Released in 1984, Bruce Springsteen’s song Born in the USA became an instant hit. Over the years, the single has become an unofficial national anthem for many Americans. However, those who listen closely will notice that the lyrics aren’t as patriotic as they seem at first.
Born in the USA is, as Springsteen put it, “a protest song.” It’s about the plight of the working-class, the horrors of the Vietnam War, and the displacement of veterans. But somehow, the lyrics in the verses, between the chorus of “Born in the USA,” have been disregarded throughout the years. The song has been misused as an election day theme and a chant at right-wing rallies.
Why has the song been so misinterpreted?
Born in the USA is the titular song of Springsteen’s 1984 album of the same name. The album cover is among the main reasons for the song’s misinterpretation. It features Springsteen seen from behind, wearing scuffed blue jeans, a plain white T-shirt, a black cowboy belt, with a worn, red baseball cap in his back pocket. Behind him are the red and white stripes of the American flag.
The artwork for the single is similar and features Springsteen with the outline of an American flag behind him, jumping up with his guitar in one hand and the other raised above his head in a first. Not many understood that the patriotic references of the cover art were meant to be ironic.
Although the song was released in 1984 as part of the album Born in the USA, Springsteen originally wrote another song with the same title that he later changed to Light of Day. The song Light of Day was written as the theme for a Paul Schrader film about a small-town band that the director initially meant to call Born in the USA.
Schrader changed the movie’s title to Light of Day, and Springsteen used the previous title as the name for his album and a song he was writing, initially named Vietnam, about a veteran. The movie’s song was recorded by Joan Jett, who starred in the film. Springsteen thanked the director in the liner notes of the album.
In 1982, Springsteen recorded a more somber, acoustic demo of the song Born in the USA along with many other songs, most of which were released in the 1982 album Nebraska. Born in the USA didn’t make the cut and was shelved for a few years because Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau didn’t think the song’s melody and music matched its lyrics.
The version of the song played with the E Street Band was also recorded in 1982 at the Power Station. Most of it was improvised, including the drums, the opening synth riff, and a long jam session at the end, which was later cut out. The 1982 version was released as part of the 1998 collection Tracks.
Jon Landau might have thought that the somber melody of the demo version didn’t match the song’s lyrics, but many people disagree, blaming the music for the song’s misinterpretation. In 2020, Mental Floss wrote that Max Weinberg’s drums invoke “cannon blasts and fireworks and all the national pride associated with those sounds.” Over such energetic sounds, the sad lyrics often remain unheard.
The combination of the red, white and blue album art, the exploding, upbeat drums, and the chorus “I was born in the USA” make it easy to misunderstand the song. But those who have paid attention to the rest of the lyrics know that the Boss meant it to be an anti-war song, and the chorus was ironic.
“Born down in a dead man’s town
And the first kick I took was when I hit the ground”
The lyrics set a melancholy tone from the first verse, as the phrase “dead man’s town” essentially means that the subject’s hometown is on the decline. Furthermore, “the first kick I took was when I hit the ground” references the narrator’s poor, hard upbringing.
These opening phrases resonate deeply with the troubles that the American working class experienced in the second half of the 20th century. This song, like much of Springsteen’s work, examines the life and issues of blue-collar Americans.
“You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just to cover up”
The second part of the first stanza continues along the same theme, outlining how being born underprivileged leads to a hard life, “like a dog that’s been beat too much.”
The lyrics echo how the setbacks experienced by the working class follow them everywhere, and they are forced to spend half their lives trying to just even the playing field. Bruce’s scuffed jeans and faded baseball cap on the album cover are meant to represent America’s simple, working man.
In the late 1970s, America went from a shining beacon of Democratic capitalism to a nation in an economic crisis that had essentially lost a war. For the first time since the New Deal, which had helped get Americans back on their feet after the Great Depression, there was inflation, stagnation, and mass unemployment.
Blue-collar Americans were in despair, having been laid off from manufacturing jobs in cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati after car factories closed down and manufacturing moved overseas. Likewise, in rural areas, the mines closed, leaving the working-class jobless. And once-prosperous towns became wastelands.
To make things worse, the U.S. went through a gas crisis, and prices skyrocketed. In a country where everyone had been able to afford a car and hit the road when going got tough, suddenly no one could afford gasoline. However, the straw that broke the proverbial back of the working class was the Vietnam war.
The men who were drafted into the war weren’t in college; they were poor, blue-collar young men. So, they were shipped overseas, where many of them died, and those who came back couldn’t get a job and had nowhere to go.
