Reflecting on ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ – Still Glorious at 40

The year is 1975 and as Bruce Springsteen is taking off out of New Jersey, we are breaking down his albums (thus far) and amplifying the tales in which he tells of our joint home state, both on stage and in recording. “Asbury Park is his haunting ground,” we noted 49 years ago. “He lives it, breathes it, and writes about it. His songs are full of the churning rush and lunatic fringe of a city which exists for pure pleasure and wild abandon. The constant revelry of the miles of thrill-inducing mechanics and sweet belly foods weave their way in and out of his lyrics. […] In his first album, appropriately titled Greetings From Asbury Park, we were introduced to some of these characters. There is Crazy Janey, the Mission Man, Wild Young Billy and G-Man. They dress sharp and cruise the circuit, picking up some friends and then heading for Greasy Lake for a party with a bottle of Rose wine.”

Later in the same article – which was, at its core, a review of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s August 13th, 1975 performance at The Bottom Line in NYC – we highlighted more of the discography from the time. “In his second album, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, Springsteen plunged deeper, this time concerned more with the romance of the City. That’s New York, particularly Spanish Harlem and the lower Eastside, where Rosalita, Puerto Rican Jane and Spanish Johnny go through the motions of Life and living. There is one beautiful song about a lady returning from the city to the shore, but in a sad confession (‘Fourth of July, Asbury Park-Sandy’) he laments that the frivolity of the Boardwalk and the beach is growing old and stale. It might be time to move on,” we discerned of The Boss’ sophomore effort.

It’s safe to say that not much has changed. We, as locals, but everyday humans, grow and learn and explore. Everyone wants to lean into the daring commentary and head-turning narratives being put on display (and occasionally on a pedestal… wrongfully). We yearn for the adventure, the truth, and the warmth of peers. People change and life evolves, but history repeats itself – an advantage to the longevity of the music and a benefit to those who continue to craft it, but a detriment to the livelihood of the (now dwindling) middle class. So even though Born in the U.S.A. is a four-decade-old record as of yesterday, June 4, it’s just that bold and just that timeless, that its sights and sounds and stories and style are still making us think. And, of course, we are still spinning it like it’s 1984.

Fast forward a decade from the above review and we are welcomed into the incredible world of Born in the U.S.A. – a striking rock record that was as monumental for the residents of E Street as it was for the industry as a whole. Springsteen was taking over airwaves, MTV, and more mainstream markets than ever before, all while showcasing a return to musical form. A little country twang here and there, intimate anecdotes, and esteemed musicianship from the group? Clarence Clemons being ever-so remarkable? Stevie Van Zandt intricately shredding? Jon Landau sharpening the sound? This now 40-year-old album has it all. And although Bruce and Co. had success breaking out of the Garden State as a robust bar band, kept that momentum for the ever-popular Born to Run, and saw success again venturing into the homegrown musical heartland with the two records that led up to Born in the U.S.A. (The River and Nebraska, respectively), there was a reason that 1984’s LP shot to No. 1 in 11 countries during its first week on the charts and, as of today, has sold 30 million copies. (Yes, just Born in the U.S.A. alone has sold 30 million copies. Talk about #Boss milestones.)

At the time, this new record was kicking off with the same melodic quality that made 1975’s Born to Run so special, except it was modernized, amped up, and had a bounce to it that gave it a sort of pop music push. The tempo wasn’t quite as fast throughout, and the eighties-influence of bold imagery had clearly taken hold, but the narratives akin to Born to Run, and even Greetings, were still there as was the the ability to sing-a-long – this was even more present than before. Even as the rose-colored glasses came off (and they did), the overarching joy in the musicality was locked in. You couldn’t help but chant “Born in the U.S.A.” along to your cassette tape in the car or alongside fans in the biggest of venues, which has become a subject of controversy over the last 40 years, albeit an honorable one… more on that later.

Quite a few tracks from Born in the U.S.A. are still in heavy rotation, and fans can expect to hear quite of a few numbers from that mid-eighties era of E Street music if heading out to a Springsteen show even in 2024. “Bobby Jean,” the second song on the second side of this LP, is an on-stage staple in its groovy keyboard work (Shoutout to Roy Bittan) yet emotional landscape (Van Zandt, we’re lookin’ at you). If you see Springsteen in concert, there is a good chance the album track is performed, which does bode well to a live setting with its dance beats found sleekly under the band’s typical instrumentation. (This laid the groundwork for albums to come, as well, as the last song finalized for this record and edging the band closer to all that was to come.) In addition, the comprising accounts of underage romance AKA the honky-tonk-y “Working on the Highway” and the conscious appreciation felt in “My Hometown” are consistent on tour setlists, with the piano-driven, chasing-tail-centric, big-city-dreaming “Darlington Country” being more of a fan request these days, but was a staple during the Born in the U.S.A. Tour of the ’84’-’85 years. (You can tell that “Darlington County” is an older track in the songwriting with those aforementioned themes, but a little research proves that it was, in fact, written for the Darkness on the Edge of Town LP (1978). That record was rugged with hard rock moments, relatable narratives of love and loss that felt accessible and slightly less character-driven, and became the ethical foundation of all things E Street, further cementing the band as one who wouldn’t lose their small town values post-success of Greetings and Shuffle.)

