By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Born in the USA’ is rock music’s ‘The Road Not Taken’: perhaps of all American songs, none has been more consistently misinterpreted than the title track from Bruce Springsteen’s bestselling 1984 album.
And when we say ‘misinterpreted’, we don’t just mean people have missed the point slightly: they get the message of the song completely wrong so they think it means the opposite to what it actually means.
Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics to this quintessential Springsteen track and offer a more detailed analysis of the song’s meaning.
‘Born in the USA’: song meaning
The song is, fundamentally, an anti-war song. The references to the Vietnam war, which had ended less than a decade before ‘Born in the USA’ was written, make this clear.
The singer of the song was born in a town that only dead men seem to inhabit: it’s a town of has-beens, of faded memories, and it offers no future and no prospects for the young man. The singer got into some difficulty (a fight, or economic trouble?), so he was conscripted into the army, given a rifle, and sent off to fight in the war in Vietnam.
The war is not viewed in noble terms at all. Indeed, the US foreign policy is deemed to have been racist by its very design: the singer’s description of Vietnamese people is a satirical parody of the chauvinistic attitude America displays towards foreigners.
And when the man returned from the war? He went to the local gas refinery to try to get a job, but was unsuccessful. He went to the Department for Veterans Affairs (hence ‘VA man’) but had no luck, and no help, there.
The futility of the war in which the singer fought is hammered home when he refers to a brother (probably a comrade, though ‘brother’ could be literal here) who fought the enemy, the ‘Viet Cong’, but now he’s gone (dead, one presumes?) but the enemy are still there. So what did this brother die for? What did the war achieve?
Apparently this brother fell in love with a local girl in Saigon, but now he’s dead and all that remains is the photograph of him with her, a photograph which the singer now has as a memento of his fallen comrade.
As for the singer himself, he’s been home ten years, back in his homeland of the United States. But he lives in the shadow of the local prison – a powerful image suggesting that the war veteran, perhaps because of his anger at how he has been treated after he fought and risked his life for his county, and partly perhaps because of his financial dire straits, is never far from a life of crime.
With all this in mind, it is obvious that the song’s title, ‘Born in the USA’, is laced with bitterness. America is the country that sent this young man off to a war that achieved nothing, and that failed to offer him many opportunities before he went and offered him even fewer upon his return. He was born in the USA, but this is no reason for patriotic pride: quite the opposite.
‘Born in the USA’: analysis
We began this analysis by observing that the meaning of ‘Born in the USA’ is often misinterpreted by people. Instead of realising the song is about an America in decline, many listeners have assumed it is a song expressing national pride: ‘I was born in the USA,’ they hear, ‘and proud of it!’
But the second part exists only in their heads, of course. The song is like Robert Frost’s classic poem ‘The Road Not Taken’, another quintessential part of the twentieth-century American cultural fabric which means the exact opposite of what most people think it does: often viewed as a poem expressing pride at having taken the road less travelled, Frost’s lyric is actually about the stories we tell ourselves about the decisions we’ve made, in order to make ourselves feel better about missed opportunities.
But anyway, that’s enough literary digression: back to ‘Born in the USA’ and that misinterpreted meaning. Michael Heatley and Spencer Leigh, in their enjoyable and informative book Behind the Song, report that the president of Chrysler, Lee Iacocca, offered the record company a whopping $12 million ton license ‘Born in the USA’ for a series of advertisements for Chrysler cars, thinking the song was a paean to all that was great about homegrown America.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan, then President of the USA, quoted the song enthusiastically at a Republican conference, without realising that Springsteen’s song was actually a damning indictment about the state of the nation under the Reagan administration.
Why the persistent misreading of the song’s meaning, then? Why do so many people get ‘Born in the USA’ wrong?
Presumably this is because these people have never listened closely to the lyrics and have merely clocked, and remembered, the catchy chorus – which could indeed be construed as rousingly patriotic if viewed in isolation.
This raises an interesting question. Did Springsteen deliberately spring this trap, so that the song appeared, to the casual listener or observer, to say the opposite of what it actually means?
If so, this only adds to the song’s power. It shows that the ignorant jingoism that led to unthinking support for the Vietnam war, the belief that America knows best and that they are superior to other nations, can easily be overturned and revealed to be hollow at its very core.
If ‘I was born in the USA’ is automatically taken not as a neutral statement of fact but as a declaration of national pride, a misplaced sense of achievement for something beyond one’s own control (who chooses where they are born, after all?), then Springsteen’s song invites us to reflect on why that might be – in a nation where unemployment, resentment, and dissatisfaction were such common features.
Notably, the video for the song helped to illustrate the song’s true meaning, and utilised this then-new medium – MTV had begun just three years earlier – to underscore the mismatch between the song’s true meaning and the one which many listeners were erroneously attaching to it.