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How Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA Meaning Was Misunderstood

What Does Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA Really Mean

After it came out, I read all over the place that nobody knew what it was about.

Bruce springsteen

Bruce Springsteen is an American singer, songwriter, and musician born in New Jersey in 1949. The chances are you already knew that though as Springsteen is one of the most successful rockstars in the world.

With over 20 studio albums, Springsteen has produced classics such as Born to Run, Dancing In The Dark, and Rosalita. Springsteen has a knack for telling stories with his music. One of his most loved songs is Born in the USA.

born in the usa meaning

Released by Springsteen in 1984, Born in the USA became an instant success. In fact, for many, the track has become an unofficial national anthem.

However, if you listen closely, you might realize that the song’s lyrics aren’t as patriotic as you first thought.

Born in the USA has been misunderstood and misinterpreted ever since its release. The lyrics throughout the song’s verses have been somewhat disregarded, perhaps in favor of the catchy and patriotic-sounding chorus.

A good example of this can be seen in the case of conservative journalist George Will. George Will took in a Bruce Springsteen concert, later writing that the rockstar shows perfect American values.

However, he said this despite not knowing what Springsteen’s political views were. He simply believed that Born in the USA showed that he was a true patriot. 

The combination of the song and American flags at Springsteen’s shows gave the journalist and others the impression that Springsteen believes being American is a privilege, even when life is hard. However, the song actually has a very different meaning.

It is instead a song that shows great oppression and failures within the American government at the time.

In today’s article, we want to try and give you a better understanding of what Born in the USA actually means. 

If you want to learn more about one of America’s most popular songs, stick around!

One of The Best Records Ever?

Before we go any further, let’s take a look at just how successful Born in the USA was and still is. 

Born in the USA was released in 1984 as part of Springsteen’s Born in the USA album. It didn’t take long for the album to become Bruce Springsteen’s most commercially successful album. Of course, the famous title track helped the album grow in success.

Thanks to continued success over generations, Born in the USA has continued to grow in popularity. As a result, it is one of the highest-selling records of all time. Over 30 million copies of the record have been sold worldwide.

Over 15 million of those were sold in the United States. 

Born in the USA is also held in high regard by other artists and industry professionals. The song sits at 275th on the “Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list and The Recording Industry Association of America has the song at 59th out of 365 tracks.

What Does Springsteen Have To Say?

Now we know more about the song, we can start to look at what it really means. There seems to be no better place to start than with the rockstar that wrote the record, so let’s look at what he has to say about his epic song.

Bruce Springsteen has said on many occasions that Born in the USA is a song of protest. Through the song, Springsteen tells the story of the troubles working-class people face, the horrible treatment of returning veterans, and the barbaric nature of war. 

Despite Springsteen saying this, the lyrics he uses in the chorus and verses of the song have somehow been disregarded.

This is why the song is misunderstood by many and even used by politicians as a chant and theme during right-wing campaigns. 

Misleading Album Art

born in the usa song

Interestingly, one of the main reasons Springsteen’s hit is misinterpreted is because of the album’s cover art. As we mentioned earlier, Born in the USA is a song from Bruce Springsteen’s album Born in the USA.

The cover art features Bruce Springsteen from behind. He is seen wearing jeans, a t-shirt, a red cap, and a cowboy belt. Behind Bruce, an American flag can be seen.

The single’s artwork is similar, again featuring the American flag. The main difference is that Springsteen is now seen jumping with a guitar.

So where does the confusion come from? Well, many Americans didn’t realize that the references on the album weren’t supposed to be patriotic. The artwork was instead supposed to be an ironic statement. 

Springsteen’s Light Of Day

Despite being released on his 1984 album, Springsteen actually wrote a different song using the same name.

This song’s title was then completely changed. The title then became Light of Day. This song was the main theme for Paul Schrader’s film Light of Day.

The film was originally going to be called Born in the USA. The name of Springsteen’s song only changed to Light of Day when the film title changed. 

