Sunday, July 3, 2011

Something To Do With Something Else: 4th of July

A few years ago Aaron and I went to watch a 4th of July fireworks show. We sat on his car in a park in Heyworth before the show, listening to some playlist of patriotic music they had coming from a speaker system. One of the songs that played was Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA." I remarked to Aaron, "Why are they playing this? Isn't this a protest song against the Vietnam War?". At the time I wasn't a Springsteen fan, but I had a vague memory that Ronald Reagan had tried to use the song during his re-election campaign, causing a stir because he obviously misinterpreted the song's meaning and prompting Springsteen to ask him to stop using it. It seemed to me at the time that the organizers of the event had made the same mistake.

For all I know, I could've been right. They may have had no idea what the song was about but included it based on its chorus and general mood. But now that I am a hardcore fan of The Boss, I know that the song is in no way inappropriate at a 4th of July event.

It is true that the song isn't as upbeat as a casual listen might cause you to believe. Despite the bombastic style of the music, the first verse shows what place Springsteen is coming from:

"Born down in a dead man's town
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"

In the following verses he draws on his personal experiences in working class New Jersey to write about the struggles of Vietnam veterans due to the war and the economic hardships of the late 70's and early 80's. Springsteen laments how men were forced into a war only to be thrown into poverty on their return home.

"I got in a little hometown jam
And so they put a rifle in my hands
Sent me off to Vietnam
To go and kill the yellow man


Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says "Son if it was up to me"
I go down to see the V.A. man
He said "Son don't you understand"

In the final verse, Spingsteen remembers a friend he lost in the war, and ends by expressing the hopelessness and helplessness of blue collar america.

"I had a buddy at Khe Sahn
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

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"

Throughout the song is the chorus, a four times repetition of the desperate scream "Born in the USA!!" to a roaring rock anthem.

That men like George Will or whichever Reagan aide got him to call the song "a message of hope" misinterpreted the song in such a way to make them seem like exactly the sort of people the song is aimed at, the powerful men who glory in war and trumpet supposedly patriotic themes about a national pride that comes so easily to wealthy men such as they. Who, much as the song's anthemic style buries its themes of working class pain and loss, let their love of these things blind them to the suffering of the people who want to feel that same pride in their country, but who find it so hard to do when its let them down so much; when it had forced them to fight a war that robbed them of their loved ones and abandoned those who made it back. The Boss's scream of the titualar line in the chorus is a mockery of the jingoistic cries of the powerful, a challenge to their view of America, and a demand that they live up to their obligations to their fellow countrymen.

What's more patriotic than that?

Happy 4th of July

P.S. On a somewhat related note, everyone should check out the beautiful story he tells in this live recording of "The River" from the Live 1975-85 album.

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