When Born in the U.S.A. came out, Springsteen was 34 and had only one top-ten hit single to his name (“Hungry Heart”). He craved radio stardom. After six albums, he risked being pigeonholed as a critics’ darling. When Jon Landau, his manager, pointed out during production that the album lacked a hit single, Springsteen went away and wrote one more tune, “Dancing in the Dark” — a song about frustration and alienation that nevertheless built on killer synthesizer riffs that made it commercial, even danceable. “It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go — and probably a little farther,” Springsteen said at the time. Every single track on Born in the U.S.A. channels regret, fear, pain, loss, aging, and/or frustration — in its lyrics. Yet those songs filled stadiums. The album octupled Springsteen’s store of top-ten hits.
“Born in the U.S.A.” kicked off those fabled marathon shows on the Born in the U.S.A. tour. It may have been conceived in bitter irony, meant to capture the same hollowed-out shock as the Vietnam-ravaged characters from Pennsylvania who sang “God Bless America” at the end of The Deer Hunter six years earlier. But if you want your audience to feel despondent, don’t set your synthesizer to “triumphant.” For all of its gloomy words, “Born in the U.S.A.” became an American anthem malgré lui. The song roars. It defies. It conquers. It makes people holler and stomp and wave flags. Springsteen played it against a gigantic American-flag backdrop: If the goal is to depress everyone à la Nebraska, don’t play ringing rock riffs to an image of Old Glory the size of a billboard.