As a result, Springsteen decided to use the Born in the USA title to name the other song and album he was also writing. Before this, his album was called Vietnam and focused heavily on veterans.

The Lyrics And Melody Don’t Match

With a variety of other songs, Bruce Springsteen produced a somber, acoustic version of Born in the USA in 1982 for his Nebraska album. While most of the songs made the cut, Born in the USA wasn’t one of them.

In fact, the song was put on hold for a few more years as Jon Landau (Springsteen’s manager) felt that the song’s lyrics and melody weren’t right together.

Another version of Born in the USA was played by E Street Band in 1982. Most of the record was improvised and eventually cut. However, this version was later released in 1998.

Are The Drums Too Much?

While Jon Landau believed the melody didn’t work with the lyrics, a lot of people disagree with him. A lot of people instead blame the single’s music misinterpretation. 

As recently as 2020, Mental Floss magazine discussed how Max Weinberg’s drums are too much.

They wrote that the song’s drums invoke

cannon blasts and fireworks and all the national pride associated with those sounds.

With such loud sounds, the song’s lyrics are sometimes lost.

This contributes to the misunderstanding of the popular song. However, those who listen closely will still understand what the song is about.

A Feeling Of Sadness From The Start

From the very start of Born in the USA, the lyrics create a feeling of sadness. We can see this in one of the first verses of the song when Springsteen sings “dead man’s town”. This essentially refers to someone’s hometown being in decline.

On top of this, the lyrics “the first kick I took was when I hit the ground” are used to reference the narrator’s challenging, poor, and tough upbringing.

These phrases quickly introduce us to the troubles America’s working-class people experience. They show how, like a lot of Springsteen’s music, the focus is on examining real-life issues.

A Hard Life

We only have to look at the second part of the song’s first stanza to find a similar melancholy theme.

The lyrics “you end up like a dog that’s been beat too much” reference how hard life can be when you’re born underprivileged. This is followed up with the lyrics “Til you spend half your life just to cover up”.

These lyrics outline how the issues working-class people face follow them through their lives. They spend half of their life just trying to catch up.

Springsteen’s appearance on the cover art is supposed to represent the American working-class man.

Economic Crisis

Born in the USA leans heavily into the economic crisis America faced during the 1970s. During this period of time, the United States went from being a strong, wealthy nation to one in economic crisis. 

Since America’s New Deal, Americans hadn’t faced inflation, mass unemployment, and stagnation as hard as this. Working-class Americans were left in absolute despair and poverty. Many were left unemployed due to factories and mines being closed.

The War

As if things weren’t already bad enough in the States, the beginning of the Vietnam War made life even harder. The men that were drafted weren’t wealthy college graduates. Instead, they were working-class, poor Americans.

They were taken overseas where they had to fight bravely to survive. Sadly, many soldiers died. To make matters even worse, those who returned weren’t given jobs or homes, as returning veterans had been given after earlier conflicts.

This is a key topic seen throughout Born in the USA. In a country where everyone could previously afford many new luxuries, people could now barely afford to survive.

Recession

In his record, Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics also refer to the dejected feeling most Americans experienced when returning home from the war.

Faced with a recession, the government that sent ordinary Americans into an immoral battle now left people with no work, no homes, and no support.

Manufacturing that once took place in America had been shipped abroad, leaving most veterans jobless. 

Most people had lost all trust in the establishment, with many feeling dejected and forgotten.

It is from this disillusionment and crisis that Springsteen wrote Born in the USA.

Being Drafted To Vietnam

By looking at other lyrics in Born in the USA, we can see that Springsteen’s song aims to also tell the story of criminals being sent to Vietnam.

The story of Born in the USA is about an average American who faced issues with the law. Instead of being sent to jail, the criminal was given the chance to join the Vietnam War instead. 

These people would be drafted and equipped with a gun. We can see this in the lyrics “Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand”.

This can also be seen in “Sent me off to a foreign land to go kill the yellow man”. Springsteen tries to show how people were forced to war whether they liked it or not.

