Top critical review
Bruce's most popular -- and worst -- album
on October 22, 2000
Springsteen's most popular album, which made him a cultural icon claimed by everyone, including Ronald Reagan of all people - yikes!!. And, in my humble opinion, "Born in the USA" is Springsteen's worst album as well . Is there a correlation here? Hmmmmm..... More pop-friendly, "mainstream," and "pumped up" for easy consumption by the average American, and a definite drop in quality from his usual 5 stars (although Springsteen at his worst is still FAR better than most anything you hear on the radios these - or any -- days).
It almost seems like Springsteen has two warring sides to his personality, with one part of him just wanting to be an artist and not caring so much about fame and fortune (this side wins out 90% of the time), while the other part wants to be a superstar! Maybe we should call them the "Asbury Park/Freehold/Jersey shore/blue collar/loner/scrawny/misfit" side, versus the "Los Angeles/mainstream/muscular/rich/all-American/good-looking/winner" side, but that would be oversimplistic (or would it?).
Well, with "Born in the USA," Springsteen certainly achieves his "become a superstar" objective. The question is, is this still a top-notch, Springsteen-quality work of art, like basically all his other albums? Well, sort of, maybe, uh...not. Obviously, this is the work of an extremely talented musician, and there are some excellent songs on it ("Cover Me", "I'm on Fire", "My Hometown", "Downbound Train"), but still, the question is "WHY"?
Let's take the title track itself. Well, basically, this COULD BE a GREAT song, but not the way it's performed here, all pumped up and everything. That just is TOTALLY mixed up. This song (at least if you care about lyrics, which I do) is NOT triumphant, NOT upbeat, and NOT even "patriotic" (at least not in the standard, jingoistic sense, which is how most people heard it).
Of course, this brings up a philosophical question, namely, how much responsibility does the artist have for how people interpret his work? Well, I agree that an artist has to do what he or she feels is right, and then let people decide. But in this case, Springsteen appears to have taken his lyrics, and instead of putting them to an appropriately dark tune (which he does NOW in concert!), totally mismatched them in a way that would confuse almost anyone, except for pretty sophisticated listeners.
In this case, then, I think the artist (Springsteen) DOES bear some responsibility for his song being "misinterpreted." I mean, if the artist himself can't decide what the deal is, how is anyone else supposed to? Or is it that Springsteen purposely paired the dark lyrics with upbeat, catchy music for the purpose of irony? That's possible, I suppose, although hard to believe, since Springsteen never really did that before in any of his music, so why start now? Plus, as I said before, he NOW sings "Born in the USA" very differently, the way the song SHOULD be sung, more in the style of Nebraska (spare, dark, almost tuneless, not "pumped up" at all). So, it just seems verrry suspicious to me that Springsteen did things the way he did on "Born in the USA", since this offered the obvious route to fame and fortune! It's called "selling out" for the big bucks, and I guess that's harsh but it seems to me the only way to explain it. I guess the only way to sugercoat it is to blame it on Springsteen's advisers or say that Bruce deserved the fame and fortune, and also to focus on all the great albums that Bruce has made before and after "Born in the USA". Plus, as I said earlier, there ARE excellent songs on here. But if you want Springsteen at his best (true to himself but still popular), I recommend pretty much anything else he's ever done -"Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Nebraska," "Tunnel of Love," "Lucky Town," "Human Touch," "The Ghost of Tom Joad," etc.
I find "Born in the USA" just sort of disappointing, on several levels. First, that in order to reach the truly mass audience it appears that you either have to "dumb things down" or, if you're not going to do that, than you'd better have some awesome packaging/marketing, great hooks and a strong beat. Second, it's sad that in our society LOUD gets more attention than QUIET 9 times out of 10 (compare the attention given to "Darkness on the Edge of Town" or "Nebraska", both of which are great albums, to the mediocre "Born in the USA"). Finally, it's sad that so many people actually became Springsteen fans because of this album, and especially the title song, for the TOTALLY WRONG REASONS. Personally, I think Springsteen was better off making great music for his adequately large (and adoring) fan base that actually UNDERSTOOD him and his music. Anyway, that's who's with him again now, since he (fortunately) has never made another album like "Born in the USA," and the masses went away as soon as things quieted down a little. Good riddance!