I wasn’t a fan of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA when it was got relentless airplay in the mid-1980s, and it hasn’t aged well almost 40 years on. The hyped-up New Wave production sounds thin and try-hard now—more dated than those early Sun records whose mysterious echo Springsteen was clumsily channeling. The first ringing synthesizer thump of the title track comes across like some sad dude bellowing as he pretends his basement is an empty stadium. It’s outdated and exhausted rock.
“Born in the USA”’s anthemic touches have fooled more than one politician into thinking it’s a valedictory ode to patriotism. But the lyrics are all about small-town failure, unemployment, and the larger failure of imperial war. “Got in a little hometown jam/So they put a rifle in my hand” is about dead ends, dead brothers, and skidding out “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary.” The music’s bash, bash, bash isn’t a cheer, but a headache—one sad guy trying to tell himself he’s a “cool rockin’ daddy” when he, and his country, are nothing of the sort. If that guy sounds even more left behind now, it just gives the song more ironic power. Its obsolescence is its relevance.
That’s true of the rest of the album as well. Springsteen’s embrace of New Wave was in part a (very successful) grab at radio play, giving his retro roots rock a synth sheen to get it into those big clunky brand new headphones. But the polish didn’t make the old moves look new so much as they emphasized how tired Springsteen sounded there under the robotech. Now that the robotech itself is as worn down as the first model Terminator, songs like “Downbound Train” feel like they’re creeping through an even more desolate corner of nowhere.
I burst through the front door, my head pounding hard
Up the stairs, I climbed
The room was dark, our bed was empty
Then I heard that long whistle whine
And I dropped to my knees, hung my head, and cried
After that moment of existential despair the big new rock sound picks up again, except it isn’t big, isn’t new, and isn’t rock. Springsteen ends in jail, as at the conclusion of many of these songs, staring at the blank wall he gets to stare at, along with many others in our incarceration happy nation, for decades.
“Glory Days” too, gains an extra bite because its cheerful keyboard sounds as irrelevant as the song promises it would (“they’ll pass you by/glory days.”) “No Surrender,” arguably the least ironic invocation of tough guy rock attitude, gains depth because it undeniably, now, sounds like it got rolled over, whether it surrendered or not. “Working on the Highway” updates rockabilly’s rebel yawp for a story about working a no-hope job and then things getting worse. “Dancing in the Dark,” the most gratuitous appeal to the club scene, comes across as pitifully desperate. “I ain't nothin' but tired/Man, I'm just tired and bored with myself”—a rocker turned pop star trying to stay on current trends and not managing it.
Born in the USA got old, flabby, embarrassing, sad. But that just makes it more itself, since Springsteen was mostly singing about being old, flabby, embarrassing—losing at romance, at work, at cool. The new boss was the old boss and that boss is still here, in the USA grinding up one and all, old or young, hip or hopeless. “I’m going down down down,” Springsteen sings, like he can’t come up with any other words, and then the smooth jazz sax solo comes in, so 1980s, so crass, timelessly timeless, and uselessly defiant in its bleak calculus.