born in the USA

One of my Christmas presents was The Essential Bruce Springsteen three cd compilation. It stretches over his whole career to this date, more than 20 years of music.

One of the songs that struck me afresh was ‘Born in the USA’. I was introduced to this song when it first came out in the mid 80s, and I have strong memories of the album cover, the one with the picture of his butt in blue jeans with a red cap hanging out of the pocket, and the US flag as a backdrop.

born in usa

The repeated chorus of “Born in the USA” combined with that album cover and the growing American confidence in their victory in the Cold War gave this song a powerfully pro-American slant for me. It just seemed to scream jingoistic US patriotism.

So it wasn’t until the weekend that I actually listened to the words:

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

I got in a little hometown jam
And so they put a rifle in my hands
Sent me off to Vietnam
To go and kill the yellow man

Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
I go down to see the V.A. man
He said “Son don’t you understand”

Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

I had a buddy at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone
He had a little girl in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years down the road
Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go

I’m a long gone Daddy in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
I’m a cool rocking Daddy in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

‘Born in the USA’, it turns out, is dripping with a melancholy sarcasm. Forced into the army, and sent off to fight on behalf of his country, he returns to find that his country no longer wants him, and all of the patriotic zeal with which he was reassured is for naught. What his country stands for – freedom, opportunity – is denied him despite his risking his life for its cause.

But the reference to Khe Sanh caused me to reflect on that other (less officially recognised) patriotic song, although this time Australian – Cold Chisel’s Khe Sanh. It’s been called Australia’s ‘unofficial national anthem’ (and let’s face it, it’s no more or less appropriate than ‘Waltzing Matilda’, a song about a suicidal thief). But lest we think that Americans are the only ones who are sucked in by jingoistic patriotism, let’s check the words of Cold Chisel’s offering:

I left my heart to the sappers round Khe Sanh
And my soul was sold with my cigarettes to the blackmarket man
I’ve had the Vietnam cold turkey
From the ocean to the Silver City
And it’s only other vets could understand

About the long forgotten dockside guarantees
How there were no V-dayheroes in 1973
How we sailed into Sydney Harbour
Saw an old friend but couldn’t kiss her
She was lined, and I was home to the lucky land

And she was like so many more from that time on
Their lives were all so empty, till they found their chosen one
And their legs were often open
But their minds were always closed
And their hearts were held in fast suburban chains

And the legal pads were yellow, hours long, paypackets lean
And the telex writers clattered where the gunships once had been
But the car parks made me jumpy
And I never stopped the dreams
Or the growing need for speed and novacaine

So I worked across the country end to end
Tried to find a place to settle down, where my mixed up life could mend
Held a job on an oil-rig
Flying choppers when I could
But the nightlife nearly drove me round the bend

And I’ve travelled round the world from year to year
And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear
And I’ve been back to South East Asia
But the answer sure ain’t there
But I’m drifting north, to check things out again

You know the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone
Only seven flying hours, and I’ll be landing in Hong Kong
There ain’t nothing like the kisses
From a jaded Chinese princess
I’m gonna hit some Hong Kong mattress all night long

Well the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone
Yeah the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone
And it’s really got me worried
I’m goin’ nowhere and I’m in a hurry
And the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone

Again, the same story. The sentiments “Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go” and “I’m goin’ nowhere and I’m in a hurry” are almost identical. Two songs that have been co-opted as patriotic jingles, neither of which fit that mould in the slightest. In fact, both of them are scathing in their assessment of their country of origin – and both as a result of their citizens’ reactions to Vietnam War veterans. I found this to be a fascinating parallelism, not only because of the way it demonstrates that songs can be co-opted or misappropriated (deliberately or by ignorance), but also because one of our members is a son of a Vietnam Vet who has gone through a very similar experience, and it has affected not only his life, but that of his children in a very deep and profound way.

All of this sits awkwardly with the current political climate, with Born in the USA potentially traitorous under the US Patriot Act, and Khe Sanh potentially undermining the state according to the new Australian sedition laws. We would do well to let these songs sit as they were originally intended – as critical commentaries on the injustices prevalent in two of the most advanced democracies in the world. And we should encourage more critical commentary, always being wary of how such commentary can be co-opted by blind patriotism.