Night Flight’s “Take Off to Patriotism II” highlights Bruce Springsteen’s often-misunderstood “Born In The U.S.A.”

By on May 30, 2016

In Night Flight’s “Take Off to Patriotism II” — the original episode aired on November 27, 1987; watch it now on Night Flight Plus — the John Sayles-directed video for Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” had been released a month earlier, but the song was already being widely misinterpreted and misunderstood by patriotic fans who didn’t really seem to know what the song was about.

BORN IN THE USA 1

“Born In The U.S.A.” was really a protest song, and a harsh critique of the way working class Vietnam War veterans faced indifference and hostility once they were home again, where they were left with “nowhere to run / ain’t got nowhere to go.”

BORN IN THE USA 13

The bitter verses Springsteen sings in between that rousing rousing rah-rah fist-pumping chorus tells the tale of a fictional soldier sent off to fight in a war he didn’t believe in, to “go and kill the yellow man.”

BORN IN THE USA 9

A New York Times review of the album (published on May 27th, just before its release), didn’t even mention Vietnam, however, and claimed “[Bruce Springsteen] is one of a very small number of rock performers who uses rock to express an ongoing epic vision of this country, individual social roots and the possibility of heroic self-creation.”

BORN IN THE USA 14

The original title of Springsteen’s title track was, in fact, called “Vietnam.” “Born In The U.S.A.” had originally been the title of a 1981 screenplay, written by filmmaker Paul Schrader, which he’d sent to Springsteen early on, hoping he’d write a song for the film (Schrader’s film came out in 1985 as Light Of Day).

Springsteen recorded the song with the full E Street band in the studio live, in three takes, ending with lengthy jam session. It was the second take — trimmed by 8 minutes down to 4:40 — which would appear as the lead-off title track of Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. album, released on June 4th, 1984.

By the end of the summer of ’84, the album was already a huge hit, propelled to the top of the charts by the first two of what would eventually be seven hit singles released over the next two years: “Dancing In The Dark” (released on May 4th), and “Cover Me” (released on July 31st).

BORN IN THE USA 5

In September that year, Springsteen performed concerts at the Capital Centre outside of Washington, D.C., attracting a lot of attention in the national media.

BORN IN THE USA 3

On September 13, 1984, nationally-syndicated Washington Post columnist, George Will — in a column entitled “A Yankee Doodle Springsteen” — praised Springsteen as an exemplar of classic American values, saying:

“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.!'”

Will even suggested that President Ronald Reagan — campaigning for re-election at the time — formally request Springsteen’s endorsement.

BORN IN THE USA 18

A few days later, on September 19th, Reagan — standing in front of a giant American flag during a campaign speech in Hammonton, New Jersey— would tell a crowd of more than 30,000 that,

“America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts… It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”

Sales of the Born In The U.S.A. album had already topped four million — according to a press release issued by Springsteen’s record label, Columbia — when the album’s third single, the title track, was released on October 30th.

BORN IN THE USA 2

For the “Born In The U.S.A.” video, Springsteen chose director John Sayles, who had used four of his songs in his 1983 film Baby, It’s You. They officially met in the spring of 1984.

Sayles mixed in 16mm concert footage of Springsteen and the E Street Band performing the song live at the L.A. Sports Arena, along with iconic mid-80s footage of working-class Americans, shot mostly in a predominantly Vietnamese section of Los Angeles and in Springsteen’s old stomping ground, Asbury Park, New Jersey.

BORN IN THE USA 12

We see Americans of all types — soldiers training for combat, veterans waiting in line for payday loans, workers on assembly lines, a kid blowing out the candles on his birthday cake — but  Sayles mostly kept his camera focused on Springsteen, who appears grizzled and unshaven, wearing a headband and a denim jacket.

BORN IN THE USA 10

The video begins with an American flag and ends with Springsteen replicating the album’s cover photo by Annie Leibowitz, showing Springsteen’s jean-covered ass, with a red baseball cap tucked into his back pocket, standing in front of a large American flag.

BORN IN THE USA 16

“Born in the U.S.A.” peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts in late 1984, and the Born In The USA was not only the best‑selling album of 1985 in the U.S., but it spent 18 weeks 18 weeks at #2 on the charts for more than two and a half years while Prince’s Purple Rain resided at #1, marking the longest period with a fixed top two in the history of the Billboard 200.

There are still millions of clueless fans of the song who believe “Born In The U.S.A.” celebrates American exceptionalism, but over the past three decades or so, Springsteen has gone out of his way to make sure everyone knows what the song is really about.

BORN IN THE USA 4

He’s also politely asked clueless politicians not to use it without his permission, but they do it anyway. Earlier this year, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump played it during a campaign rally in Reno, Nevada, as an apparent jab at rival Senator Ted Cruz  (he was questioning whether Cruz was eligible to run for president since he was born in Canada).

Check out Night Flight’s “Take Off to Patroitism II” over on Night Flight Plus. The episode also features videos by Jackson Browne (“For America”), John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band (“America’s Sons”), The Liberty Rappers’ “Liberty Rap”, Aztec Two-Step (“Living In America”) and a special segment on “Hands Across America.”

BORN IN THE USA 17

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.