Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Born in the USA, Bruce Springsteen’s bestselling album that catapulted an already acclaimed rock star to global icon status. He, along with the ever-faithful E Street Band, went from playing the clubs and smaller, auditorium venues to filling stadiums night after night after night after night. The wiry, stocking cap-clad, guitar-playing hipster-type suddenly bulked up, donned the everyman fashion of the 1980s, danced with Courtney Cox (long, annoyed sigh from this author), and left an indelible mark on the ethos of that decadent decade.
As many Bruce fans will tell you, much more was going on beneath the surface of those twelve songs than many listeners chose to acknowledge. Just from the opening lines of the title track:
“Born down in a dead man’s town
the first kick I took is when I hit the ground.
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much,
til you spend half your life just covering up.”
diehard listeners knew that no matter what the music videos portrayed, Bruce had not lost his capacity for prophetically naming the social and economic injustices people faced in the United States.
No matter how Ronald Reagan wanted to misuse the lyrics in his 1984 presidential race and no matter how many times the song continues to be misrepresented as some sort of blind patriotic anthem at sporting events, Born in the USA—song and album–is a lamentation of the Baby Boomer generation—that generation “lost in space,” sold out by its leaders to Vietnam and Watergate and who sold itself out to the empty promises of the American dream and consumerism. Each song is, in some way, a story of lament, wrapped in Bruce’s ambivalence towards participating in the American political, social and economic culture of the 1980s. This ambivalence should rub off on the listeners and leave us vaguely confused as we raucously dance to the album’s many upbeat, rockin’ tunes. But if we don’t pay attention, we can miss the sad reality that “Glory Days” is really about a high school sell out sitting in a bar, missing his youth. Or, as the Courtney Cox music video exemplifies (another long, annoyed sigh from author), we can miss the aching loneliness and yearning at the heart of “Dancin’ in the Dark.” This is why it is valuable to listen to Bruce’s live renditions of these iconic hits. (See this example of an acoustic “No Surrender” performed in Toronto circa 1984).
I’m sure many of us are able to identify certain albums or musical moments in our past that we recognize to be critically formative. Born in the USA is one of those albums for me. It is even more formative than (dare I say it?) Paul Simon’s 1985 Graceland. This has a lot to do with the important family lore that resides around that old worn out LP of Born in the USA still resting front and center in my Dad’s record collection.
Allow me, if you will, to be a bit self-indulgent and autobiographical in this post. I’m not basing this on the many articles and books I’ve read about Bruce nor am I going to give Born in the USA the in-depth, social ethics analysis it so richly deserves. Following Bruce’s own style, this post contains pieces of a story. While my theological reflection may seem tenuous at best, I offer this as a personal testimony to the ways in which Bruce’s body of work has formed my theological and sacramental imagination, as it has many theologians and Catholic commentators like Thomas Massaro, SJ, Dr. Roberto Goizueta, Dr. Christopher Fuller, and Andrew Greeley, just to name a few.
I was exactly 51 weeks (exactly 358 days) old when Born in the USA was released. We lived in the little wheat farming and cattle ranch community of Condon, OR, my Dad’s hometown. Population about 700, Condon sits about 150 miles southeast of Portland on the Columbia River Plateau. There has never been a record store in Condon and back in those days, of course, one could not just download the newest hits on iTunes. My mother, three months pregnant with my little sister, drove into Portland for a doctor’s appointment. Before beginning the 3.5 hour drive back up I-84E along the Columbia River Gorge, she stopped at Music Millennium, a famous record store in Portland, and asked if they had the new Bruce Springsteen album. The cashier shook his head and told her it wasn’t on the shelves yet. Mom pleaded with him, explaining how she lived in the middle of nowhere and would not be back to Portland for a while. Sympathetic to her plight, the man went in the back and brought back a large, unopened box containing numerous copies of the hit album. He then handed her what we Greiners believe to be the first copy of Born in the USA sold in Portland, Oregon.