Since everything that’d previously been manufactured in the U.S. was now being manufactured overseas, from where they’d just returned, these veterans felt forgotten and dejected. Instead of returning home as war heroes, they’d lost the war and came home to an economic crisis.
By the end of the ’70s and early ’80s, many Americans had lost their trust in the government. The establishment meant to protect them had sent them to die in an immoral war and led them into another recession. Out of this crisis and disillusionment, Bruce Springsteen wrote the song Born in the USA.
“Got in a little hometown jam
So, they put a rifle in my hand”
The narrator of the song is one of these average Americans who gets into some trouble with the law back home. Some criminals were given the option to fight in Vietnam instead of going to jail. He is drafted into the war by the government, which hands him a gun.
“Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man”
The working-class guy is sent overseas to fight in Vietnam and kill the “yellow man,” basically against his will.
It is pretty clear from the second verse that this young man had no interest in fighting a war on the other side of the world. He was basically forced to go by Uncle Sam. Either way, our narrator seems uninvested and uninclined to hold a rifle and kill the Vietnamese.
Most Americans regarded the Vietnam war with disapproval. Although the people back home weren’t physically affected by it, this war was the first to be broadcasted daily on television, allowing all Americans to see the death and destruction occurring overseas.
“Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says, ‘Son, if it was up to me’
I go down to see the V.A. man
He said, ‘Son, don’t you understand?'”
The third verse describes the perils of returning home to a country with no employment options, not even a job at an oil refinery.
The veteran is rejected by the “hiring man” and goes to talk to his Veteran Affairs representative about getting a job. He receives unhelpful treatment from the V.A. officer, and we get the impression that he is generally treated poorly by his countrymen and his government.
“Had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone”
The subject proceeds to share that he had a brother or a good friend during the war who fought against the Viet Cong in vain. His friend died, and the Viet Cong are still there.
“He had a little girl in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms”
His fallen brother fell in love with a Vietnamese woman while at war, and our narrator carries a picture of his buddy and the girl locked in an eternal embrace.
“Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery”
Still singing as a veteran narrator, Springsteen shares that he finds himself in prison and survives a gas fire at the oil refinery. Many veterans ended up incarcerated after coming back home to no job or prospects.
“I’m ten years burning down the road
I’ve got nowhere to run and nowhere to go”
A decade after returning from Vietnam, our vet is still looking for a place to call home. He feels he has nowhere to run. His situation is hopeless; he’s lost.
Springsteen breaks out in the chorus following these heartbreaking lines, “I was born in the USA.” Juxtaposed with the disillusionment of the U.S. veteran and the American working-class hero, the chorus gains an ironic subtext.
The singer risked his life overseas and yet comes home and isn’t able to survive, let alone thrive, in the USA. He became an American citizen, but how has that helped him? The U.S. is among the richest nations in the world, but the wealth divide runs deep. Therefore, those who aren’t offered a piece of the pie are all the more frustrated.
Despite singing the song from a veteran’s point of view, Springsteen didn’t fight in the Vietnam war or any war. He wrote the song after reading antiwar activist and Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic’s autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July.
The book is about Kovic’s experience fighting in the war and returning in a wheelchair. The autobiography was later adapted into a film by Oliver Stone. Bruce later met Kovic, and the two became friends. The musician was incredibly moved by Kovic’s memoir and organized a benefit concert for Vietnam Veterans in August 1981.
The Boss later shared in his own memoir that avoider’s guilt plagued him. He had been a “stone-cold draft dodger” and did everything he could to avoid being drafted. In the end, dodging was unnecessary; Springsteen was injured in a motorcycle accident and therefore classified unfit for service.
Springsteen shared that he’d wondered who had been drafted in his place. The musician knew many people who had fought and died in the war. The drummer from Bruce’s first band, Bart Haynes, had enlisted and lost his life in Vietnam as a young man.
When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, much of the working class and middle class changed from a primarily Democratic voting block to a Republican one. Tons of blue-collar and middle-class Americans were fed up with the government at the time.
The liberal party they had consistently voted for failed to live up to its promise of protecting its voters. The Great Inflation and the Vietnam war had left many working-class Americans jobless and hopeless, searching for the promise of a better future. Likewise, middle-class taxpayers were rapidly losing their assets and scared for the future.
