In 1984 Ronald Reagan, running for re-election as the President of the United States of America began to use Born In The USA by Bruce Springsteen on the campaign trail. The lyrics and instrumentation of the chorus are euphoric and patriotic, the stuff that any American Candidate appealing to national character would be enticed to use.
Born in the USA I was born in the USA I was born in the USA Born in the USA
What stymied Reagan’s usage of the song, was the fact the verses are more akin to a protest. Reagan, of course, had presided over part of the Vietnam War, and the bitter second verse of Born In The USA are overtly critical of United States involvement in Asia. What’s more, this contrast of chorus and verse in Springsteen is hardly rare. The rapturous chorus of Born To Run in which the protagonist envisions driving off and escaping a small town with his beloved is prefaced by the depiction of the car as a “suicide machine.” That symbol of American economic prosperity is seemingly emancipatory, but it is also constrictive, and even morbid. Again, if one were to listen to, or, in Reagan’s vein, use Born To Run to structure a Mythopoetic imagining of the American Dream, you would be undercut before you’d even begun.
It isn’t rare for musicians to complain about the use of their songs in politics, and often it’s rather trivial. MGMT for example, objected to the use of Kids by Nicolas Sarkozy back in 2009, yet that was seemingly far more to do with copyright rather than didacticism. I was reminded of the Springsteen incident mainly because he is an artist who has both mobilised more conventional communal discourses (see Wrecking Ball or We Take Care of Our Own), and presented nuanced views of the hopes, disappointments and collapses of the American dream and the expectations of blue-collar masculinity that came with it. The problem is, one of the main ways he parses these ideas is through a juxtaposition of expectation and frustration. “I believe in a Promised Land” is contrasted to “Sometimes I just want to explode and take this whole town apart.” “Born in the USA” is the antithesis to “I’m 10 years burning down the road / Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.” How different the message is of the chorus to the work as a whole, but the nature of a refrain is often the only bit we really get to hear.
As any good English student will know, Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the author, and with that, all pretense I have to talk meaningfully about authorial authenticity vanishes. Yet Walter Benjamin argued that to bring about emancipation, art must be politicised. It is my concern that in a crucial period across the globe, both in America and outside, our artistic heritage may be distorted to evoke and materialize populist and potentially toxic socio-economic narratives, whether they be nationalistic, negatively gendered or individualistic. The great thing about music, is, as Springsteen demonstrates, the messages we can gain from them can be remarkably complex. In light of what happened with Reagan, lets make sure our record box doesn’t get hacked down to just refrains.