We get him now, of course, but in September 1984, Bruce Springsteen must have felt like the most misunderstood man in America. Every musician wants a hit, but the success of his album Born in the U.S.A., then on its way to selling 15 million copies and reaching far beyond his usual fan base, had provoked reactions he could never have expected. Anyone who listened to the title track with any attention would see that, beside the stadium chant of its chorus, this was a protest song: the blue-collar guy who’s sent off to kill the yellow man returns to find he can’t get a job in the refinery and is left with nowhere to go. What Springsteen hadn’t realised is that most people don’t listen with attention, which is why lately he’d begun to see stars-and-stripes flags at his concerts. Now Ronald Reagan, a right-wing president seeking re-election, was aligning himself with the song and with Bruce himself, talking about how “America’s future... rests in the message of hope” he was giving out.
Poor Bruce. With hindsight, you can understand the mistake Reagan — and half the world — made: that chorus, delivered with pomp and defiance by a man dressed as a redneck, was a misinterpretation waiting to happen. That’s not to reckon with the fact that you’d have to listen all the way to the end (or know your Springsteen) to be sure that there was no happy ending to this hard-times tale. And besides, they had a point: beneath it all, Springsteen was every bit the cheerleader for American values that Reagan was. Both wanted, borrowing a phrase from 30 years on, to ‘make America great again’ — the only difference was the degree of certainty with which they delivered their message. Springsteen said it himself in 2012: “There is a real patriotism underneath the best of my music, but it is a critical, questioning and often angry patriotism. I have spent my life judging the distance between American reality and the American Dream.”
In 2018, under a president who makes Reagan look like The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet, even the most romantic or patriotic U.S. citizen might admit the American Dream is looking more like a mirage. But belief in the land of opportunity, where anyone can achieve anything they like, sustained America for more than two centuries. It was the motor for the can-do attitude, industry and entrepreneurship that revolutionised every aspect of the consumer world. And, perhaps just as importantly, its failures and disappointments inspired a huge proportion of the great American art of the last half-century, Springsteen included.