Reagan succeeded in realigning the working-class agenda with the larger Republican agenda by painting big government as the enemy of the simple American and not big business and capitalism. He then implemented his system of trickle-down economics, claiming that a free-market economy would benefit not only big businesses.
He believed that large conglomerates’ success and fortune would eventually trickle down and benefit the middle and working classes (never mind that this failed and caused the stock market crash of 2008). Perhaps it isn’t so ironic that Reagan used the song in his reelection campaign in 1984 after all.
Reagan won the 1980 presidential election on the platform that he was different from the other candidates, as he wasn’t a politician. Before entering politics, he had been a movie star known for acting in Westerns. Reagan’s cowboy, anti-establishment image appealed to many voters who were unhappy with the state of the nation’s affairs.
The conservative president managed to convince and convert many liberals to his cause, creating a group dubbed Reagan Democrats, who were made up of working and middle-class citizens. Many of these citizens were the very same disillusioned, blue-collar veterans whom Springsteen sang about.
The single was released in 1984 and became a great success. A conservative journalist named George Will attended one of the Boss’s shows and wrote an article hailing Bruce as a paragon of upstanding American values. He admitted being unsure of the singer’s political views but was sure he was a patriot.
The reporter believed that the American flags “waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times” as well as the “cheerful affirmation: Born in the USA,” meant that Springsteen’s message was that no matter how hard life is, being an American is great.
George Will believed that Springsteen would endorse Reagan, unaware that the musician felt the opposite. Will reached out to Reagan’s campaign, who tried to contact Springsteen’s management, who denied comment. Despite this, in a speech in September 1984, Reagan referenced the song and the artist.
“America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.” This speech caused the press to wonder whether the president knew anything about Bruce Springsteen’s music, given the actual subject matter of his songs.
Days later, during a show, the musician spoke up: “The President was mentioning my name… and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to [Born in the USA].”
So, Reagan may have been wrong in mentioning Springsteen’s music and the artist by name, although he may not have been wrong regarding the song Born in the USA. Despite its sad lyrics, it can easily be interpreted as a song about the hope and resilience of Americans, even when times are hard.
“I’m a long-time daddy in the USA
I’m a cool rocking daddy in the USA”
Perhaps the most positive lyrics in the song are towards the end of Born in the USA, where Springsteen refers to himself as a “long time daddy” and a “cool rocking daddy” in the USA.
Unlike the rest of the song, these lyrics seem to be about him rather than the veteran subject narrating the rest of the verses. These words add another layer to the song, giving it a less depressing ending, making it even more understandable that the song has been so misinterpreted.
Springsteen understood that the song was misinterpreted far and wide because of its patriotic-sounding chorus and upbeat drums. Therefore, when creating the music video, he tried to clarify that the chorus was ironic, and the song was one of protest.
The rockstar hired director John Sayles to make an obvious music video that would redefine the song. The result was a montage of live concert footage, with Springsteen yelling out the verses wearing black and blue, edited between clips of soldiers, Vietnamese parts of L.A., blue-collar workers, and veterans in line for loans, during the chorus.
The juxtaposition of the patriotic sounding chorus over images of despair made the song’s irony clear as day. Likewise, the live clips of Springsteen on a black background angrily yelling out the depressing lyrics elevated their importance. However, even the video hasn’t stopped right-wing politicians from appropriating the song.
In 1996 and 2000, far-right candidates Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan ran for president and used the single as the theme song in their respective campaigns. Springsteen publicly asked them to stop using his song but never received an answer.
Even years later, in 2016, despite Springsteen repeatedly complaining that politicians have used his song in their campaigns, Donald Trump played Born in the USA at his rallies. In 2020, Trump supporters played the single in a rally supporting the former president while he was in the hospital.
Many of the Boss’s fans were angered by Trump and his supporters’ use of the song, considering that Springsteen himself referred to Trump as a “threat to our democracy.” Many people tweeted that those playing the song continued to misunderstand the lyrics and the song’s irony.
Many covers of Born in the USA have been recorded over the years. In 1985, singer Patti LaBelle covered the song, as did Stanley Clarke. José González covered the song without singing the chorus. There has been an acoustic bagpipe cover, a children’s choir cover, a bluegrass cover, a bouzouki cover, and a Neil Young cover.
Among the song’s memorable parodies are Frank Jacobs’ Mad version called “Porn in the USA” and Cheech and Cong’s song “Born in East L.A.” A rap parody that Springsteen agreed to was recorded by 2 Live Crew and called “Banned in the USA.”
