. He’s both an underdog and a hero in the same, fraying jeans.”
On the dual nature of Springsteen’s new writing style, George Varga of the San Diego Union chimed in on June 6, 1984: “Simultaneously rousing and forlorn, Bruce Springsteen’s BITUSA – his first record in two year – is a moody, evocative and ultimately stirring album.”
“A powerful chronicle of broken promises, failed aspirations and the American Dream turned sour, this haunting collection of songs juxtaposes its mostly somber lyrics against a generally upbeat instrumental backdrop. The result is a record that brims with emotional intensity and power, an aural testament to the shared goals and frustrations of the working class. … Perhaps more than any other contemporary rock artist, Springsteen manages to capture the pulse of the common people without sounding either contrived or condescending. Granted, “Born In the U.S.A” suffers from a somewhat narrow artistic vision, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a rich, vital work that both challenges and entertains.”
Pete Bishop writing in the Pittsburgh Press on July 24, 1984 (“Bruce Springsteen showing his age, musical prowess on BITUSA), said, “In BITUSA, there are several signs and one overt admission that Bruce Springsteen realizes his age (he turns 35 in September) — but no musical evidence that he’s showing it.”
“Monday it will be all you’ll hear — BITUSA, Bruce Springsteen’s new album,” wrote Peter Goddard in the Toronto Star on May 30, 1984 (“Hot Stuff from Springsteen As He Trades Escape for Sex”). “This is the season of the blockbuster, from the Toronto International Festival to “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.” And until the new Jackson album, Victory, comes along next month, Springsteen’s 12-song collection wrapped in the stars and stripes of the American flag will be pop’s heavy-hitter.”
“And once people get to hear it, it may stay pop’s heavy hitter. His seventh album is also his best.”
“This is the album where Bruce Springsteen gets the car, but loses the girl. Sex has replaced escape as the theme — sex and work.”
“As for the rockers, there are some bits here and there – the start of “Going Down” or most of “Darlington County” which have the dramatic passion ( and a bit of the sound) of the Rolling Stones at their best. But so what. This is Springsteen at his best.”
But not everyone agreed this was Springsteen at his best. Linda R. Thornton, writing in the Miami Herald on June 10, 1984, said, “With all the hype attending the release of Bruce Springsteen’s seventh album — his first recording in two years — one would hope for a product of similar power and substance as 1980’s The River. Instead what we have is the mild, only partly memorial and often disillusioning BITUSA. … Springsteen’s best composition held the promise of escape from obscurity, if only through the joys of rock and roll. Springsteen seems to have become the type of person he warned us against. This is an album riddled with hopelessness and boredom, with no sign of light ahead. … Even his third-person characters now live in the past.”
Richard Harrington titled his review in the Washington Post on June 10, 1984, “Springsteen’s Wrong Turn.”
“Incautiously hailed as the future of rock ‘n’ roll, canonized as the last American rock ‘n’ roll hero, Springsteen reluctantly has been forced inside a no-win myth, and finally he’s succumbed to it,” Harrington wrote. “Though it has its moments, many of its songs are dismissible and the album seems to confirm a creative stasis first noted on 1980’s The River. In Pete Townshend’s words, ‘Meet the new Boss/Same as the old Boss.’”
Harrington concluded, “Springsteen’s music, once torrential, has turned into a cold drizzle that deadly serious, but also deadly dull.”
In The Summer Pennsylvanian on June 14, 1984, Adam Sexton wrote in “‘U.S.A.’: Not the Promised Land”: “Yet, for all its strengths, this record fails to confirm Springsteen’s status as a major, if not the premier, American rock and roll songwriter. For although it presents a coherent vision of the state of the union, BITUSA adds nothing to our knowledge of ourselves and the land we inhabit. What this album has to say has been said before — by Springsteen himself, among others. And it has been said with more intelligence and far more style.”
In Melody Maker on July 28, 1984, Adam Sweeting writes in “Grapes of Wrath:” “It seems astonishing that Springsteen’s morbid obsessions — prison, busted marriages and the futility of good times — should have made him such a legend in the American heartlands. The man’s a walking museum piece, conceived and formed in the primeval days before MTV, still adhering to the simple, robust formulae of the rock n roll music he grew up with. He has more in common with Henry Fonda than with Boy George. … Indeed, BITUSA might be his best record. Nevertheless, the last mythic rocker paints pictures of unremitting gloom. I find this rather odd.”
The Aquarian Weekly issue of June 13, 1984, featured a second counter-point review “Nothing Meaningful or Profound,” by Lydia Carole De Fretos.
“First of all there’s Springsteen’s singing – or what he calls singing — he makes my throat hurt. His voice is so tough and gravelly that people like Bob Seger, and, on the female side, Stevie Nicks sound smooth in comparison. … And then there’s Springsteen’s favorite topics for his songs. It seems like all the man writes about are girls, cars, the highway, blue collar workers, fire and houses. …”
An article titled “Bruce Under The Lens,” in Ciao said, “BITUSA may be the most controversial track outside the USA because of the reference to Vietnam War in the lyrics. Who has criticized Bruce doesn’t remember that in the U.S.A. the memorial of that war is still alive for the great amount of veterans who live now outside society. Bitterness, drama, sorrow permeate the lyrics and are reflected in the music, positively monotonous and in pure Springsteen-style, mainly for the punch vocal interpretation.”
Maurizio Biandhini in the July/August 1984 issue of Il Mucchio Selvaggio wrote, “But BITUSA is not an album of surrender and defiance. If reduced to a feeling, it would be a defeated but worthless view of an existential empasse becoming collective confusion. But all the restlessness is still there. It has only folded in on itself. Because the world doesn’t deserve anything. Not even a revolt or a cry of sorrow. And if we keep on keeping on, it’s only because we owe it to ourselves, to our free and proud individuality. … After having tripped through the future in his shiny cars, his weird characters, his long and infested night, his Rosalitas young and full of hopes, Springsteen gave us the definitive album of memories, roots and the ‘Ties That Bind.’”
Jim Miller writing in the June 18, 1984 issue of Newsweek had this to say in his article, “Return of the Rock Heroes,” covering the new releases for both Springsteen and Elvis Costello, BITUSA and “Goodbye Cruel World,” respectively.
“For both, performing and recording solo has been a way of rediscovering voice — not just a nuanced singing voice, free from roar of amplifications, but also a compelling artistic voice — a simpler, more ‘authentic’ means of communicating with the audience. Like the folk troubadour — and like the rock and roll heroes of the ’60s — they offer their music as a mirror on common hopes and desires. They are both anomalies, old-fashioned performers resurrecting an old-fashioned ethos of integrity. It is a noble part of the rock and roll tradition — One that lesser artists long ago left for dead.”
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Melanie Paggioli, who selected the articles archived in the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection for inclusion in this article, and to Gabriela Magats, Luca Lanini and Christine Shaffer for their translations of articles from foreign language publications.