Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen (1984)

At the time of its release, a lot of discussion regarding this song focused on its lyrics. More to the point, discussion focused on the nature of the politics of the lyrics and, by extension, Springsteen’s own personal politics. It was the ugly eighties, the peak of the Reagan era – in fact, it was an election year, an election that Reagan would win with a huge landslide.

“Ah, the song just sounds like empty jingoism,” claimed the lefties. “Actually it’s a cleverly disguised criticism of American foreign policy, i.e. the Vietnam War. Why, it’s practically a modern-day ‘This Land is Your Land’.”

Perhaps. But a few points: 1. “This Land is Your Land” also sucks. 2. Cleverly disguising your sedition doesn’t mean much if you’ve disguised it to the point that 80% of your listening audience misinterpret it. 3. The song may not actually be empty jingoism, but those booming drums and those throaty vocals evoke empty jingoism pretty darn successfully.

Anyway, what the left and the right can both agree on, I think, is that “Born in the U.S.A.” is a six-note fanfare repeated over and over and over and over, intro and verse and chorus all alike, over and over and over over those booming drums. A chorus that consists of the title shouted over that damn six-note melody over and over again. It’s not a song; it’s a marching tune. The best performance if it ever, in my opinion, is in the movie "Canadian Bacon", where John Candy and his American compatriots attempt to drum up a feeling of national spirit by singing the song, until it breaks down due to its incredibly repetitive inanity.

Good politics on a bad song does not lead to good music. Bruce Springsteen is capable of greatness. Often, even. But not here. So of course it’s his best-known song. Sigh.

Rolling Stone magazine calls it the 275th 'greatest song of all time'. The RIAA call it the 59th 'song of the century' (referring, naturally, to last century). This song very definitely has critical acclaim. I just couldn't, for the life of me, understand why.

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