Forced Into War

It’s very clear from Born in the USA’s verses that the young man narrating the song didn’t want to fight in the war. The song explains how he was forced against his will by a man called Uncle Sam.

The song seems to suggest that most Americans were uninterested in the war. Most didn’t even want to pick up a gun, let alone kill Vietnamese people.

This reinforces the belief that Born in the USA is a song that heavily opposed the Vietnam War. This is how most Americans felt. 

Heroes Returned To Unemployment

Born in the USA’s third verse details the struggles most veterans faced when returning home from the war. That’s if they were lucky enough to.

Describing the perilous situation that faced most veterans, the lyrics show how the “hiring man” would often say no.

The song then has the lyrics “I go down to see the V.A man”. This refers to the veteran speaking to a VA representative for help. 

Sadly, the lyrics relating to this also reference how poorly the veterans are treated, and how difficult it is for them to find work. 

Unfortunately, this was the truth for many veterans returning from the Vietnam War.

The Men Left Behind

The narrator then moves on to share the story of a friend or brother he lost to the war. The lyrics tell us how the man fought Viet Cong and lost his life. While the narrator’s friend died, the Viet Cong were still there.

The lyrics “they’re still there, he’s all gone” reference this perfectly. The lyrics “he had a little girl in Saigon” also show how the man’s friend was in love with a woman during the war.

Out Of Options

Springsteen continues to sing as a veteran narrator when he sings the lyrics “down in the shadow of the penitentiary out by the gas fires of the refinery”. 

In this part of the song, Springsteen is referring to a grim reality that faced most veterans. A lot of veterans that returned from the war in Vietnam ended up out of options and incarcerated. 

In most parts, this was in some way related to the lack of job opportunities available upon return. 

In Born in the USA, the veteran is left feeling helpless, hopeless, and lost, with nowhere to go. 

The Struggle To Survive, Nevermind Thrive

The chorus of Born in the USA breaks out with “I was born in the USA”. This is by far the most popular line in the song and one that many people misunderstand. 

While many people see the line as a positive, the lyrics are actually used to show the singer’s disillusionment with the United States government

It is used to show that the narrator of the song risked their life fighting a war he didn’t want to fight, before returning home to be treated like an outcast. 

The returning veteran finds it hard to survive, with it being almost impossible to thrive in a country that so many gave their lives fighting for. 

The song aims to show how being an American can at times mean nothing. Despite being an incredibly wealthy nation, many people face poverty in the United States.

Bruce Springsteen Didn’t Fight In Vietnam

It is important to note that Bruce Springsteen isn’t a Vietnam veteran. To many, this might come as a surprise because the song focuses so heavily on the views, thoughts, and feelings of a Vietnam veteran.

Springsteen actually wrote Born in the USA after reading and researching the work of Vietnam veteran and antiwar activist Ron Kovic.

Most of the inspiration for Born in the USA was taken from Kovic’s autobiography. His autobiography is called Born on the Fourth of July.

In his autobiography, Ron Kovic details his experiences in Vietnam. He explains the grim details of war and what it was like returning home disabled. 

Springsteen’s Guilt

While he may not have fought in Vietnam, that doesn’t stop Springsteen from mentioning his own guilt during the war. 

Bruce Springsteen later shared his own story about the avoider’s guilt that played on his mind every day. In his own words, he described himself as a “stone-cold draft dodger”. He would regularly do anything in his power to avoid joining the war.

As it turned out, dodging the draft was unnecessary as Springsteen was badly injured when he crashed his motorcycle. This made him unfit to serve in the war.

The rockstar often wonders who took his place. Springsteen did know people that lost their lives. For example, Bart Haynes, from Springsteen’s first band died in Vietnam.

Born In The USA In Politics

Born In The USA In Politics

In 1980, Ronald Reagan started his race for the presidency. Thousands of blue-collar Americans had had enough of the government and wanted a change.

The current liberal party had failed them time and time again, failing to live up to their promises. The war and high levels of inflation led to working-class citizens being left jobless and helpless. 

Many were in search of a more successful, brighter future under a different government. 

