Born in the U.S.A.

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Born in the U.S.A. is a 1984 song written and performed by Bruce Springsteen. Taken from the album of the same name, it is one of his best-known singles.

Rolling Stone ranked the song 275th on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 2001 the RIAA’s Songs of the Century placed the song 59th (out of 365).

Lyrically, the song deals with the effects of the Vietnam War on Americans, although it is often misinterpreted as purely patriotic and jingoistic, notably by President Ronald Reagan.

The song was initially written in 1981 as the title song for a film that Paul Schrader was considering making. “Born in the USA” turned out so well that Springsteen used it for his multi-platinum album, and because of this, Springsteen thanks Schrader in the liner notes. Casual home demos were made later that year, following the completion of The River Tour.

A more formal solo acoustic guitar demo was then made on January 3, 1982 at Springsteen’s home in Colts Neck, New Jersey as part of the long session that would constitute most of the Nebraska album released later that year. Acoustic versions of several other songs that eventually appeared on the Born in the U.S.A. album were also included on this demo, including “Working on the Highway” and “Downbound Train”. However, Springsteen manager/producer Jon Landau and others felt that the song did not have the right melody or music to match the lyrics, and also did not fit in well with the rest of the nascent Nebraska material. Thus, it was shelved. (This version would surface in the late 1990s on the Tracks and 18 Tracks outtake collections.)

In March 1982, Springsteen revived the song with a different melody line and musical structure. A full E Street Band version was recorded, with much of the arrangement made up on the spot, including Roy Bittan’s clarion opening synthesizer riff and Max Weinberg’s chaotic drums continuation through the false ending and restart. This is the version that would appear on the Born in the U.S.A. album, a full two years later.

The song was in part a tribute to Springsteen’s friends who had experienced the Vietnam War, some of whom did not come back; it also protests the hardships Vietnam veterans faced upon their return from the war.

The song’s narrative traces the protagonist’s working-class origins, induction into the armed forces, and disaffected return back to the States. An anguished lyrical interlude is even more jolting, describing the fate of the protagonist’s (literal or figurative) brother (in some recordings or live shows, the word brother is replaced with buddy):

I had a brother at Khe Sanh

Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone

He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now

The Battle of Khe Sanh involved the North Vietnamese Army, not the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam heard in the song lyrics. Eventually the Americans prevailed and broke the siege, only to withdraw from the outpost a couple of months later. Khe Sanh thus became one of the media symbols of the futility of the whole war effort in the States.

In late August 1984, the Born in the U.S.A. album was selling very well, its songs were all over the radio, and the associated tour was drawing considerable press. Springsteen shows at the Capital Centre outside of Washington, D.C. thus attracted even more media attention, in particular from CBS Evening News correspondent Bernard Goldberg, who saw Springsteen as a modern-day Horatio Alger story. Yet more notably, the widely-read, bow-tied conservative columnist George Will, after attending a show, published on September 13, 1984 a piece entitled “A Yankee Doodle Springsteen” in which he praised Springsteen as an exemplar of classic American values. He wrote: “I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’” The 1984 presidential campaign was in full stride at the time, and Will had connections to President Ronald Reagan’s re-election organization. Will thought that Springsteen might endorse Reagan, and got the notion pushed up to high-level Reagan advisor Michael Deaver’s office. Those staffers made inquiries to Springsteen’s management which were politely rebuffed.

Nevertheless, on September 19, 1984, at a campaign stop in Hammonton, New Jersey, Reagan added the following to his usual stump speech:

America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs 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.

The campaign press immediately expressed skepticism that Reagan knew anything about Springsteen, and asked what his favorite Springsteen song was; Born to Run was the tardy response from staffers. Johnny Carson then joked on The Tonight Show: If you believe that, I’ve got a couple of tickets to the Mondale-Ferraro inaugural ball I’d like to sell you.

During a September 22 concert in Pittsburgh, Springsteen responded negatively by introducing his song Johnny 99, a song about an unemployed auto worker who turns to murder, “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.”

A few days after that, presidential challenger Walter Mondale said, “Bruce Springsteen may have been born to run but he wasn’t born yesterday,” and then claimed to have been endorsed by Springsteen. Springsteen manager Jon Landau denied any such endorsement, and the Mondale campaign issued a correction.

Born in the U.S.A. peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts in late 1984. It was the third of a record-tying seven Top 10 hit singles to be released from the Born in the U.S.A. album. In addition it made the top 10 of Billboard’s Rock Tracks chart, indicating solid play on album-oriented rock stations. The song was also a hit in the UK, reaching #5 on the UK Singles Chart.

