Happy Fourth of July to all of the citizens of the USA! Today, also known as Independence Day, the day that is generally remembered, incorrectly I might add, for the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, a document which lives on today. The document itself is full of contradictions and hypocrisies (a nation of free men, while many of the document signers owned slaves) continues to be world renown for it’s ideals. Still, that document has also lead to something of a jingoistic-based air of superiority that Americans hold over the rest of the world, known as “American exceptionalism.”
Sure, I admit that I won the Golden Ticket of Life when I was born in this country, especially as a white man. Yet, I am troubled by the world’s perception of the USA now that President Agent Orange (my apologies Busta Rhymes). So, today, I would love to bring to light the true meaning of one of the most misinterpreted songs ever. For thirty-fours, I have witnessed this song being wrongly co-opted by people who have obviously only listened to the chorus and not the lyrics. And, no matter how many times Bruce Springsteen introduces this anthem to audiences across the world as a protest song, the general population only bothered to memorize the chorus.
So, today, I am declaring Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” is one magnificent protest song against the status quo of not simply the Eighties but of all eternity. Now, if you lived back in that Summer of 1984, you will remember that summer was the summer of the Los Angeles Olympics, one of the most political Games of the modern era as the propaganda was extremely heavy-handed. Additionally, 1984 was an election year, so Americans everywhere were being subjected to those Ronald Reagan political ads declaring that it was “Morning in America.” And, into this patriotic cauldron of witches’ brew was added “Born in the U.S.A.” and its simple, meant-to-be-ironic chorus.
Born in the U.S.A., the album, and “Born in the U.S.A.,” the song, were both co-opted by the self-proclaimed patriots of this nation because of the whole flag motif. In other words, everything about this album was totally being taken at face value with no regards to the message in its lyrics.
So, let’s take a closer look at the true meaning of “Born in the U.S.A.,” by reading the lyrics of the song WITHOUT the choruses.
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
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up now
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
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says, ‘Son, if it was up to me…’
Went down to see my VA man
He said, ‘Son, don’t you understand?’
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
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go
Songwriters: Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.” (Remastered) lyrics © Downtown Music Publishing 1984.
Without the “I was born in the U.S.A.” refrain, the song reads on the bleak side of the American experience. The character in the song is a Vietnam War veteran, those people who were sent to southeast Asia under little fanfare, unlike today’s guilt-ridden “Thank you for your service” messages that constantly greet members, both active and retired, of the military that was totally missing in the Vietnam Vets lives. Instead, these unfortunate sons were met with jeers upon their return to the U.S.A., which lead these men to a bitter malaise, that coupled with the economic depression here in the rust belt, led to many a veteran to feel disenfranchised. And, in that vacuum stepped The Boss to give voice to these true American heroes.
In the lyrics of “Born in the U.S.A.,” we see the hard life facing this Vietnam veteran, forgotten by the big promises of trickle-down economics, which seemed to be a full on piss on the hero of this song. Everywhere he turns, there is death of the society he knew before he went to “kill the yellow man.” Obviously, these lyrics are NOT any kind of Reagan-esque imagery of a “City on the Hill.” It reads more like a “Dying City on the Hill.”
So, when Springsteen does reach the refrain of “Born in the U.S.A.” in the song, it’s more of a sigh of resignation and embarrassment than the collective love-fest for which conservatives mistook the ubiquitous refrain.
In essence, “Born in the U.S.A.” is yet another misinterpreted song of patriotism. Sure, it IS a patriotic song, just not the jingoistic display of American exceptionalism many thought it to be. Instead, it is a scathing indictment of America not only in the Eighties but in this conservative era of the past fifty years, at least since the death of Robert Kennedy and subsequent of the last American tyrant-wannabe Richard M. Nixon.
No, Springsteen traveled the more artistically satisfying road traveled by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan before him. The same road that many rap and R&B artists, such as Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, to name a few, are traveling today. How “Born in the U.S.A.” is misinterpreted is the same way conservatives try to sing Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” by stopping after the first two verses, while the third verse is the powerful statement of America needing to actually take care of its ugly warts.
So, while all of us U.S. citizens are celebrating this Independence Day, try to remember that our country IS great, but it is FAR from perfection. I once heard a quote about Johnny Cash that could be applied to us as citizens of the U.S.A. Someone said that Cash was so compassionate to others because he understood the darkness and weaknesses within himself. We could all use that humility, don’t you think?