November 10, 2014 by NowhereButPop
It’s been 30 years since Bruce Springsteen released his seminal Born in the U.S.A., a pop cultural phenomena and socio-political commentary on mid-80s America. Despite the fact that this was an album designed for our parent’s generation, it’s an album that proves to be oddly reflective of our own generation.
My generational peers and I however, are not millennials, a misnomer used to describe anyone born in post-Reagan America. In fact, I hate being lumped in as a millennial, not only because it’s the wrong classification, but also because of the pejorative connotation and definition of the word itself (and because it makes us sound like we’re eagerly awaiting the Rapture). Millennials are people who don’t remember having to get off the internet in order to use the phone, millennials are people who don’t remember seeing Michael Jordan play, millennials are people whose sole knowledge of the 90s comes from Buzzfeed listicles. Anyone born between 1985-1993 is not a millennial; anyone whose first memory is prior to 1995 is not a millennial. We might have been at the tail end of the last generation to be a part of a 20th century world, but we experienced it in a way that people, especially people born after 9/11, could never understand. We’re not the misanthropic grunge patrons that made up Generation X, nor are we the “You get a trophy just for playing” kids who think that there’s a difference between a hashtag and a pound sign. We’re a generation unto ourselves, for these distinctions, we are Generation Y.
Now that I’ve gotten my “Kids these days/Back in my day” rant out of the way, it’s pretty interesting to see how relevant Born in the U.S.A. has become, now more than ever since the album’s initial release. From ideas of America losing its way, to hook-up culture and drunk texts, Born in the U.S.A. deals with issues and occurrences that are telling indicators of my generation. Track by track, each song on the album proves to be applicable to the life and times of a Generation Y-er.
Side 1, Track 1: “Born in the U.S.A.”
Unless you don’t know English, or are Ronald Reagan, it’s pretty obvious that the title track isn’t a patriotic rallying cry to restore America to its past vigor. In reality, it’s more of a bleak barometer over everything American had gone through over the past 20 years prior to 1984, the year the album was released. By portraying the average American who went through Hell, both at home and in Vietnam, Springsteen undermined the macho-patriotic visage that Reagan was hoping to foster as a part of his re-election campaign. Instead of looking at signs of American prosperity like the Wall St. Boom, or the crumbling of the C.C.C.P., Springsteen instead rallies around the decline of the middle class and the lingering horrors of the Vietnam War, a war which traumatized young men in ways that hadn’t been seen since WWI.
The opening track is all about the realization that the American reality is far different from the American dream, and for my generation, a generation that hadn’t really known any economical, or political adversity (on a macro level), 9/11 was the waking up from a dream to face the harsh reality that had come to greet us. And much like Ronald Reagan, who had a natural charisma to him, Barack Obama was championed as the savior that America was in desperate need of following the impossibly inept and epileptic Bush administration. The reality though, is that Obama hasn’t been a very good president, and hasn’t really done anything to make American better. I’m not being political, or antagonistic, it’s just a fact. I have nothing against Obama, I have an issue with how so many people took to him like he was penicillin in human form. Looking back on 2008, there was so much hope and inspiration that he had fostered, only for the realization to kick in that the dreams that were created back in 2008 still haven’t been made real in 2014. “Born in the U.S.A.” is all about the fact that the dream hasn’t become the reality, that the reality was that America wasn’t doing too well. It’s 2014, our economy is still reeling from the 2008 recession, America’s military is stretched around the world fighting an infinite number of enemies after repeated promises to bring the troops back home, and our politicians seemingly have better things to do than try and improve this nation. The American dream of prosperity is still out there, it’s just that it’s been the furthest away from us than it has been for a while.
Side 1, Track 2: “Cover Me”
“Cover Me” is all about hook-up culture, plain and simple. In light of the disastrous setting around them, the only thing that matters in these apocalyptic times is “looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me”. We don’t care who it is, and we don’t care how long it lasts, we just want someone, anyone really, who we can curl up next to and make us forget about the troubles of this insane world. Hook-up culture is all about the outlet and the release; it’s ultimately meaningless embraces that we engage in because either, that person is there, or we want an escape from responsibility. “Cover Me” is to Bruce Springsteen what “1999” is to Prince. Both songs set up a present of despair and danger, and truthfully state that in those times we’ll want to love anyone who’ll do just to have someone to hold through the night, even if come the dawn, we’ll never see them again. “Cover Me” is about how easy it is to mistake love for lust, or even commiseration because we’re only looking for something easy. Hooking-up and one night stands have never been easier or more acceptable than for members of Generation Y.
Side 1, Track 3: “Darlington County”
Breaking up the foreboding dreariness of the album thus far is “Darlington County”, a lighter, more upbeat tale of traveling and romance. “Darlington County” is all about being young, having no attachments and laying down no roots. Even though we’re adults, people my age aren’t really grownups. Because of higher educations, longer healthcare coverage, and a larger economic safety net, we’re more tied to the umbilical cord than previous generations. As such, we have less responsibilities at our age than our parents or their parents did. And because of that we can go out and explore the world without being held back or tied down to anything or anyone.