Beyond the 1984 presidential campaign, it is claimed that Born in the U.S.A. was widely mis-interpreted as purely nationalistic by those who heard the anthemic chorus but not the bitter verses.

Springsteen refused Chrysler Corporation CEO Lee Iacocca’s request to use Born in the U.S.A. in commercials for Chrysler cars, turning down an offer that would have been worth several million dollars. Instead, the company used the Kenny Rogers-Nikki Ryder song, The Pride is Back.

The music video for Born in the U.S.A. was directed by noted filmmaker John Sayles. It consisted of video concert footage of Springsteen and the E Street Band performing the song, poorly synchronized with audio from the studio recording. Released in mid-December 1984, there supposedly had not been enough time to mix the audio from the concert.

This footage was intermixed with compelling mid-1980s scenes of working-class America, emphasizing images that had some connection with the song, including Vietnam veterans, Amerasian children, assembly lines, oil refineries, cemeteries, and the like, finishing with a grizzled Springsteen posing in front of an American flag.

On Springsteen’s 1984-1985 Born in the U.S.A. Tour, Born in the U.S.A. almost always opened the concerts, in a dramatic, crowd rousing fashion. One such version is included on the Live/1975-85 album.

On the 1988 Tunnel of Love Express Tour, “Born in the U.S.A.” generally closed the first set, and on the 1992-1993 “Other Band” Tour, it appeared frequently at the end of the second set. These were both full band versions, although the latter stressed guitar parts more than the familiar synthesizer line.

Beginning with the 1995-1997 solo acoustic Ghost of Tom Joad Tour and associated promotional media appearances, Springsteen radically recast “Born in the U.S.A.” once again, playing an acoustic guitar version that was unlike both the original Nebraska and full band performances. This was a stinging, snarling rendition that only included the title phrase twice. This was both in connection with the Tom Joad Tour’s wan moods as well as Springsteen’s attempt to make clear the song’s original and only purpose; in his introduction to the song in this shows he said he still wasn’t convinced the song had been misinterpreted, but now as the songwriter he was “going to get the last say.” Fan reaction was divided, with some greatly liking the new arrangement and others thinking the song’s musical ironies had been lost.

During the 1999-2000 Reunion Tour, “Born in the U.S.A.” was not always played, and when it was, it was the stinging solo acoustic version, now on 12-string slide guitar. Such a performance is included on the DVD and CD Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: Live In New York City. Not until 2002′s The Rising Tour and 2004′s political Vote for Change tour did the full band “Born in the U.S.A.” make a regular comeback; only in the U.S., foreign audiences still got the acoustic one, but a foreign example of “Born in the U.S.A.” is heard on Live in Barcelona, in which the full band version is heard.

But then towards the end of Springsteen’s solo Devils & Dust Tour in 2005, the most challenging “Born in the U.S.A.” yet was unveiled, when he performed it using an amplified “stomping board” and an ultra-distorting vocal “bullet microphone”, two devices designed to render any song utterly incomprehensible to all but the sharpest of ears. This slot was normally reserved for the dourest of Nebraska material, and “Born in the U.S.A.”‘s appearance in it solidified the impression that its origins in those sessions had not been an accident after all.

The song has appeared on recordings ranging from instrumental bluegrass collections to children’s music albums (sung by groups of children). Even the London Symphony Orchestra has performed their take on the song.

Techno-funk bass man Stanley Clarke recorded the song for his 1985 release, Find Out!. The All Music Guide describes this version as “a black man’s parody of white arena rock, with Springsteen’s bitter lyric ground out rap-style by Clarke.” Eric Rigler has recorded an instrumental bagpipe version of the song that has appeared on various Springsteen tribute albums since 2001. Swedish-Argintinean singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez, for a time performed a solo acoustic version, choosing not to sing the song’s title refrain. Singer-songwriter Richard Shindell covered the song in concerts, performing solo and playing bouzouki. Shindell recorded the song for his album South of Delia.

Two parodies of “Born in the U.S.A.” are Cheech and Chong’s 1985 comic-political “Born in East L.A.” and 2 Live Crew’s 1990 self-pitying “Banned in the U.S.A.” Mad featured a parody written by Frank Jacobs in its July 1985 issue, called “Porn in the U.S.A.” A group of Sesame Street characters (billed as “Bruce Stringbean and the S. Street Band”) performed a version of the song called “Barn in the U.S.A.” for the album Born to Add. – adapted from Wikipedia

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