There are few stylistic changes more jarring than the one Bruce Springsteen made between 1982’s Nebraska and 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. The first is essentially an album of demos, recorded without the E Street Band; the second is as pop-oriented as “the Boss” ever got, with the addition of synthesizers and bright, radio-friendly arrangements. While some have seen Born (which went to #1 on the Billboard charts on this day in ’84) as a reaction to the starkness of Nebraska, the fact is that many of the songs on both albums were written – and even recorded – concurrently. You could say that these two wildly different works are something akin to two halves of a whole. Born in the U.S.A.’s famous title track actually dates back to 1981, when Springsteen was asked to write a song for a Paul Schrader film tentatively titled Born in the U.S.A. (which later came out in 1987 as Light of Day).
Bruce had been working on a song called “Vietnam,” and incorporated some features of that tune into a new one, which took its title from the film. He recorded a stripped-down, non-anthemic version of “Born in the U.S.A.” and nearly included it on Nebraska, but left it off because he felt it was just slightly different, thematically, from the rest of the tracks on the album. Around the same time, in early 1982, Springsteen also had written and recorded “Cover Me” and “I’m on Fire,” but felt they would be more appropriate for a different release. In spring of that year, Bruce called in the E Street Band to lay down tracks that would be for an album that was separate from the Nebraska project. They recorded the full-band versions of “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Darlington County,” “Working on the Highway,” “Downbound Train,” “I’m Goin’ Down” and “Glory Days” in April and May at The Power Station New York City.
With Nebraska not yet in stores, Springsteen and the band had already recorded the bulk of what would be the album’s follow-up. The songs were drastically different in sound (with a shiny, rock radio sheen), but not always in tone. He would later discuss the similarities (in terms of lyrics) between the Born and Nebraska songs: “If you look at the material, particularly on the first side, it’s actually written very much like Nebraska – the characters and the stories, the style of writing – except it’s just in the rock-band setting.” Following Nebraska’s release, Springsteen and friends cut a few more of the final Born in the U.S.A. tracks – “My Hometown,” “No Surrender” and “Bobby Jean” (an allegory for his pal Steven Van Zandt, who had announced his departure from the E Street Band). But the album’s true, blockbuster hit single wasn’t written and recorded until just a few months before Born in the U.S.A.’s release in June of ’84. “Dancing in the Dark” came out of a disagreement between Bruce and Jon Landau, his manager. Landau was happy with the album, but felt it could use something aimed directly at pop-rock radio.
Springsteen was less than thrilled with Landau’s suggestion, but channeled his frustration into some lyrics (“You can’t start a fire without a spark,” “I’m just tired and bored with myself”). The synthesizer-driven song, “Dancing in the Dark,” would provide Bruce with the pop-friendly firepower that Landau felt he needed. It was released as the lead single off the album and turned into Springsteen’s biggest hit (rising to #2 on the Billboard charts, second only to Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry”).
Years later, Springsteen would appear conflicted about writing, recording and releasing the song. “It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go – and probably a little farther,” he wrote in Songs. “My heroes, from Hank Williams to Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan, were popular musicians. They had hits. There was value in trying to connect with a large audience.” And Springsteen certainly connected with a large audience via “Dancing in the Dark” and Born in the U.S.A., which hit #1 on the Billboard album charts a month after its release. It would end up spending 139 weeks on the Billboard charts, and eventually be certified 15-times platinum. In the mid-’80s, as Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna were becoming music superstars, Bruce Springsteen – a guy from the rock world – was turning into an equally dominant pop idol.
An enormous world tour (which spotlight both the material from Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A.) put Bruce and the band before giant crowds. In the meantime, he equaled Jackson’s Thriller record of seven Top 10 singles from one album, set the previous year. Between spring of 1984 and winter of 1985, “Dancing in the Dark,” “Cover Me,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “I’m on Fire,” “Glory Days,” “I’m Goin’ Down” and “My Hometown” all hit the Top 10 – flooding MTV, with videos directed by Brian De Palma and John Sayles, and radio airwaves with all things Bruce. It seemed that everything related to Born in the U.S.A. was everywhere. The album’s cover (featuring Springsteen’s behind before an American flag) became iconic. And you really know you’ve become a superstar when the President misinterprets your music.
Like many Americans, President Ronald Reagan heard a patriotic anthem in “Born in the U.S.A.” and overlooked the angry protest at the heart of the song. But, being misunderstood is part of the price you pay when you aim for superstardom. And it’s a bit tough to be seen as the voice of the common man when your album goes multi-platinum. Springsteen admitted to the changes in his life when he talked to Rolling Stone in the middle of Born in the U.S.A.’s staggering success. “Yeah, there’s a change [in me]. [Being a rich man] doesn’t make living easier, but it does make certain aspects of your life easier,” he said. “Money was kind of part of the dream when I started. I don’t think… I never felt like I ever played a note for the money. I think if I did, people would know, and they’d throw you out of the joint. And you’d deserve to go. But at the same time, it was a part of the dream.” A decade after the dust settled, Springsteen reflected about the significance of this chapter in his career: “Born in the U.S.A. changed my life and gave me my largest audience. It forced me to question the way I presented my music and made me think harder about what I was doing.”