Side 1, Track 4: “Working on the Highway”
Even though it’s really about paving a road while being a part of a chain gang, “Working on the Highway” is a metaphor for the job crisis facing recent college graduates. “Talking about the weekend, scrubbing off the dirt…Someday mister, I’m gonna lead a better life than this”, speak to the vast amount of college educated kids who are either not working, or have jobs that they are over qualified for, or don’t require a college degree. Back in 2008, when the recession was at its worst, we were all reassured that by the time we had graduated from college, five years from then, not only would the recession be over, but the economy would be on the mend with fresh job opportunities. The truth is that those opportunities never came, and that promised economic upswing is still somewhere on the horizon. Being unable to land successful jobs, or jobs in the fields of our studies has lured way too people young people, young people rife with potential, into dead-end jobs and jobs that they’re overqualified for. All this has done is leave us disillusioned and despondent over our future prospects. Too many of us are “working on the highway” waiting and hoping for something better to come our way.
Side 1, Track 5: “Downbound Train”
“Downbound Train” is a song that returns the album back to its dreary social commentary, and despite being written in 1984, it still has relevance 30 years later. With everything that’s gone on from wars, economic hardships, renewed racial tensions, and growing political strife sometimes it does in fact feel like America is “work down at the carwash where all it ever does is rain”, a metaphor for how it seems like no matter what we can’t win. It seems like there is a hydra that we are fighting against where when one issue gets resolved two or three arise to take its place, each one more pressing than the previous one. After Osama Bin Laden was killed, we all thought that that would be the end of our involvement in the Middle East, that a great deal of closure had been achieved. But instead, Al Qaeda and the Taliban gave way to ISIS and Syria and Lebanon. If Springsteen thought we were on a downbound train back in 1984, I wonder what he thinks about the state of the country in 2014. I’m sure we’ll all find out on his next album.
Side 1, Track 6: “I’m on Fire”
“I got a bad desire” croons Springsteen over and over again on “I’m on Fire” and for generation Y, the kind of lust and desire that he sings about is best understood in terms of drunk texting. The people we drunk text are usually the people we desire, but know that we either shouldn’t, or shouldn’t contact them, they are the “bad desire”. It’s when we’re drunk that we don’t care enough to restrain ourselves so we give in to the desire a desire that only that one other person can quench. When we drunk text someone, we have that one person in mind as only they “can cool my desire” since their reciprocity is all that can satisfy that urge we have for them, however minimal the conversation may be. The bad desire is wanting to see that person again even though we know we shouldn’t and with alcohol and cell phones it’s so easy, almost inviting, to give in and try to get their attention in order satisfy our own unrequited feelings.
Side 2, Track 1: “No Surrender”
23 is a weird age, especially for this generation because even though we’re young and in the prime of our lives, most of us have this sinking feeling that our youth is behind us. 18 seemed so innocent and childishly naïve, and college seemed like a lifetime ago. “I’m ready to grow young again” is a line that everyone can relate to since it seems like life can get more difficult as we get older. Even though we had problems when we were younger, they seem more trivial and less menacing than the problems facing us now. Now is the first time in our lives that we’ve had to concern ourselves with money, careers, and settling down, instead of passing trig, getting a drivers’ license, and silly crushes. In “No Surrender”, Springsteen relates to us about the anxiety and reservations we all have about growing old and growing up. But, with any issue life hurls our way, obviously it’s imperative not to surrender to all the muck and fuss.
Side 2, Track 2: “Bobby Jean”
People drift apart all the time, often without any malice or disagreements, that’s just how life is, it pulls us apart with little prejudice or regard for personal feelings. “Bobby Jean” is actually about two friends losing touch and drifting apart, something that a lot of people my age are beginning to experience for the first time in our lives. All those promises we made to each other in our high school yearbooks, and all those people we got to know over four years in college seemed to have been in vain. Life pulls us in all directions leaving it impossible to stay connected to dozens of people who we were once close with. Often times we just go our separate ways, and it’s worst when it just happens for seemingly no reason. You become good friends with someone and share experiences and interests together, only for them to fade out of your life without any reason save for random circumstances. Losing touch with a good friend is unfortunate, and a times melancholy, but that’s life sometimes, and sometimes to drags two people in different directions. All we can do is say “I miss you baby, good luck goodbye”.
