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"Take a good look around..." - Steven Hyden makes us think...and RE-think... BORN IN THE U.S.A. @40

Updated: Jun 6

May 28, 2024

"Born in the U.S.A. changed my life and gave me my largest audience. It forced me to question the way I presented my music and made me think harder about what I was doing."

-Bruce Springsteen, Songs

He's just over three pages in, still in preface territory, but in There Was Nothing You Could Do: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and the End of the Heartland, which becomes officially available to all readers today, music-writer Steven Hyden quickly makes it plain just exactly why the upcoming fortieth anniversary of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. album, in the same year in which Springsteen will celebrate a landmark 75th birthday, remains such a big, important deal. "Although the question of 'best' Springsteen LP," writes Hyden, "is forever open to subjective judgment, there is no question about which one is most significant. This is true on a macro level— [Born in the U.S.A.] is a landmark in American pop culture, an all-time bestseller that placed Bruce Springsteen at an elevated position more analogous to a national monument than a pop star. It influenced how music sounded in the era, but more than that, it informed the national political discourse as well as the idea that monocultural phenomena can unite different and wide-ranging constituencies. Ultimately, it ensured that the most respected singer-songwriter of the eighties would be the world’s definitive arena rocker well into the next century."

For my money, besides of course blasting the album itself and singing along this coming June 4, I can't think of a better way to mark this important anniversary than reading, re-reading, and discussing Hyden's excellent book. (But hey, if vinyl-based re-packaging is your thing, then you do you. No judgment here... seriously; I just strongly encourage you to order a copy of this book in addition to ordering that razzle-dazzle repackage, too.)

One big reason that Hyden's book appeals so strongly to me is its relatively fresh and contemporary perspectives on the best-selling Springsteen album and its enduring significance. It probably helps greatly in that regard that Hyden is a decade younger than I am. In 1984, I first experienced Born in the U.S.A. and everything that surrounded it as a seventeen-year-old somewhat "newbie" Springsteen fan. (I really got into his music beginning 'round 1980, but didn't see my first show 'til '84.) Meanwhile, Hyden was first encountering this album - and its creator - as a six-year-old child, initially via the cassette-tape version in his father's car.

Age aside, however, Hyden's since grown up to be just one damned smart music-writer, drawing important musical, cultural, and socio-political connections between Born in the U.S.A., what preceded it and what followed it in U.S.-culture-based popular music. Hyden not only looks back as far as Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams; he looks as far forward to, in his words, "the pop and hip-hop behemoths that supplanted rock stars in the twenty-first century." And he sees those connections not just from the perspective of a Springsteen fan following the various twists and turns of Bruce's fifty-plus years of recording and performing in the ever-shifting universe of popular music, but also now of that same fan/critic as an adult citizen and parent still very much concerned about the state of a nation - and planet - where the whole world's still out there, just tryin' to score.

Nevertheless, it's certainly a very different world than the one that Born in the U.S.A. entered four decades ago. In some important ways, it's better of course, but in far too many other important ways, it's gotten much worse. "Born In The U.S.A.," Hyden continues in his preface, "now feels like an anachronism. Though if that’s true, why does the album still sound so vital? There are songs on Born in the U.S.A. that are prescient statements about the path America took beyond the eighties and into the twenty-first century. But the overall package evokes longing for an era where we could at least all bond over the greatness of Bruce Springsteen." That last sentence echoes - deliberately, I'm sure, since Hyden references and explores it directly later in the book - Lester Bangs' famous "we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis" line. And then in his concluding paragraph, he previews the destination that anyone who digs as deeply as Hyden does in exploring this album's socio-political impact must eventually reach: "This is an album that managed to capture the center of American life. But the center did not hold. Perhaps it never did."

Lester Bangs isn't the only other music-writer whom Hyden cites in his work. For example, he's wise enough to explore some of Ellen Willis' insightful writing about Creedence Clearwater Revival, which prophetically described exactly what Springsteen sought to achieve with Born in the U.S.A.: "Being a best-selling rock band was not enough. A serious rock star not only aspired to entertain the public but to alter its consciousness and so in some sense affect history."

