Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Born in the U.S.A. Turns 25

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a few words in recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the release of Born in the U.S.A. It still is, and barring some kind of miracle always will be, Bruce Springsteen’s most popular album – in terms of sales. But for many of those who consider themselves on the scale of Springsteen fandom to be somewhere between devotee and fanatic, it is not as beloved.

I’ve never understood the disdain that so many Bruce-philes have for the album, and I’ve always suspected that it has more to do with the circumstances surrounding it than with the music itself. Bruce had enjoyed enormous success in 1980 with The River, and seemed poised to take that next big step into mega-platinum popularity that had been enjoyed in the late 1970s by bands like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles. Looking back on it today, I’m not sure how comfortable Bruce’s most loyal fan base was with that – the tickets for each successive tour had become harder to get, and the level of the relationship between Springsteen as an artist and those fans who had followed him since the early days (what I sometimes call the “Oh, you saw him in ____? Well you should have seen him the tour before that – that’s when he was really good!”) was such that I wondered then (and still wonder now) how willing those long-time fans were to allow “newbies” into the house.

The release of Nebraska delayed Bruce’s becoming “the next big thing” – it was a magnificent work, but to this day it remains the least commercial album of his career, to the point where it was interpreted by some as a challenge to his fans – “if you’re with me, then you need to be with me all the way, into the depths of my most challenging and dangerous work.” Even with its stark nature, the album sold well – but by the time June 1984 rolled around, it had been nearly four years since the release of a “full blown, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, rock and roll album.”

In retrospect, it’s obvious that Columbia Records knew it had a winner on its hands. The star-making machinery was put into full force – the advertisements were in the trades and the posters were up on the record store walls well in advance of the June 4 release date. The cover was slick and professional, complete with Annie Leibovitz photography. Since it was the year of the blockbuster, with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Prince’s Purple Rain leading the way, the Columbia execs were probably thinking to themselves, “why not get another one out there?”

And they did. It was a huge, huge success, probably far beyond what anyone expected. Mega-platinum indeed – with hit singles! – and yes, an entirely new fan base that made it damn near impossible to get tickets for the first leg of the tour. For the second leg, Bruce had little choice but to move from arenas – into which his entry had been a big step just a few years before – into baseball and football stadiums.

To this day, I think there are some who hold all of that against the album. Even Backstreets, which is as thoughtful a fan site as you’ll find anywhere, made a comment in a concert setlist commentary a couple of years ago, “A Springsteen concert without a song from Born in the U.S.A.? Priceless!” In my opinion, it’s not about the music – it’s about the clothes that Bruce wore on that tour (and sure, they looked really goofy, but then so did what I was wearing in 1984), it’s about the “disco” nature of “Dancing in the Dark,” it’s about the slick Leibovitz photography, it’s about the young girls screaming at concerts like they were watching Rick Springfield instead of Bruce Springsteen, and it’s about the fact that folks who were used to sitting down on the floor were now three rows from the top at a cavernous ballpark.

So what about the music?

It’s great. For my money, even given the landmark status that I believe Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town deserve, it’s his most consistent album. From the moment Max’s sticks hit the drums like rifle shots at the beginning of the title track, it’s obvious that this is an album that’s meant to be turned up – way, way up.

I’ll concede that songs like “Darlington County” and “Working on the Highway” don’t fit into the Springsteen pantheon as neatly as “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and “Thunder Road.” But man, they sure sound good. And while they may not be the most visionary expressions of the Springsteen ethos, I’d argue that they fit within that ethos just as well as anything he’s written. As do songs like “Downbound Train” (despite the clumsiness of the lyric), “No Surrender,” and “My Hometown.” Meanwhile, on songs like “I’m Goin’ Down” and “Glory Days,” Bruce comes on like a latter-day Elvis, just having a grand old rockin’ time with some really funny songs. And of course, there’s the title track, which to my ears is only one of the greatest songs he’s ever written.

The sound of the album was critical to it success. As much as I admire what Brendan O’Brien has been able to do with the band during the past decade, the production on Born in the U.S.A. remains my favorite of all Springsteen albums. There’s a crispness and vitality there that you just can’t find on any of his other records. As Robert Christgau wrote at the time, “the aural vibrancy of the thing reminds me like nothing in years that what teenagers loved about rock and roll wasn’t that it was catchy or even vibrant but that it just plain sounded good.”

So I hope that on its 25th birthday tomorrow, people will celebrate Born in the U.S.A. It deserves every toast that it gets.

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