Sunday, November 11, 2012

Born in the USA on Veterans Day

As my family and I stood up during the halftime program in Memorial Stadium for the Minnesota-Illinois football game yesterday, the P.A. voice boomed with announcements of how American war veterans would be honored in anticipation of the day that bears their name.

In case anyone had forgotten, the announcer reminded us that the stadium we occupied was "built in 1923 as a memorial to Illinois men and women who gave their lives for their country during World War I", which I have learned was a perilous time in our nation's history indeed.

Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois
Although the names of the dead are inscribed (as a tribute) on the 200 columns supporting the enormous structure, I often wonder what America's present-day relationship is to its armed forces. Other writers, such as blogger Zach Peltz, have written recently about a shocking lack of support for the living in his post, "The Homeless Heroes". Consider what "Support Our Troops" means to you and where that phrase might have originated.

But what really struck me yesterday was the use of a Bruce Springsteen's, "Born in the USA". The stadium voice assured the thousands of us that this was a "patriotic song" honoring veterans during the halftime show. I don't think it's any accident that this song, with its seemingly incessant and repetitive chorus was, in the eyes of the marching band, tailor-made for a mass audience. But I would argue that it is also the most misunderstood song in American history since Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land". Since 1984, the year Springsteen released it, he has constantly re-worked his song, perhaps in an effort to emphasize the lyrics beyond the chorus.

Read the lyrics. If possible, listen to the two versions linked above (see the play buttons?). And then comment on what you believe Springsteen meant for us to think about today, on Veterans Day.


Rachel Hoying said...

I thought this post was really interesting, because I had never really thought much about the lyrics of "Born in the USA" even though I have heard that song countless times. When I looked at the lyrics of the song, I realized Bruce Springsteen probably meant for the song to be interpreted much differently than it is by most listeners. As Mr. Bolos mentioned, it was played at a stadium as a "patriotic song" to honor veterans. But if you look at the lyrics, it seems that Springsteen is writing about how badly veterans are treated in America after coming back from war. Springsteen sings about how he went to the refinery, and the "Hiring man says "son if it was up to me."" and then he goes to the V.A. man. (veterans association), who seems to just tell him that everyone is going through rough times and there isn't much that can be done. And near the end of the song Springsteen sings "Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go." It really seems as if Springsteen feels like America is a horrible place for veterans to be. There is nothing for them when they get back. They have nowhere to go.

Lily Stein said...

After reading the song lyrics to Born in the USA, I think that this is a song criticizing the way veterans were treated upon their arrival home. Specifically, it seems to be referring to the treatement of Vietnam War veterans because there is a reference to the Viet Cong. The veterans went into the war, often times against their will, but when they returned home, they were treated more with ignorance, than they were with respect. As seen in the line that reads, "You end up like a dog that's been beat too much," when the veterans returned home, it was like they were lost in their own country. The frustratations that the American people had about the war were taken out on the veterans. Bruce Springsteen gave a voice to the veterans who, no matter what they did, would not come home to hero's welcome

Aj Watkins said...

I agree with both Rachel and Lily. I think the true meaning of Springsteen's lyrics are is very different than what most people think it means. The line that struck me the most was "Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go." To me, it seems that Springsteen is trying to say that once the veterans got home from fighting the war, they didn't have any place to go. There were so many veterans that there was no stable living places for all of the veterans. As much as people respect them, there isn't enough being done to make sure they are all able to live safely and comfortably once they return. I also agree with Lily's idea that it was about the Vietnam War because of the line "Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man". Yellow was a way that people used to refer to Asian people's skin color, and since Vietnam is a part of South East Asia, it is home to people of Asian heritage. I think that people now have to think critically about songs they hear, and not take them for their catchy chorus.

Jeremy Noskin said...

I also agree that "Born in the USA" is referring to the poor treatment of veterans once they return to the USA; however, the song also alludes to how the soldiers got into the situation in the first place. The line, "Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand" is showing how the army appealed to so many people. If someone was having trouble, the armed services was a way to get away from all of it. This is condescending because the government is trying to say that fighting for the country will help. Despite this promise, when veterans return home, they are treated poorly. Springsteen wants to support veterans by writing a song explaining their bad situation. Ironically, it has become the epitome of a "patriotic" song. This demonstrates America's perception of songs and catchiness vs. content. It is very important to analyze everything critically as evidenced by this song.

