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The Bruce Springsteen concert that sparked a political firestorm in Reagan’s America

How George Will’s tone-deaf misinterpretation of "Born in the USA" came to amplify The Boss’ political voice

The Bruce Springsteen concert that sparked a political firestorm in Reagan’s America

Excerpted from "Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA" by Geoffrey Himes (Continuum, 2005). Reprinted with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing.

On September 13, 1984, George F. Will published his thoughts on the August 25 Capital Centre [Bruce Springsteen] show in his nationally syndicated column. He made some jokes about his own lack of hipness—he wasn’t sure if that was marijuana he was smelling and he had never heard anything so loud—but he proceeded to analyze the show nonetheless.

“I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any,” Will wrote, “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.’” Springsteen, Will added, plays “rock for the United Steelworkers” and those steelworkers and their fellow American workers would have nothing to whine about if they all “made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music.”

Flags were waved at the show, and Springsteen did sing about hard times, but his declaration that he was born in the U.S.A. was nothing as simple as a cheerful affirmation. To imply that those factories were closed because Americans hadn’t worked hard enough was a blame-the-victim interpretation that not only contradicted the message of Springsteen’s songs but also flew in the face of the facts. The suggestion that less whining and more flag waving would solve those problems provided more comfort to the multinational executives who went to school with Will than to the laid-off factory workers who went to school with Springsteen.

The column might have been dismissed as a comic example of someone missing the point if it hadn’t led to something that splashed onto the front page rather than the op-ed page. Will’s friends in President Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign had been trying to get an endorsement from Springsteen, but [Springsteen’s manager Jon] Landau had just laughed it off. That didn’t stop Reagan, a Republican so conservative he made Richard Nixon look liberal by comparison, from trying to associate himself with a pop-music star who had an American flag on the cover of his new album.

When the president came to Hammonton, New Jersey, on September 19, he added something extra to his standard campaign stump speech. “America’s future,” he said, “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.” But when reporters asked what Reagan’s favorite Springsteen song was, his campaign staff was at a loss for an answer.

On September 21, at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, Springsteen paused between songs and told the crowd, “The president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day, and I got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” And he played “Johnny 99,” the story of a laid-off factory worker who can’t find a new job and can’t keep up with his mortgage, so he gets drunk and shoots a night clerk in a bungled robbery.

The next night, at the same arena, Springsteen spoke more forcefully. “There’s something really dangerous happening to us out there now. We’re slowly getting split up into two different Americas. Things are being taken away from the people that need them and given to the people that don’t. There’s a promise getting broken. In the beginning the idea was we all live here a little bit like a family where the strong can help the weak ones, the rich can help the poor ones. You know, the American dream.

“I don’t think it was that everybody was going to make a billion dollars but that everybody was going to have an opportunity and a chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity. I know you’ve got to be feeling the pinch here where the rivers meet.” With that, he played “The River,” another song about a laid-off worker.

In many accounts, Springsteen is described as being blindsided by the Will/Reagan controversy, but that doesn’t ring true. Springsteen picked this fight. He picked it when he decided to name his album Born in the U.S.A. He picked it when he decided to put a photo of a giant American flag on the cover of that album.

It’s true that he rejected photographer Annie Leibowitz’s favorite shot—the singer in midair leap before the flag; that shot would become the cover of the title-track single. Instead he chose a more subversive image: a close-up of the singer’s blue-jeaned ass, with a hole in one rear pocket and a red baseball cap dangling from the other, juxtaposed against the flag. But he wasn’t avoiding patriotic imagery; he was seeking it out.

It’s not as if he were unaware of just how loaded those images were. He obviously wanted an argument about what American patriotism meant in 1984. He didn’t like the assumption that if you waved the flag or sang about the “U.S.A.,” that you approved of the wars in Vietnam and El Salvador or the rollbacks in union rights and social services. He wanted to argue that you could oppose wars, favor integration and support helping the poor and still be a patriot. He was trying to reclaim the flag.

But the Will-ful misinterpretation of “Born in the U.S.A.” forced Springsteen to be more explicit about the political underpinnings of his work. In the past, he had always preferred to let the characters and stories in his songs represent his beliefs. He had been the only performer at the “No Nukes” concerts, for example, not to issue a statement about the nuclear-power issue from the stage or in the concert program.

Early in his career, his politics were inchoate, nothing but the instinctive juxtaposition of restless kids looking for their freedom and authority figures who stood in their way. But as Springsteen began to read more and more about American history from the late 70s onward, as he began to write more and more about earning a living and paying bills, his politics became increasingly conscious, even if he were still reluctant to verbalize those feelings in public.

But the attempt by Will and Reagan to hijack his songs forced Springsteen to articulate the ideas behind the songs. His monologues during the shows increasingly addressed the dispossessed and marginalized members of America’s citizenry. He adopted as his motto the socialist slogan, “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.” Beginning with the November 17 show in Tacoma, Washington, Springsteen not only donated a portion of the proceeds to a progressive community group—most often a local food bank—but also spoke about the group from the stage and encouraged his fans to visit the group’s table in the concourse.

On January 25, 1985, he contributed vocals to “We Are the World,” the superstar-choir single designed to raise money for victims of the African famine. When the album came out, Springsteen also contributed a live version of Jimmy Cliff’s parable of class division, “Trapped.”

Springsteen’s most important political role, though, was not as a celebrity fundraiser or as a commentator but as a songwriter, an artist who could make us see how political issues affect individuals on a very personal level. The characters that he wrote about are affected by many different things—money, lust, ambition, romance, boredom and so on—but politics is one of those things, and to exclude it from songwriting would be as dishonest as excluding heartbreak or infatuation. And if you write honestly about how the struggle for power affects individuals and communities, those politics will almost inevitably be leftist.