Politicians Have Always Misunderstood Springsteen's 'Born In The U.S.A.'

From Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, there’s a long history of people completely missing the point of the Boss’ 1984 single.
JT
Chicago, US
DJ
illustrated by Dessie Jackson
October 5, 2020, 8:30pm
Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA
Illustrated by Dessie Jackson

On Sunday morning, NBC News White House correspondent Kelly O'Donnell tweeted out a video of President Donald Trump's supporters congregating outside Walter Reed Medical Center, the military hospital where he's currently being treated for complications caused by COVID-19. The clip showcased about a dozen well-wishers holding flags and blaring music, which  according to O'Donnell's post, included both Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the U.S.A.” and Lee Greenwood’s "God Bless The U.S.A.". Though Greenwood's biggest hit making the cut is no surprise, as he's a lifelong Republican, and a friend of Trump's who sang at the President's inauguration, the inclusion of Springsteen's 1984 single raised some eyebrows. But people have been ignoring the song's real message since its release.

That "Born in the U.S.A." has been used for decades in political rallies for right-wing causes for four decades is confusing. Springsteen himself has gone on record calling the President "a flagrant, toxic narcissist," a "moron," and a "threat to our democracy." But more than the Boss' own views, the song is the furthest thing from a nationalist anthem. The lyrics tell the story of a young man who goes off to war and comes back changed: "Got in a little hometown jam / So they put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land," Springsteen sings, referring to the Vietnam war. When the protagonist of the song returns home, he's unable to find a job ("Hiring man says, "Son if it was up to me") and a decade later he's "ten years burning down the road / Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go." If you listen more than just its rousing "Born in the U.S.A." chorus, the track, which Springsteen has called a "protest song," takes on a much more biting and damning meaning.

The song was partially inspired by Ron Kovic's 1976 autobiography Born on the Fourth of July, which documents a patriotic young man who volunteers for the Vietnam War in the late 60s and later comes home paralyzed and vehemently against the conflict. That didn't stop then-President Ronald Reagan, who had called the Vietnam War "a noble cause," from asking for permission to use the song for his reelection campaign and saying in a 1984 stump speech, "[America's future] rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire—New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen.”

Though Springsteen denied the Reagan campaign permission to use his songs for political purposes, that moment was the beginning of the right's flirtation with Springsteen's music. "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," wrote conservative bow-tie wearer George Will in a 1984 column. "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.!" While the arrangement is certainly upbeat, Will's assertion that the song's chorus is cheerful is a complete misread of the material. "I think people got a need to feel good about the country they live in," Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 1984. "But what’s happening, I think, is that that need—which is a good thing—is gettin’ manipulated and exploited. And you see the Reagan reelection ads on TV—you know: “It’s morning in America.” And you say, well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh."

Springsteen later recalled how the song was misconstrued in a 2005 interview with NPR's Terry Gross. "'Born In The USA' is a classic situation of a song misinterpreted by some because of its chorus," he said. "My music has been a football where I had people from the far-left to the far-right who misrepresent us. It's something I live with and I always have the opportunity to go on stage and say my piece about it." He did just that in 1984, going onstage and playing "Johnny 99," a song about an out of work auto worker who becomes a murderer. "Well, the president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day, and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know?" he said. "I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one."

For all of Springsteen's public statements, "Born in the U.S.A." has continued to be a rallying anthem for causes he doesn't support. On top of his refusal to let Reagan use his songs, he's also publicly disavowed Republican Bob Dole's 1996 campaign use of the song as well the racist Pat Buchanan using it in 2000. Trump has tried to use the song at several rallies. Even Springsteen superfan Chris Christie, a one time governor of New Jersey and former Presidential candidate who's seen the Boss in concert over 140 times, has been often publicly rebuked by his musical idol. But no matter what Springsteen says, it's not going to stop people from misunderstanding his songs. "People use pop music in a lot of different ways," Springsteen said in 2005.

It shouldn't be surprising that Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." has been so chronically misinterpreted. Though the fact that President Trump's supporters were blasting a song about a country that failed a Vietnam War veteran outside a military hospital treating a guy who said "I like people who weren't captured" to an actual veteran and who falsely took credit for a Veteran's Choice bill signed by his predecessor is particularly galling, people will find what they want to in songs. No matter what an artist says or what the actual content of the song is, music will continue to be misinterpreted for political purposes. Just ask Rage Against the Machine about their megafan former Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan or the dozens of artists who politely ask campaigns to stop using their music each election cycle.

But for artists like Springsteen, he's undeterred by the historic misinterpretation of his music.

"[The Reagan campaign's use of 'Born in the U.S.A"] is when the Republicans first mastered the art of co-opting the art of anything and everything that seemed fundamentally American," he said in 2005. "And if you were on the other side of that thing, you were somehow unpatriotic so that's what that was. I make American music. That's what I do. I write about the place where I live and who I am and that belongs to me."