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Dead Man's Town: "Born in the U.S.A.," Social History, and Working-Class Identity

From: American Quarterly
Volume 58, Number 2, June 2006
pp. 353-378 | 10.1353/aq.2006.0040

Abstract

This essay analyzes Bruce Springsteen's 1984 hit song "Born in the U.S.A." as a history and commentary on working-class identity. The article discusses the song's narrative elements and its oppositional chorus as they each relate to the social, economic, political, and cultural history of post-Vietnam America. Beginning with an overview of white, male working-class political identity since the 1930s, the essay then turns to the era covered by the song itself—the 1970s and early 1980s. Three main themes are then explored through an intertextual analysis. First is the unique musical structure of song—the anthemic chorus contrasted with the verses' desperate narrative. The tension between the two is foundational for any understanding of the song's poetics. Next is the Vietnam/hometown metonymy, in which it is argued that the Vietnam War serves as a collection of symbols relating not simply to the war itself but to the social and economic siege of American blue-collar communities. Finally, the essay turns directly to the song's theme of economic devastation, which uproots the material basis of working-class identity only to replant it in the acidic soil of nationalism.

A close reading of these themes—and the cultural and political forces that gave rise to them—points toward an understanding of both working-class identity and community under siege in what can best be understood as a guerrilla war at home and abroad. Springsteen reveals blue-collar America separated from an economic identity, sheltered only by the empty shell of a failed social patriotism, contained in a hometown under attack, and fighting in little but isolation and silence. The economic foundations of the industrial working class were disappearing, the politics that once offered some protection had all but disappeared, and what remained was a deafening but hollow national pride—"Born in the USA." The essay concludes with a brief exploration of the ways in which the themes of the song reverberate well into twenty-first century.



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