Side 2, Track 3: “I’m Goin’ Down”
By far, the weirdest thing that’s been happening is hearing that people I went to high school with are getting married. For someone who went four years of high school without a bomb scare, that is the craziest thing I could possibly hear. How can anyone my age be ready for a lifelong commitment? “I’m Goin’ Down” tells us that most people never are, as it tells of the fading love between a couple whose romance has died down. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that by my 10 year high school reunion, a few of my classmates will already be divorced. It’s pessimistic and cynical, but romances fade and love losses out sometimes as Springsteen so vividly describes with the line “I go to put my arm around you, and you give me a look like I’m way out of bounds” and “I remember back when we started, my kisses used to turn you inside out”. The point is that, nothing really stays as good as it starts out as, and “I’m Goin’ Down” reflects that tired and stagnant mentality. We’re getting married for the first time and settling down, but a few years down the road things may not be so rosy and for my generation, one that was raised with the highest rate of divorced parents, it looks like it’ll soon be our time to become another statistic.
Side 2, Track 4: “ Glory Days”
“Glory Days” is a song that has two layers; on the one hand it’s fun and nostalgic as it’s remembering the past and all the fun from the good old days. On the other hand, it’s kinda sad that all these people can do is sit back, get drunk, and drone on about days that are long gone with no hope of regaining them. A bunch of us feel like the good old days of college, weekly parties, and frivolous hookups are in the rearview mirror, since so often I hear people (myself included) say how they’ve pasted their peak. In reality though, we’re only in our early-mid twenties, hopefully with the best of times ahead of us. So often however, it seems like there are some of us whose best days are behind them. Just like Saturday Night Fever, there are some who are content with knowing nothing else but their hometown, going out to the same bars every weekend and seeing the same people over and over again. Some of us get nostalgic for the past, and for others, the glory days are truly behind them.
Side 2, Track 5: “Dancing in the Dark”
The biggest issue plaguing my generation is a lack of direction. As a whole, what is it that we stand for? We have all of these social justice movements, but most of them have arose do to social media; when a new crusade comes around we’ll just forget the older ones. As much as we’d like to tell people that other generation is about social reform, that’s really not the case. What, we’re trying to make society more egalitarian and expand equality to disenfranchised groups, but since the 1840s, that’s been the agenda of most generations. Civil rights, women’s rights, and children’s rights are all noble causes, but they aren’t unique to my generation, they’re all causes that we’ve chosen to insert ourselves into, but there isn’t one core belief that we can claim as our own. There’s restlessness and potential to act, we just don’t know where and how to spend our potential.
We want to start a fire, but we don’t have the spark to set us off; we are collectively a “gun for hire”, but no one is hiring. All the videos and articles about social injustices littering your Facebook feed are all evidence that we want to do something. The problem is that we either don’t know what to do, or how to do it. That ridiculous “Occupy Wall St.” movement represents this stagnant restlessness at its worst-A bunch of privileged young people complaining to the wrong people about their own problems instead of trying to do something about it. We are capable, but unable. We have skills and talents, but no opportunities to bring those talents to the forefront. One of the biggest questions that my generation will have to answer is where the new line between rugged individualism and social welfare will be drawn. How much can we do ourselves before intervention is necessary, and at what point is intervention necessary? All of these issues come from the fact that our parents and the government have provided for us more than previous generations. The lights are off, but we’re still dancing anyway.
Side 2, Track 6: “My Hometown”
One of the most difficult things in life is to accept a truth that you don’t want to believe in, even if you ultimately know it to be right. In 1984, Americans were struggling to rectify the America that Reagan was conveying with the America that they were experiencing. In 2014, Americans are still looking for that hope that was promised back in 2008 to become a reality. We’re trying to rectify the idealism of 2008 with the reality of 2014. People my age are now old enough to recognize and accept the difference, which is the theme of the album’s closing track “My Hometown”. As a kid, the narrator had a rosy and positive take on his town, but as he got older he began to see it for what it was-A town laced with economic hardship and racial tension.
There is the ideal and naïve worldview we have as children that our parents try to foster in us, and then there is the true reality that we discover as adults. The world isn’t as simple and fine-tuned as we initially thought; it’s filled with problems and strife that we were once oblivious to, but can no longer un-see. When it’s time for us to have kids, we’ll want to protect them from the world for as long as we can, and a lot of that involves sheltering them from the real ugliness of the world. We won’t be able to shield them forever, and at some point they’ll have to wander out of the cave and realize that there is a vast distance between the ideal and the real.
Overall, Born in the U.S.A. is a pretty depressing album because it was made at a time when America was just emerging from a 15 year period of hardships and tribulations, but still unsure of itself and its future. I have nothing against Ronald Reagan nor do I see him as the patron saint of Republican politics, but the best thing he ever did as president (besides outspending the C.C.C.P.) was to reinvigorate America with a new sense of self-confidence with which to go boldly into the future (1990s).
Born in the U.S.A. is an album that’s hung up on the past, while cautiously dismissive of America’s future. In 2014, most American’s my age feel the same way. We realize the past 15 years haven’t been kind to America in any realm, be they political, economic, social, or militarily, and we’re still unsure of what path America will take in the future. The album is a clarion call to a generation to wake up and reverse the then current trend of American futility. And because no one now is doing that when we need to hear it again, Born in the U.S.A. is the most appropriate reminder for my generation to look at the world and all of its problems and do something to remedy them.