The Hidden Meaning Of Bruce Springsteen's Born In The U.S.A.

One of the sillier occurrences of the already silly phenomenon of presidential elections occurred in September 1984, The New York Times recorded a comment Ronald Reagan made at a rally in Hammonton, New Jersey: "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen."

It was probably the journalist George Will who pushed Reagan to include the reference. A few days earlier, Will had seen Springsteen perform his new song "Born in the USA," writing later in The Washington Post: "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. 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.!'"

Walter Mondale, Reagan's challenger, wasn't about to let this go. As written in The New York Times piece, he had spent a lot of time already fighting Reagan's co-opting of Democratic heroes, like JFK. Apparently, Springsteen heard the line: "[When] Bruce heard what President Reagan had said, here's what the Boss had to say to him... '[the American Dream] was that everyone was going to have a chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity.' That's the real Bruce Springsteen, and he's for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket." Springsteen hadn't, in fact, said that or endorsed Mondale, per And the meaning of "Born in the U.S.A." isn't quite what either candidate implied.

An All American confusion

The absurdity of the tussle over "Born in the USA" between Mondale and Reagan encapsulates the history of how people have understood the meaning of the song. As generally known, the lyrics explicitly paint a picture of a Vietnam vet who returned to America only to be alienated from their home and unable to get work, making the chorus more of an angry plea of "I was born in the USA and deserve better" than a patriotic act of self-pleasure. Or, as Bruce Springsteen himself explains: "'Born in the U.S.A' is about a working class man [in the midst of a] spiritual crisis, in which a man is left lost's like he has nothing left to tie him to society anymore."

However, the question really is if the verses and Springsteen's explanation matter. Brian Doherty, the senior editor of the Libertarian magazine Reason, suggested that they didn't: "But who's to say Reagan wasn't right to insist the song was an upper? When I hear those notes and that drumbeat, and the Boss' best arena-stentorian, shout-groan vocals come over the speakers, I feel like I'm hearing the national anthem." Like other songs with lefty messages, "Born in the USA" may have a darker side, but the aspects of it that made it into an anthem are also the aspects that make it easier to co-opt, regardless of what the song's actual meaning. Though the song's a product with an intended message, as art, it is ultimately up for interpretation.