My parents were in their late twenties when Born in the USA came out and it was an album for their generation. They had lots of friends who spent many fun nights gathered in my parents’ living room around the record player. They played records over and over. My parents were the only people of the group with kids. My sister and I were, we are told, quite the hit. I vaguely remember entertaining these friends by dancing around in my footy pajamas, microphone in hand, Born in the USA blasting through the speakers. And I clearly remember begging my Dad to play it over and over when it was just us hanging out at the house. As I continuously listened intently to every beat and every word, the sounds and lyrics took a strong hold on me. Just ask my 29-year-old, beloved teddy bear I affectionately named Bruce.
While I could sing most of the words by the age of three, I obviously did not quite grasp their meaning. It was many years before I realized “I’m Goin’ Down” was not about carefully descending the steep staircase at my Grandmother’s house. Or, in a more Freudian vein, one can imagine my relief when I finally realized that “I’m On Fire” was not about someone’s Daddy leaving them all alone in a burning house. But despite lack of understanding, I kept listening. Without even knowing how or to what extent, Born in the USA was shaping my imagination in a lasting way. To this day, I cannot drive the two-lane OR highway 206 that weaves its way through Fulton Canyon without blasting “Darlington County.” And I still get tingly listening to “No Surrender” as I too dream of sleeping “beneath peaceful skies, in my lover’s bed. With a wide, open country in my eyes, and these romantic dreams in my head.”
But there was a time when I disliked Born in the USA, again, for lack of understanding. By the time I was 16 and attending my first live Springsteen show, my Springsteen repertoire had expanded. I snobbishly turned up my nose to anyone who said Born in the USA was his or her favorite Springsteen album. I, of course, claimed the seemingly more angst-ridden-less-sell-out- Darkness on the Edge of Town. Yet this turn away from that formative album did not keep me from spontaneously jumping up and down ecstatically when the band ripped into “Darlington County” followed by “Workin’ on the Highway.” And I admit tearing up and clenching my hands as if in deep prayer when they performed a haunting rendition of “My Hometown.” I found myself realizing and appreciating the depth of Born in the USA in a way I had not experienced before. Suddenly the lyrics made sense. This was not a sell-out album, no matter how tight Bruce’s jeans were or how wild and big the crowds got or how ridiculous Nils looked in those giant hats or how many politicians misused the songs for their own gain. This was an album full of stories about people experiencing deep loss, regret, pain, and confusion and not knowing what to do next. In college I claimed the album again, this time in the name of my new-found commitment to social justice and Catholic Social Teaching.
And now I’m older than my parents were when the album was first released and it continues to influence me.This morning, I’ve been listening to the album over and over, much like I did when I was a little girl—of course this time on my computer and not on a turntable. As I listen today, I’m struck by how little has changed in thirty years. While we can still interpret Born in the USA as a strong rejection of Reaganomics and the political realities of the post-Vietnam era of the 1980s, we cannot fail to acknowledge how it speaks to our time. Our nation continues to struggle economically and morally. Young men and women continue to return from long, hellish, morally questionable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our prison system is in shambles, a sign of the ways economic and racial disparities plague our “justice” system. Local communities and families continue to struggle to survive in the wake of environmental and economic devastation as leviathan corporations keep putting the bottom dollar before the common good. And real, harmful emptiness and loneliness continue to plague this generation as many of us repeatedly sacrifice our desire for meaningful lasting human connection and relationship for the shallow hook-up culture and self-destructive silos in the name of individualism and personal “freedom.”
The ache of lamentation present in these twelve songs remains relevant for me today—especially as I have experienced some of that social ambivalence Bruce grapples with in each song. But I also find myself dancing in my chair as I write this, still caught up in the romance and the hope palpable in the music. Perhaps it was this romance and hope that captured my imagination as a little girl and sparked something within me. If that’s the case, I’m living proof that a thirty-year relationship with an album like Born in the USA can produce just enough of a spark to light a lifelong fire. So keep dancing Courtney Cox–even if we are still just dancing in the dark.