Reagan’s Success

Reagan was successful when it came to realigning working-class and larger Republican agendas. He did this by showing how the government was an enemy to the American people. 

Reagan then implemented the now infamous trickle-down economics system, offering a free market economy that would benefit everyone, not just the big businesses.

It was his belief that fortune and success would trickle down, benefitting working and middle-class citizens. 

Throughout his reelection campaign, Reagan used Born in the USA regularly.

How Reagan Used Born In The USA

In one of his speeches in 1984, Ronald Reagan referred to Born in the USA and Bruce Springsteen. In many ways, this caused more confusion and a misinterpretation of Springsteen’s song. 

For obvious reasons, this led many people to believe that Springsteen endorses Reagan when the truth is very different.

George Will thought the musician would be happy endorsing Reagan when he actually opposed Reagan’s beliefs. Reagan’s team tried to contact Springsteen but had no reply. That didn’t stop Reagan from mentioning Springsteen in his speech.

Given the true meaning of the song, Reagan clearly didn’t understand Springsteen or Born in the USA.

What Springsteen Had To Say About The Matter

Just days after Reagan’s speech, Bruce Springsteen spoke up. He said he didn’t think “he’s been listening to [Born in the USA]”. He also jokingly wondered which album Reagan enjoyed most.

From these comments, it’s clear to see that Reagan got things wrong. It’s also clear to see that Springsteen wasn’t too impressed with his name being mentioned. 

However, despite the negative, sad, and emotional lyrics, it could be argued that Springsteen’s song could be interpreted easily as a positive song about resilience and hope, even in the hardest of times. 

Born In The USA Positivity

While Born in the USA is a mostly negative, sad record, there are moments of positivity in there too. 

Most of the positive lyrics are found near the end of the hit, where Bruce Springsteen refers directly to himself. During this part of the song, Springsteen references himself as the “long time daddy” and a “cool rocking daddy” in the United States.

These lyrics give the song another dimension, making things more upbeat and less depressing. However, this also makes it a bit more understandable as to why people misinterpret the song.

born in the usa lyrics

Born In The USA Music Video

By the time Springsteen came to make a music video, he was already aware that there were a lot of people that misinterpreted the song because of its lyrics that come across as patriotic and exploding drums.

Therefore, he tried to clarify his message when releasing the music video. To do this, Springsteen made it clear that the song’s chorus is supposed to be ironic and that the song is actually a protest.

Springsteen turned to John Sayles for help. John Sayles helped produce an obvious video that helped redefine the hit and clear any misunderstandings up.

The end product was a collection of live performances of Springsteen shouting out the words while wearing blue and black. The video was edited between short clips of veterans, veterans in queues for loans, and Vietnamese people in L.A.

Right Wing Politicians Still Use The Song

Despite the music video for Born in the USA making it glaringly obvious what the song’s message is, right-wing candidates still use the song. The video may have helped elevate the message of the song and its importance, but that clearly hasn’t changed some people’s perception of what the song stands for.

Two right-wing politicians that used Born in the USA are Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole. Both used the song during their presidential campaigns. In both cases, Springsteen asked the candidates to stop playing the hit but his pleas were ignored.

More recently, Springsteen’s Born in the USA has been used by Donald Trump. Despite Springsteen again publicly complaining about the use of the song at political rallies, Donald Trump used the song during the election in 2016 and 2020. 

Trump’s supporters also played the song at a rally while Trump was in hospital. 

This angered Springsteen and his fans as he sees Donald Trump as a “threat to our democracy”.

Born In The USA Covers And Parodies

Like most songs, there have been plenty of covers and parodies of Springsteen’s famous hit. One of the first was Patti LaBelle’s cover in 1985. Stanley Clarke also released a cover in 1985.

There’s also Jose Gonzalez who covered the hit without the chorus, a cover by Neil Young, a cover by a children’s choir, a cover played by bagpipes, and a bluegrass cover.

