Friday, May 30, 2014

The Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Look Back at Born in the U.S.A.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of Born in the U.S.A., Legends of Springsteen will be looking back at this landmark album, dissecting it track by track all month. But first, a few thoughts on the album as a whole.

Marc Dolan’s 2011 Bruce Springsteen biography boasts the fantastic title “Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. I must confess that I haven’t actually read the book, but I’ve admired the title ever since I heard it. To me, the album Born in the U.S.A. exemplifies what the promise of rock ‘n’ roll truly means: the power to connect billions of people through music, and in doing so, create something that can question society, inspire with words of hope, and rock out like no one is watching.

Critics would likely point to Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town as the superior albums artistically, but Born in the U.S.A. operates in the upper echelon of commercial success, unrivaled by any of Springsteen’s other work. The album’s popularity (it’s one of the biggest albums in the entire history of music) makes it hard not to consider this his most important work. After all, this is the album that cemented his legacy as a music icon, ensured that his past albums would be revisited and paved the way for 30 years of more music. It also gave eternal fodder to the smaller group of naysayers who might dismiss his songs as “roller rink music.”

Listening to the album 30 years later, even a diehard Springsteen fan can see both sides of the coin: why it was popular, and why it might come to be derided. As someone who favors the former side, the one complaint that I would concede to is that the music and lyrics don’t always mesh together. On most occasions, the music is far more upbeat and buoyant than the gritty, sobering lyrics. I think it’s fair to cite a tonal dissonance on tracks like “Born in the U.S.A.”, “Dancing in the Dark” and, perhaps most flagrantly, “I’m Goin’ Down”. Is this representative of an artist who can’t fully calculate his feelings? Or an artist who isn’t talented enough to reconcile both sides of the song writing process?

On the other hand, doesn’t this album represent the pinnacle of what pop music can achieve? A blend of art and commerce. Yes, the songs disguise jagged commentary in top 40 friendly sounds. But isn’t that a good thing? Infiltrating the populous to tell stories about the spoils of war or the folly of lingering on one’s youth, isn’t that the definition of pop music in its most excellent form? Born in the U.S.A. is equal parts confectionary and commentary. Like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and Kanye West’s Yeezus, Born in the U.S.A. feels equally at home at the top of the charts as it does in a scholarly journal.

The fact that Born in the U.S.A. is perceived as Springsteen’s most pop-friendly album is an amazing feat in itself when you consider the dense, lyric-heavy songs like “Working on the Highway” and “Darlington County”, the sobering recollections of “My Hometown” or – famously – the political outrage of “Born in the U.S.A.”

Despite Bruce’s best efforts to make sure the album’s titular song didn’t define him, “Born in the U.S.A.” still packs a wallop. Listening to the song afresh in the context of the album, from the second you hear the fury of Max Weinberg’s drums, you realize that time hasn’t dulled its immediacy and that this banner track retains its indelible, raw power.

Bruce has seemed more comfortable extending the popularity of “Dancing in the Dark” by turning it into an encore staple, but it’s received its fair amount of derision as well. Often the song is dismissed as too poppy, but for my money it has some of the best lyrics Springsteen has ever written, delivered in a vehicle for mass consumption.

The fact that the songs on this album have been so misunderstood and misappropriated seems at least partly by design when you contrast the album version of “Born in the U.S.A.” with the Nebraska version eventually released on Tracks. You can’t blame the American public for missing the mark on some of these tracks. I concede that it took me years – if not decades – to fully grasp some of these tracks. Like all good art, there’s room for misinterpretation here. But the album is not just an effort in theoretical inquiry. It’s also a hard rocking album ripe for blasting at full volume. Born in the U.S.A. may have been made for mass consumption, but it wasn’t made for the lowest common denominator.

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