While bopping around the tubes this morning looking for stuff to blurb for the Rumpus, I came across this piece about Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" at Overthinking It. The author, who seems to be about my age, tells the story of the Reagan campaign's attempt to co-opt Springsteen's song for Reagan's re-election campaign in 1984. Most people who know the story know that much, and most liberals who know it probably know to a small extent why that didn't make any sense. But I wonder how many of them know this part of the story? (I didn't.) The man most responsible for the misunderstanding of Springsteen's song is George Will.
And, in a column about good ol’ fashioned American values, Will thinks it apropos to invoke both The Deer Hunter and a World War I battle in which the U.S. did not participate.The chain goes thusly--Will misunderstands Springsteen's song and writes a column about it; Will tells Reagan's deputy Chief of Staff Mike Deaver, Deaver tells Reagan's speechwriters, and we get Reagan claiming that Springsteen's song is a celebration of "Morning in America."
Later:I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: “Born in the U.S.A.!”Will might not have had a clue about Springsteen’s politics, but a casual listen to the lyrics of the song he quotes in that paragraph might have helped:Born down in a dead man’s townAnd that is, of course, the first verse.
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up
And yet, I wouldn't call Reagan's misappropriation of "Born in the USA" a gaffe. Why not? Because it's not all that clear that the general public really understood what Springsteen was talking about either. Here's what I mean--what part of that song resonates for you as a listener? What part is most likely to become an earworm? It's that repetitive chorus. None but the hardcore Springsteen fan remembers these lyrics:
I had a buddy at Khe SahnWe remember the feel-good part of the song because it's anthemic, because it is the kind of thing that can inspire a crowd to wave flags and scream along at the tops of their lungs. Springsteen intended the song to be an indictment of the way the US was falling apart, but much of his audience refused see it that way. Reagan might have been part of the reason for that--his "Morning in America" message might have been bullshit, but he sold it like it was prime rib, and Americans ate it up to the tune of one of the largest Presidential landslides in our history.
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone
He had a little girl in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms
Springsteen famously refuses to perform the song in concert these days, and I can't help but think it has something to do with this incident. He was a victim of his own success, it seems to me--he wrote a song that should have been a call to arms for reform and it was embraced by listeners as a moment of unreasonable pride in one's nation, and it became one of his biggest hits.
It's July 4th, so there's going to be a lot of that sort of pride on display today, and that's fine I guess--I'm not going to shit in anyone's cereal. There's a lot that this nation does that's worth being proud of. But we've also got lots of room for improvement. Springsteen's description of the USA he was born into is easily as apt today as it was in 1984, if not more so. Here's the last verse of his song:
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I'm ten years down the road
Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go