‘Born in the U.S.A.’ Turns 40: Celebrating the Legacy of the Seminal Bruce Springsteen Album

Born in the U.S.A.

Rock legend Bruce Springsteen seen in a portrait from 1984, the same year he released 'Born in the U.S.A.'. Photo: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

Early this morning, I did something I haven’t done in probably three decades: I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. from start to finish. Three times. And counting.

It is, after all, an auspicious occasion: June 4 marked the 40th anniversary of the album’s release, and the resulting ascendency of Bruce Springsteen to music superstardom. If that doesn’t merit a look (and a listen) back, I’m not sure what does.

Listening to Born in the U.S.A., though, is something of a complicated experience; but then, it’s always been a complicated album.

The facts around the record are pretty well-known: released on June 4, 1984, the album featured tracks recorded in over two years worth of sessions; it was the first CD manufactured in the United States, and spent 84 weeks in the Billboard Top Ten; seven of the album’s 12 songs were released as singles (five accompanied by videos), and the album has sold more than 30 million copies. 

Born in the U.S.A.

And after an upward trajectory through the 1970s and early 80s, Born in the U.S.A. made Bruce Springsteen a household name. This ubiquity was a decidedly mixed blessing, long term.

For a couple of years in the mid-80s, Bruce Springsteen was everywhere. It wasn’t just the music: there was tour news, concert reviews, articles about his newly-shaped physique. His wedding to actress Julianne Philips was front-page news. He was the subject of opinion pieces from the left and the right, and was name-checked by Ronald Reagan at a New Jersey campaign stop. 

Springsteen responded from the stage two nights later, saying “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favourite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one” before launching into Johnny 99, about an auto plant worker who, in the first verse, loses his job, takes up heavy drinking, and murders a night clerk. 

There hadn’t been as expansive and inclusive a musical figure since the heyday of the Beatles and there wouldn’t be another until, arguably, the current reign of Taylor Swift.

So, what is it about Born in the U.S.A. that created such an impact?

For starters, it’s just a great album. Full stop.

From the raging (and often misunderstood) title track, which follows a Vietnam veteran home, through the crackling erotic intensity of I’m on Fire and the breakthrough pop hit Dancing in the Dark (which Springsteen wrote overnight when manager Jon Landau commented that the album still needed a single) to the closing My Hometown, the album never falters. The production definitely bears the hallmarks of the early eighties, but it doesn’t feel dated; rather, its sound takes listeners (this listener, at least), back to the mid-80s.

Second, it’s an inclusive album. Born in the U.S.A., the song, might be about the legacy of the Vietnam War, but its opening lines (“Born down in a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground”) welcome anyone who grew up in a place they wanted to escape. Meanwhile, the nostalgia of Glory Days and the camaraderie of Bobby Jean are familiar emotions to anyone who has grown up and apart from friends. 

This inclusivity also extends to political leanings. While the album is definitely political, it isn’t particularly partisan. The iconography of the Annie Leibovitz cover – jeans and a white t-shirt against the red and white stripes of the American flag – speaks of a big-tent vision of America. As American writer Steven Hyden writes in his new book There Was Nothing You Could Do: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and the End of the Heartland, “Born in the U.S.A. worked because of Bruce Springsteen’s ability to appear progressive and conservative at the same time. His music embraced new technology and progressive social commentary, but it also extolled the virtues of old-school rock forms and American idealism. It was a record that ‘cool kids’ and ‘red-state rockers’ could agree on.”

The third, and perhaps most significant factor in the success of Born in the U.S.A. is just how deceptive it is. As Hyden writes, the album is composed of “happy-sounding ‘sad’ songs.” The glossy eighties sound, upbeat tempos, and sax solos, serve to obscure just how desperate, how pained, many of these songs are. From the apocalyptic setting of Cover Me to the statutory rape storyline of Working on the Highway to the title track, Born in the U.S.A. is surprisingly bleak. And that’s before we get to the existential despair of Dancing in the Dark, which I have long maintained is the saddest song Springsteen has ever written.

All of these factors, combined with the rise of music videos and MTV as a cultural force and more than a year on the road combined to make Springsteen a superstar. The album was – and remains – his biggest seller.

And 40 years later, its legacy is inescapable. While Springsteen tired of being a superstar, and seemed to spend the decade or so after “Bossmania” trying to reclaim a smaller sense of himself, he hasn’t left the album behind. Several of the tracks were focal points in his one-man show Springsteen on Broadway, and on his current tour he is averaging three or four Born in the U.S.A. tracks per night; only Cover Me and Working on the Highway haven’t been played (yet – it’s still early days). 

Somewhat surprisingly, though, there are few plans in place to mark the 40th anniversary of the record. While rumours of an expansive box set have made the rounds for the past several years, Sony marked the occasion by releasing a red vinyl edition (with new liner notes!). 

To call it underwhelming would be an understatement; it’s certainly a disservice to one of the most confounding and significant albums of the past half century.