Unfortunately, Hyden - like Warren Zanes before him in last year's Deliver Me From Nowhere - also asserts that, upon the release of Nebraska in 1982, rock-critics like Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh erroneously overemphasized the contemporary political aspects of the Springsteen album that directly preceded and remains deeply connected to Born in the U.S.A. The songs on Nebraska, writes Hyden, instead "unfold either as distant memories or as imagined vignettes from another time." Hyden, Zanes, and even Springsteen himself seem to be in accordance on this idea, forgetting or ignoring that in 1982 there was nothing imagined or distant about what happened in "Atlantic City," to name the most obvious example, which also was Nebraska's only version of a U.S. single (actually more like an early version of a "featured track" via its MTV video) and one of the few Nebraska songs consistently performed live on the Born in the U.S.A. Tour. The same could be said about "Johnny 99," which is the Nebraska song that Bruce chose to perform onstage during the same tour's stop in Pittsburgh on September 21, 1984, in direct response to Ronald Reagan having invoked Springsteen's name during a New Jersey re-election campaign stop a few days earlier. ("I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must've been," said Bruce before performing the song. "I don't think it was the Nebraska album; I don't think he's been listening to this one.") And even Nebraska's songs with distant-memory aspects like "Mansion On The Hill" and "Used Cars" have their last verses set in the present day, with a clear sense that nothing's gotten or getting any better for the song's protagonist or his community.

On the other hand, Hyden does an absolutely stellar job of debunking some enduring myths surrounding both Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. In the book's longest chapter, he skillfully deflates the pretensions and presumptions of those whom he calls the "people who think Nebraska is the best,” including Bruce Springsteen himself, and brilliantly refutes Springsteen's revisionist description of Born in the U.S.A. as merely a "grab bag" album. And yes, all of those Electric Nebraska proselytizers get schooled summarily and succinctly; hallelujah! (In that same chapter, Hyden's extensive research also reminds us of a cinematic influence on Nebraska that not only Warren Zanes missed, but so did we here at Letters To You: 1981's True Confessions, starring DeNiro and Duvall.)

Obviously I don't agree with all of Hyden's theories and arguments, given what's written two paragraphs above. I also still fail to understand why Hyden, or anyone else, would use a word like "exuberance" in describing the music made by Springsteen and the E Street Band on Born in the U.S.A.'s title track, which always has sounded appropriately blistering and angry to me, even if I probably didn't get quite all of its lyrics clearly on the first listen or two, lo those many years ago. And at times, Hyden writes about the origins of Nebraska in a way that I feel doesn't make it clear enough just how unintentional an album it was, in spite of its greatness. (This is why it's especially absurd for any other musicians to talk about purposefully making an album like Springsteen made Nebraska, since Springsteen didn't intentionally "make" Nebraska at all. It's the very definition of a happy accident.) In addition, I think he underestimates the enduring importance, purpose, and greatness of Live 1975-85 and its beautifully powerful Bob Clearmountain mix, which incidentally has virtually no "piped-in crowd noise," as Hyden alleges.

But disagreements like this (and yes, I have a few more of 'em up my sleeve) are actually part of everything that makes Hyden's book so great. It fits that same wonderful description that Bruce Springsteen provided for popular music itself in his 2012 SXSW keynote address: "a joyous argument-starter... a subject for long, booze-filled nights of debate with [a companion or companions as knowledgeable as somebody like] Steve Van Zandt."

Fittingly, the book has a very moving - if not downright heartbreaking - ending, set at Springsteen's March 5, 2023 concert in St. Paul, Minnesota, the city where the Born in the U.S.A. tour began way back in '84. Hyden takes us both inside and outside the venue of that 2023 concert, reflecting on just how far the rock-and-roll dreams that created Born in the U.S.A. - and the dreams that it in turn has inspired - remain so distanced from our present-day reality, even more so than they were four decades ago, of course. As the album itself does, Hyden ends by simply describing as best as he can what currently is, leaving at best just a glimmer of hope as to whether and to what extent Bruce Springsteen and his audience still can do anything about it. In other words, take a good look around...but also remember that you still can't start a fire without a spark.

Again, I highly recommend Steven Hyden's There Was Nothing You Could Do: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and the End of the Heartland as essential reading for anyone interested in Springsteen's enduring, all-time-best-selling album and everything that's accompanied it through the years. Click here to purchase your copy.


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