Without question, the most misunderstood political campaign song in history is Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." Used in countless political rallies over the past 25 years, Springsteen's classic rock song is considered by many to be the ultimate "All-American" song. Many fist-pumping, beer-drinking fans at baseball games all over America have sung along with the tune's catchy chorus, not realizing the true meaning of Springsteen's popular tune.
All-American tune? Quite the contrary, Springsteen's song is an angry diatribe against America's treatment of Vietnam veterans. It also deals with the effects the war had on America, and would seem to be, at least partially, about a friend (or friends) of Springsteen's who had been killed serving in the war (although the lyric in question may be hypothetical; see the third verse below).
Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
I had a brother at Khe Sahn
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
"Born in the U.S.A." was initially written in 1981. It was recorded in 1982 in New York. It was to be the first song on the title track of Bruce's Born in the U.S.A. album. The album (and the song, the first written for the album) were both smash hits. The album went multi-platinum, selling 18 million copies. The song became an instant classic, is huge popularity attributed, in part, to the fact that the song is hymn to the greatness of America.
In 1984, during his campaign for the presidency, Ronald Reagan used the song briefly as a campaign song. Reagan was quoted as saying, "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside our 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." Springsteen, a devout liberal, had the Reagan campaign stop using his song.
Walter Mondale, Reagan's Democratic opponent, quickly seized on the opportunity and said Bruce supported him for president. Springsteen's manager, John Landau, issued a quick denial, and the Mondale campo issued an apology and correction. Either way, it was hardly a campaign-turning event, as Reagan went on to carry a record 49 states in November of 1984.
To this day, "Born in the U.S.A." is construed as a "pro-America" tune. Like it or not, the song is very catchy. Part of the song's confusion probably lies in the unintelligibleness of Bruce's voice and the singing of the song's lyrics. His voice is strong and passionate, but many of the words are garbled and hard to decipher. But whereas the song is hard to understand, the catchy repeated lyric "Born in the U.S.A." is clear as a bell.
Critic Marcus Greil says about "Born in the U.S.A.": "Clearly the key to Bruce's popularity is in a misunderstanding. He is a tribute to the fact that people hear what they want to hear." Bruce, seemingly a genuinely nice guy, is still a bit angry about the song's misunderstood intention to this day. He considers the song one of his best, but it bothers him that it is so widely misunderstood.
Says The Boss: "In my songs, the spiritual part, the hope part, is in the choruses. The blues, your daily realities, are in the details of the verses. The spiritual comes out in the choruses, which I get from Gospel music and the church." He is very clear in his statement about "Born in the U.S.A." Far from being a happy, peppy "rah-rah America" song, the song has a much darker side.
Bruce elaborates: "'Born in the U.S.A' is about a working class man [in the midst of a] spiritual crisis, in which a man is left lost …it's like he has nothing left to tie him to society anymore. He's isolated from the government, isolated from his family, to the point where nothing makes sense."
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, East Berlin 1988