One of the more notable parodies of Born in the USA is Frank Jacob’s version of the song called “Porn in the USA”. Cheech Chong also released a parody called “Born in East L.A”. 

Springsteen himself even agreed to one rap parody. This version of the song was called “Banned in the USA”.  

Did Bruce Springsteen Pee On The American Flag?

As far as misinterpretations go, the one about Bruce Springsteen having a pee on the American flag is the most bizarre. 

While most Springsteen fans saw the album art of Born in the USA as a patriotic gesture or a working-class American hero, there were others that bizarrely saw the cover as Springsteen defacing the flag.

People unbelievably claimed that the cover showed Springsteen peeing on the flag. They believed this because Springsteen had his back to the camera. 

It didn’t take long for Springsteen to come out and confirm that he didn’t pee on the flag. The photographer who took the photograph also told the public that he took the photo from multiple angles, but liked that one the most.

Interpreting Meanings Behind The Song

Due to the song’s popularity and how often it has been used politically, American scholars and the American public have fiercely debated Born in the USA for many years.

The song has been referred to as

a narrative of the transformation of white, male working-class identity” that expresses a “deafening but hollow national pride.

History scholars have often explained that conservatives find the song so appealing because of Springsteen’s appearance.

It is widely believed that Springsteen’s working-class American appearance and the use of American flags sent a national message. 

Springsteen’s Image

When he released the song and album cover, Bruce Springsteen probably didn’t realize just how big the “working-class” image he created was going to become.

For many Americans, Springsteen’s all-American, rugged, muscular, working-class look represents the core values of patriotism and patriarchy. 

The image Springsteen created didn’t accurately represent the artist’s social or political stance but that didn’t stop people from looking at it in that way. 

While he may address conservative themes throughout his career, Springsteen was trying to protest the disgraceful mistreatment of the American people. 

bruce springsteen born in the usa

Masculinity

The American working-class image Springsteen created was very suited to the masculine ideals America believed in during the 1980s.

To many, Springsteen had the appearance of any other white American man throwing his hands in the air and shouting about just how marvelous America is.

Born in the USA was intended to be a song that portrayed anti-war themes, making it quite ironic that it was instead associated with America’s idea of masculinity, and the strength the country has to fight against communist threats.

Born In The USA Still Resonates

Even today, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA still resonates all over the world. With thousands of Americans facing an economic crisis due to government neglect, it’s not a surprise to see the song resonating deeply with so many people.

Whether someone is a liberal or conservative, left or right, almost every working-class American has felt let down by the government at some point. 

Still to this day, Springsteen speaks out about his political beliefs. In recent years, he has spoken publicly about sensitive topics and has no problem letting his feelings be known about other wars and marginalizations.

Born In The USA Is Still A Success

To this day, Born in the USA continues to be hugely successful. The song is streamed all over the world on a daily basis, receiving millions of downloads and plays every year. 

Having said that, the song was most successful around its original release. In 1985, the song reached number 9 on the charts.

It also made it into the top 10 on the Billboard Rock Tracks. When it got into the top 10, it stayed on the charts for 17 weeks. 

Thanks to Born in the USA and his collection of other best-selling singles and albums, Bruce Springsteen continues to tour the world.

At the time of writing this article, he is currently touring Europe, performing in major cities such as London, Barcelona, Munich, and Oslo.

A Message Of Hope

While Born in the USA might not seem like a patriotic hit because of how it is most commonly used by politicians, there’s a lot to like, and a lot that makes it a great patriotic hit for everyone else.

Ultimately, the lyrics in Springsteen’s song are a desperate cry for change right the way across America. The song highlights the battle working-class Americans have faced and continue to do so. 

It is Springsteen’s hope that the messages within Born in the USA will encourage change and give people what they need to thrive in America while reducing the number of innocent lives lost in conflict.

In this article, we’ve looked at what Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA actually means. You should now have a much better understanding in regard to what Springsteen meant by the song, how it is typically misunderstood, and why the messages within the song are important.

To see more of a breakdown of Born In The USA, have a look at this video from The Pop Song Professor.