Though most fans of the song and the album interpreted the album cover as either a depiction of the American working-class hero or a patriotic gesture, some thought that Springsteen was defacing the flag. They believed that Bruce was urinating on the American flag.
These fans thought that was why he was facing away from the camera. The musician denied peeing on the flag and explained that photographer Annie Leibovitz had taken multiple shots of him in front of the flag, facing the camera and facing the flag and that the album cover had been his favorite.
Due to its popularity and political use, the American public and American history scholars have debated the song Born in the USA. The song has been called “a narrative of the transformation of white, male working-class identity” that expresses “deafening but hollow national pride.”
Scholars have explained that the appeal of the song to conservatives is due to how Springsteen looked. Many believed that because Springsteen dressed like one of the working-class while playing with American flags raised behind him sent a nationalistic message.
Without intending to, Springsteen had created a “working-class” image and became “for many Americans a white hard-body hero whose masculinity confirmed the values of patriarchy and patriotism, the work ethic and rugged individualism.” This image and its ideology were not in line with the artist’s actual political and social stance.
Although he addressed blue-collar themes in his music, Bruce meant to send a message of protest about the mistreatment of American heroes in their own country, not a message of American exceptionalism. But many right-wing veterans believed that the left-wing government was the problem.
Against the background of an American flag, the working-class hero image was very much in line with the masculine ideal of the 1980s. From Ronald Reagan, the supposedly anti-establishment leader posing as a cowboy, to red, white, and blue wrestling star Hulk Hogan, Springsteen looked like another white man raising his fist and yelling about how great being an American is.
Bruce intended his song to be an anti-war anthem. Isn’t it ironic that, instead, it became widely associated with the idea of American military strength against the communist threat in the 1980s, towards the end of the Cold War?
Due to the free-market economy that Reagan implemented in the 1980s, in 2008, America experienced an economic crisis called the Great Recession. Banks failed, and the stock market crashed, causing many hard-working Americans to lose their savings and even their homes.
Of course, the most vulnerable were the working class, who suffered significant losses as many were left jobless with nowhere to turn. The recession is considered an essential factor in Donald Trump’s rise to popularity, as he ran on an anti-establishment platform. Simultaneously, Bernie Sanders gained a more significant following for his socialist leanings.
With Americans in another economic crisis today because of the government’s neglect, it is no wonder that Born in the USA still resonates so deeply with the American public. Whether conservative or liberal, right or left, all working-class Americans have felt that the government has failed them somehow.
Springsteen has continued to speak out over the years about his politics, whether denouncing marginalization or dissing American foreign policy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his memoir, he discussed his songwriting, explaining that the “political and personal came together to spill clear water into the muddy river of history.”
Even today, Born in the USA is still widely streamed. In 1985, the single Born in the USA reached no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and the top 10 on Billboard’s Rock Tracks chart. The RIAA certified the song Gold in 1999.
The album was the best-selling record of 1985 and Springsteen’s most lucrative album. The album started at no. 9 on the Billboard charts in 1984 but quickly rose to no. 1, where it remained for almost two months. It is among the best-selling albums of all time and is certified platinum.
In many ways, Born in the USA is a patriotic song, although not the type politicians have understood. As the Boss wrote, “records are often auditory Rorschach tests; we hear what we want to hear.” The narrator of the song desperately hopes that being born in America means something.
Springsteen expressed, “I make American music, and I write about the place I live and who I am in my lifetime. Those are the things I’m going to struggle for and fight for.” The lament to bring meaning into being American is, in itself, an ode to America.
The song isn’t the first or the last piece of art to be misused by politicians. From the films of Fritz Lang being used as Nazi propaganda to Paul Ryan stating that his favorite musical group is Rage Against the Machine, art will always be interpreted by different people in different ways.
Likewise, Springsteen wasn’t the first artist to use the American flag in artwork meant to comment on injustice in America. From Jasper Johns’ encaustic paintings to Faith Ringgold’s artworks and protests against laws restricting the use of the flag, many have used the symbol to bring about change.
Springsteen wrote in his memoir that, “I thought perhaps mapping that territory, the distance between the American dream and the American reality, might be my service.” The song does exactly that by juxtaposing the upbeat chorus, “I was born in the USA,” against the sad reality of how underprivileged Americans are treated.
The song’s meaning exists in the space between the melancholy lyrics and the exploding drums and fiery chorus. The song is a call to action, crying out to Americans to fight for a better America, where being born in the USA is something to be proud of.