Born in the U.S.A. holds something of a unique position among Bruce Springsteen’s fans. The 1984 album is Springsteen’s most successful by a country mile, topping out at more than 30 million copies to be the 23rd best selling rock album in history. A critical smash as well as commercial one, Born in the U.S.A. was a constant hit factory in the mid-80s. It was also Billboard’s 1985 No. 1 album.
With seven of the album’s 12 songs entering the top 40, Born in the U.S.A. is indelibly embedded into the soundtrack of the 80s:
• Dancing in the Dark
• Cover Me
• Born in the U.S.A.
• I’m On Fire
• Glory Days
• I’m Going Down
• My Hometown
Full of raucous rockers and hopelessly infectious hooks and lyrics, Springsteen was all over the radio airwaves and MTV broadcasts while conquering the globe on a mammoth world tour.
For many Bruce fans, like me, this album was the gateway into lifelong fandom for his music. Now here’s the funny part: it’s probably the least respected, least discussed and least played among Springsteen fans. It has less to do with its commercialism, too, honestly. By itself, Born in the U.S.A. is great, fun, toe-tapping rock record. But stack it up next to other albums in Bruce’s catalog and it gets dwarfed rather quickly. Born to Run, The River and even The Rising are hailed as bigger, better classics by fans and critics alike. However, upon listening to Born in the U.S.A. again, today—32 years after its release—I’m here to reclaim it as one of Bruce’s finest moments.
Perhaps the reason it gets lost in the shuffle is because, as far as Springsteen albums go, it’s a bit disjointed. Sure, it’s full of big, stadium-rock songs and a couple powerful ballads—several that Bruce still plays in concerts, to great response from his audiences—but there’s no overarching theme or tone that have become staples of Springsteen records. Pluck out albums from different ends of Bruce’s catalog—Darkness on the Edge of Town or Wrecking Ball, for example—and there were obvious threads running through both that tie everything together. Springsteen fans are accustomed to it. With Born in the U.S.A., the songs are great, but play more as a collection of singles more than a contiguous story.
Now, in fairness, the songs are great and, in many ways, darker than people probably remember. Songs of isolation (Dancing in the Dark), anger (Born in the U.S.A.), economic blight (My Hometown), lost love (Bobby Jean) and brotherhood (No Surrender). But in the 80s, people seemed to completely miss the message. That was no more evident than general response to the title track. A song about the struggle of Vietnam vets when they came home was mistaken for some sort of Sousa march. Even Ronald Reagan thought it was a flag-waving, patriotic anthem. I was 13 years old the first time I heard the song. Even I knew what it was about. It’s a great song, but its message got lost in the chorus’ sing-along-ability, I suppose.
Springsteen’s been mostly redeemed for this, really. His fans don’t hold it against him. And Dancing in the Dark has evolved into one of the band’s signature romps in concert. But I doubt Born in the U.S.A. will ever get the respect it deserves. It’s ironic, because the album truly is 100 percent filled with A-side material. To that end, it’s like a greatest hits album. In fact, that’s the best way to describe it. Greatest hits records are disjointed by design, but full of great music…and disrespected by many artists and audiophiles alike.
While Born in the U.S.A. was the album that made me a lifelong Bruce Springsteen fan, Dancing in the Dark is the true Patient Zero. I was hooked from the very first time I heard it, which was on a summer afternoon in 1984. I was in my bedroom when the song came on the radio. “Here’s a new song from Bruce Springsteen,” said the DJ. I wasn’t thrilled, initially, because I never really liked Hungry Heart when it came out a few years prior (sacrilege, I know, because I now love that song). As I listened to Dancing in the Dark, I thought, “this is pretty cool, actually.” It wasn’t anything I expected. Soon thereafter, Dancing in the Dark was in heavy rotation for me; still is, really. As a kid, it was just a fun, infectious rock song. The older I get, the more the song resonates with me. I’m sure that’s a common refrain among Bruce fans. And, really, how can you dislike a song that introduced Courteney Cox to the world?
I’m sure, if you pin down Springsteen fans and ask them about it, they’ll all tell you the same thing: they love Born in the U.S.A., but it’s not even in their Top Five. While I may not include it in my own Top Five, I’ll always hold Born in the U.S.A. in high regard. Believe it or not, Born in the U.S.A. is every bit as strong an album as Springsteen’s best albums. Better than The River? Well…