Alexis B said...

I agree with the comments above about how veterans were treated poorly after the war. In addition, I think Jeremy's comment about the line, "Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand" is interesting. I googled the meaning of "hometown jam" and according to Yahoo Answers, that line means, "He got arrested and was given the choice of going into the military or getting put in jail". (

Maybe what Jeremy said was true in some cases. Maybe people who were troubled or felt like they needed to do something important with their lives were attracted to the army. However, I think many of those troubled people were manipulated into going, as the line suggests. Perhaps they preferred to fight in the controversial Vietnam War, where they might come back with an honorable discharge, than go to jail where they would get a criminal record.

This song is saying that people were forced to fight and then treated badly when they got back. America did not treat veterans well before, or after the war, according to the lyrics. The fact that this song is seen as patriotic just shows how misunderstood it is.

Tom Fawcett said...

The last time I went and saw Springsteen perform, he played this song. From the first note in the song the crowd was ecstatic, as everyone would sing along with the chorus with, in my opinion, a sense of patriotism. But as the above students have discussed, this song is far from patriotic, and is incredibly misunderstood. It shocks me how Seeger wasn't allowed to appear on TV for 17 years because of his music (as Doc Oc discussed in his blog post: “An American Hero”), and how at the same time the government didn't stop this particular song of Springsteen's from being spread nationally. Why does the government restrain certain artists music over other artist’? Was this song not restricted by the government because of how it’s commonly misperceived?

Natalie Boudos said...

Responding to Tom's questions about why Seeger was not allowed to perform for 17 years yet Springsteen's song is a "go to" song about patriotism I think we need to look at how else Seeger was viewed. In Doc Oc's blog post about Seeger ("An American Hero"), he mentions how Seeger was an advocate for minority groups and was branded a communist. Seeger was directly fighting against the general public with not only his music but also his actions. For fear of sounding too cliché, 'actions speak louder than words (or in this case music)'.

Seeger's values were made very clear to the public, and possibly could have gone unnoticed if he just wrote about them in his songs. Springsteen can been seen as the example then where the lyrics of a song can go unnoticed if there is a good public perception like there was with "Born in the USA".

S. Bolos said...

Great start, Rachel, by using the lyrics of the song.

Love the interplay between Jeremy and Alexis on the meaning of the individual words. I wonder what percent of our students both get into "Winnetka jams" and end up in the armed forces?

Tom's point is important about the crowd's response. It would seem that the later reworking of the song would prevent sing-alongs.

But I wonder about something. What is a "patriotic song" in your mind? Could the Stadium Voice be correct for the wrong reasons?

Sarah Henzlik said...

This is a really interesting post because I think music has a much bigger role in American culture than most people realize. When I first heard the recording, and I don't know if it was the way Springsteen was singing it, but all I could initially here and internalize was the chorus, as Mr. Bolos mentioned. When I later read the lyrics, I noticed it had a lot of undertones from the Vietnam War, as Lily also said, as seen in the lyric, "Had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there he's all gone". I think this is an example of Springsteen expressing his opinion of how the war went on and on. Since this particular song was written in 1984, I interpreted as a reflection of patriotism and some anti-war sentiment. Did the US really honor those who lost their lives fighting enough? The end result of the war does not support those who fought to the death for the cause. Referring to Lily's comment, I agree with her point on the dog analogy. The true patriotic song to me is one that addresses America's ideals, but also presents a history of how Americans have executed them. I don't know if a song like this exists, but if it did, it would have to be one with a realistic approach on how Americans do other things, like treating our 'national heroes' the way we currently do.

Maddie said...

Although "Born in the USA" seems to be a "patriotic song" to many Americans, I wonder Bruce Springsteen expected it to be perceived differently. As many of my classmates have already brought up, the lyrics intone something a little bit darker than the repetitive chorus that is so easy to sing along to. Springsteen made an artistic choice in this song to show the contrast between those slightly somber lyric, the song's buoyant beat, and the "incessant" chorus.

