Aside from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, there may not have been a bigger commercial success in the 1980s than “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen. After his relatively dark and subtle solo acoustic record “Nebraska”, Bruce reunited with his E Street Band to produce this hit factory, which delivered seven Top 10 singles. Even though it was released in early June of 1984, this was the number one selling album in 1985 (“Thriller” still outsold this in 1984). This album is rated #142 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and may have been a bit too commercially appealing for their tastes. That said, these songs and music videos were everywhere for years. Obviously, many of the tracks were very familiar, but it was good to hear the entire collection as one piece, and there were several non-singles that stood out as favorites, which was a pleasant surprise.
The title track was a bit deceiving to some, as some saw it as the latest resurgence of overt patriotism, as America was on a roll in 1984, hosting the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and the Reagan presidency was rolling towards a landslide re-election. However, you don’t have to listen to closely to realize this was much more of a calling out of some of the economic and societal imbalances that continued to linger from the embers of the 1970s. Ultimately, Springsteen had to weigh in to remind the Reagan campaign this testimony on behalf of Vietnam veterans struggling to move forward was not a song they should be using in their campaign, nor did he support the President or his policies.
The rocker “Cover Me” came next. It was one of those songs that did really well, but never made much of an impact on me, even to this day. In contrast, I really like “Darlington County”, which was not a hit single. It has a much warmer melody, and the organ reminds me of my favorite Springsteen song, “Hungry Heart”. “Working on the Highway” has a bit of a rock-a-billy feel, and it is another deep cut I really like from this record. I also the slower “Downbound Train”, and it was about now I realized that between these songs and all of his hits, Bruce really did make a great record here. Side one ends with what may be my favorite song on the record, the soft tale of longing for someone far away, a sentiment I can certainly appreciate. “I’m On Fire” is a beautiful song, and one of my favorite Bruce vocal performances.
“No Surrender” opens side two, and it is another really solid upbeat song, as is “Bobby Jean”. This record may not be a patriot anthem, but it definitely has to be one of the happiest and most upbeat celebrations of the simple Americana most of us grew up with in this generation.
The last four songs were all successful singles. First, we have “I’m Goin’ Down”, which is another of my favorites among the hits on this album. Someone I knew went to a military academy after high school, and she told me the cadets would do push-ups to this song trying to keep pace each time Bruce sings “Down, down, down, down”. I don’t know if this old man can still pull it off, but I’m going to give it a shot at the gym tonight. I also really like the song “Glory Days” as well, with one minor exception. Along with John Mellencamp’s “Cherry Bomb”, these two songs are two of the very best retrospectives that look back at the happiest and easiest times in our lives, before the burdens of adulthood took over. It even has that same happy organ that I love. My one pet peeve with “Glory Days”? It is the lyric when he is talking about his friend the baseball player. Bruce sings, “I had a friend who was a big baseball player, back in high school. He could throw that speedball by you, make you look like a fool.” Bruce… what is a speedball? The proper term is fastball, please don’t be that musician who exudes ignorance about sports. We have all watched baseball, some more than others, and I can assure as one who has watched way too much baseball, there is no such pitch as a “speedball”.
The hits continue with the first single from the album, the uber-smash “Dancing in the Dark”. Most of us recall this as the debut of a young Courtney Cox, who is pulled from the crowd to dance on stage with Bruce in the music video. To this day, I see other bands covering this song, looking for their own Courtney in the crowd.
With one last solemn ode to days past, we have the soft story of “My Hometown”. This song adds great balance to the record, and like many of these songs, it is instantly relatable, as most all of us have a soft spot for the place we called home growing up. I certainly do, even if it was in Colorado, and not New Jersey.
A few minor silly and absurd nitpicks I acknowledge, but this was and is a great record, and is one of the defining soundtracks of the time we all came of age in the 1980s. Never again would Bruce have quite this much success with a record, but to be fair, not many others would either.