30 years ago last month, one of the most iconic American albums of all time was released and sent its artist into the realm of super-stardom. I’m talking, of course, about Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., and with Independence Day coming in just a matter of days, I can’t think of a better time to look back on the album.
Born in the U.S.A. has sold over 30 million copies and has had seven Top-10 singles. Rolling Stone magazine called it the 86th-greatest album of all time, and the album cover is one of the most striking and memorable covers out there. Despite the acclaim, some fans see this as Springsteen’s sell-out album, coming off a streak of classic albums such as Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Nebraska. Even Springsteen himself has expressed mixed feelings towards the album. While it made him one of the most famous musicians of all time, the “grab-bag nature” of the album, as he calls it, made him reassess his music writing process.
While the love-it-or-hate-it nature of the album has spawned countless debates among fans, there is no denial that Born in the U.S.A. contains some of Springsteen’s most beloved songs. Here, in Track-By-Track, we’ll review each track on the album individually and look at just how iconic these songs are.
1. “Born in the U.S.A.” The title track is easily one of the most misunderstood songs of all time. The anthem feel and the chorus lead those who aren’t listening carefully to believe the song is an exclamation of patriotism, when really it examines the negative effects of the Vietnam War on everyday Americans (Ronald Reagan was one of those people who missed the point, using it as a campaign song during his 1984 re-election run). The song has become a staple on classic-rock radio stations all over the world, and is one of Springsteen’s most recognizable songs. It’s a powerhouse of a track, a very important song in general, and kicks the album off roaring. Grade: A+
2. “Cover Me” An incredibly catchy tune that gets the feet moving (so much so that a dance remix was released by Springsteen’s camp). Originally written for Donna Summer, the track keeps the album’s initial energy up, and you can’t help but air-guitar-play along with the guitar parts and feel the narrator’s desperation as he looks for solace in a corrupt world by finding love. Grade: A-
3. “Darlington County” Here the album takes a turn from serious to playful, as the protagonist and his buddy head to Darlington County in search of work and girls. The chorus is incredibly catchy and easy to sing along to (“Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la“…how hard is that to sing?). With a fun sax solo by the big man, Clarence Clemons, you can’t help but feel its charm. Grade: B
4. “Working on the Highway” It’s hard to picture this track without “Darlington County,” as both are often played together in Springsteen concerts, and are very similar in terms of theme and mood. Another playful track, the combination of the acoustic guitar and organ, mixed with it’s snappy and quick rhythm, makes for a fun time that is guaranteed to get your toes tapping. Grade: B
5. “Downbound Train” In what could be mistaken as a 90s country song, this track sends the album into a a realm of lament and melancholy. From it’s opening guitar riff, to it’s synthesizer-fueled bridge, to the sadness in Springsteen’s voice, the mood is perfectly set. It’s just an all around sad song that moves at the speed of a trudging train, and one that you can really feel. Grade A-
6. “I’m On Fire” The album’s shortest track continues the album’s exploration of lament. Here, the protagonist deals with unrequited love by trying to outdo his love’s lover, stopping to acknowledge, yet sadly not realize, just how bad this love is actually hurting him. It’s Springsteen desperation at its finest, and one of his most soulful and low-key songs he’s written. Simple and quiet in nature, it’s another one of the album’s powerhouses. Grade: A
7. “No Surrender” “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school” is all the listener needs to hear to understand not only the protagonist of this song, but Springsteen himself. A concert favorite, this rallying anthem toys with nostalgia and youthful desire to get across it’s longing for simpler and easier times, and becomes one of Springsteen’s most relateable tunes. Grade: A
8. “Bobby Jean” An allegory about Springsteen’s strained relationship with E Street Band Guitarist Steven Vandt, it tells the story of boyhood friends who lost sight of each other as they matured and grew. The protagonist reflects on the good times, and in the end, he accepts that they may not see each other again, but hopes that his friend still thinks of him. Powerful stuff, all topped with a powerful sax solo. If this doesn’t tug on your heartstrings, I don’t know what will. Grade: A-
9. “I’m Goin’ Down” Catchy as hell, this song has the protagonist complaining about how lame his girlfriend has gotten. Comparing how things were with how things are now, he gets his message across, but the fun nature of the song suggests that the protagonist is just saying “screw it” to the whole thing. Incredibly simplistic in nature, and one of Springsteen’s least favorite songs, it’s been covered by many bands since, including Vampire Weekend. Grade: B-
10. “Glory Days” A bar favorite, this song is about what the title suggests–the glory days of high school. Springsteen’s protagonist interacts with people who can’t let go of their fun past and focus on how to effectively live in their current states. A radio favorite, this is another one of Springsteen’s most recognizable songs. Fun, memorable, and talks about something anyone who’s ever graduated high school has felt at one point or another. Grade: B
11. “Dancing in the Dark” A concert staple, this song became Springsteen’s biggest radio hit and is acknowledged as the reason the album sold so well upon its release. It’s straight out of the 80s, with the synthesizer being brought right out front. Still, it’s a fantastically catchy tune, one that becomes even catchier with an extended sax-solo when performed live. Grade: A
12. “My Hometown” Instead of ending the album with the uptempo “Dancing in the Dark,” Springsteen decided to end things with an incredibly emotional tale of the protagonist’s hometown. Just like the album’s title track, it’s interpreted by many as a song of pride, when really, this song explores themes of racial tension and violence that causes the protagonist to ultimately reveal that he plans on leaving his hometown. Very quiet and very contemplative, and challenges the listener to look beyond tradition and pride and uncover the flaws before making a decision on whether or not to accept them. Grade: A
All in all, the album works, and works very well. Some people say it lacks cohesiveness, but I see Springsteen working in twos, by putting two tracks with similar themes and mood next to each other. The first two tracks deal with ambivalence towards society and trying to find solace. Tracks 3 and 4 are about working class men just trying to get by and searching for a good time. Tracks 5 and 6 explore desperation and sadness. Tracks 7 and 8 are pure audio nostalgia. Tracks 9 and 10 compare present to past, with the realization that the past was better. All in all, this pattern works, and because of it, many different emotions and themes are touched upon and explored. Born in the U.S.A. is a journey through emotions, and has something for everyone in any mood. It’s an epic compilation of some of Sprinsteen’s best and funnest songs, with enough of a pop feel to make it accessible to a broad audience. Without this album, Springsteen’s popularity may not have prolonged as long as it has, meaning we may not have seen the fantastic albums he still puts out today (The Rising, Magic, and Wrecking Ball rank among some of his best). Therefore, not only is it a fantastic album, it’s a very necessary album based on the effect it had on the Boss’s career since. Born in the U.S.A. has stood the test of time in the 30 years since its release, and still has fans discovering the musical genius of Springsteen in its contents today.
Album Grade: A