I believe Springsteen wanted Americans to see the contrast between patriotism and, according to Rachel, "how badly veterans are treated in America after coming back from war." However, it seems that most Americans are more attached to the chorus of the song, so Springsteen re-worked the song to draw more attention to the darker lyrics.

Olivia James said...

I agree with Maddie that Springsteen was trying to show the contrast between the attitude that Americans show towards veterans, and the actual lack of action the country takes to make sure they are taken care of once they get home. This relates to the blog post I just wrote, about the irony I see with the support shown on Veteran's Day and the state veterans are actually in.
It seems kind of silly that Springsteen gets so bothered that people take the song this way. People never focus on much more than the chorus of a song anyways, so how did he expect people to react to the song? However I do give him a lot of credit for the songwriting here. I think he was making an excellent point that can be understood if you really read the lyrics to the verses. The problem is that with a title as patriotic as "Born in the USA" is, and with a memorable chorus repeating that phrase over and over again, you can't really expect the bulk of the population to take it as anything more than what the chorus makes it out to be.

alex wolkoff said...

I have heard the song "Born in the USA" countless times, and have always, like the majority, thought of it as a very uplifting song. However, after reading the lyrics, I found, like the above students have mentioned, Springsteen was really addressing how poorly Veterans are treated in the US. The lyric that really stood out to me in his song, was when he states how he had a, "Brother at Khe Sahn, fighting off the Viet Cong, They're still there, he's all gone". As the Lyrics show, Springsteen's brother died in war, but the war continued on. This line really stood out to me because of how simple it is, but yet it has such a strong and remorseful message linked to it.
Now, I know Springsteen re-worked his song, most likely to emphasize the lyrics, as Bolos mentioned, but I wonder if the message he is trying to convey for "Born in the USA" will ever come across to the majority, or will his song always be addressed as the "patriotic song"? I am also curious about if artist are ever frustrated when their lyrics are interpreted far from what they actually mean?

S. Bolos said...

Couple of questions have arisen with Alex's comment:

1) Who is the narrator of this song?
2) Why do you think the chorus is what it is?

Lily Schroeder said...

To me, a patriotic song is something that people can sing together that brings about a feeling of excitement and pride for our country. Often these songs seem to have catchy rhythms and words that are easy for people to remember and follow; people can also relate in some personal way to the lyrics, i.e. Born in the USA. Many misinterpret Springsteen's famous song because the chorus is all that they hear and relate to. It makes people feel good about being an American - being born here. In fact, however, if they were to really listen to and understand Springsteen's message, they would realize that they may not actually be so proud to be born in a country that does not take care of those they have sent to war. I find myself asking, while Springsteen's song is critical of the meaningless presence of American soldiers in Vietnam, does that mean it is not a patriotic song? Can a patriotic song be critical of our country?

Furthermore, earlier today I saw a commercial for Boeing in which veterans talked about their time at war and how "proud" and "ready" they were to serve our country. I question if the media is manipulating the truth. What are our veterans really facing? If it is poverty, as Zach's blog post read, then we need to understand where these advertisements are coming from. Springsteen's song tells it like it is and the world hears only pride in America; Boeing addresses only the pride of going to war and we ask ourselves, what's missing?

It is important for us to really be aware that media and music can have a huge influence over our understanding of our world around us.

Zach Peltz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alana said...

Lily you bring up an interesting question; ‘Springsteen's song is critical of the meaningless presence of American soldiers in Vietnam, does that mean it is not a patriotic song?” Patriotism is defined as "having or expressing devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country". Springsteen’s song is about the poor quality of life that American veterans have in America even after they fought for their country. Although the song has a cheerful tone and repeats ‘Born in the USA”, I believe that it is not at all a patriotic song. Springsteen is speaking poorly of the country he doesn’t express pride or support.

S. Bolos said...

I am wondering about 2 things:

1) Can a song criticizing America still be considered "patriotic"?

2) To what extent does the narrator of the song express the theme of American exceptionalism?

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