Fan favorite “Downbound Train” had an interesting life, as well, as it set the tone for Nebraska, which came before Born in the U.S.A., but was held onto as to not weigh down the already hefty acoustic stylings of Springsteen’s personal labor of love, or even shock fans with the sudden inclusion of electric (yet empowered and emotive) riffs. The sweet flow of the tracklist of the more monotonous Nebraska seemed less suited for “Downbound Train,” but its expressive undertone lent itself to Born in the U.S.A. instead, so we’re happy it waited its turn. It also almost parallels what it could’ve been as if it was “My Hometown,” a finale to an impassioned full-length, which is an introspective folk rock song that wraps up the ethos of this working class hero U.S.A. era. It pays homage to Freehold, New Jersey, honors Springsteen’s father, and is evocative in its album closing placement.

(Of course, you can’t talk about the 40th anniversary of Born in the U.S.A. without mentioning the hits: “Dancing in the Dark,” “Glory Days,” and “I’m on Fire” are just a handful of the most legendary tracks in the band’s entire catalog – coincidentally all on the same record. While overplayed to some, these songs are rightful gems. However, their extensive lifespan both then and now has made fan favorites out of “No Surrender” and “Bobby Jean,” now semi-deep cuts in comparison.)

There had always been the thinnest of veils over Springsteen’s lyrics, and it was never too difficult to poke through that and experience the firsthand opinion and social commentary of one New Jersey native, but something about “Born in the U.S.A.,” as a single release, eluded the masses – and continues to. Maybe it’s the chanting and that not-so-subtle repetition of red-white-and-blue patriotism that is more tongue-in-cheek than anything. There is shame – a truly refreshing, understated shame to that gung-ho nationalism that is hidden (again) behind the veil (oh, so, very thin) of actually extremely detailed storytelling and rousing rock and roll that came directly from the heart, mind, and soul one of the genre’s most trusted frontmen. Maybe it’s all of that.

The characters we thought we knew in those very first two albums are deeply complex, mirroring real people in the life of NJ’s born-and-raised. Those are the people who were misunderstood, alienated, and overlooked by most, but they weren’t by the working man’s musician – never by Bruce Springsteen. What Springsteen saw and heard in the 1970s and 1980s were depicted in song, raw and earnest and always perceptive, so “Born in the U.S.A.” was no different. As a single and as a title track, this song was quick to become a world-class example of what memorable, glossy one-liners can do to the simple, casual listener in terms of reality and herd mentality, as well as the formidable structuring of purposeful repetition and selective hearing. Ignorance is bliss, right? The Vietnam War was over nine years before, so it’s not that heavy on the heart now, right? The bitter verses are just little harmonious bits of rockstar prose, right? As long as you chant along to the chorus with The Boss, you’re a true Patriot who is well-versed in the lives of veterans and blue collar America, right?

You see, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band went from releasing anthemic folk rock songs to soon-to-be classic rock anthems – ones that still hold up, nonetheless. On other songs from the record we are celebrating today, as well, The Boss is still shouting into the void with reason, going over heads of the acutely obvious, and cutting right through a biting society. It was refreshing then, and, in all honesty, it’s refreshing now… even if a slight reminder that things haven’t changed all that much in the grander, socio-political scheme of things.

There was never an overt responsibility felt by the band and it was never quite overwhelming to listen to – or witness – the E Street Band firsthand, and, if anything, the simple cover art famously shot by Annie Leibovitz represents exactly what you’re getting when dropping the needle or pressing play on Born in the U.S.A.. It’s a colorful, intelligent, raucous journey through the real world that made honest superstars out of lively rockstars.

There is something beautiful about Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band that not many have been able to truthfully capture since the computerized, technological age took control, and that is the no nonsense storytelling, palpable artistic enthusiasm, and rough-around-the-edges nature that, when shaped by true musicality, can create generation-defying masterpieces. (Stellar, genuine camaraderie among the musicians at hand is only a bonus in this case.) It’s not hard to be hooked on the melodies, caught up in the orchestral rock and roll jams, or provoked by the humble authenticity of The Boss’ sincere, somber, truthful, and modest point of view of the nation (and world) at large. These are all the reasons it holds up, gloriously – pun intended.