Thursday, August 8, 2013

Song Meaning: Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen

ARTIST: Bruce Springsteen | ALBUM: Born in the U.S.A. | RELEASED: 1984
Title track of Bruce Springsteen's seventh studio album paints a predominantly pessimistic image of the United States. The song deals with the chaotic consequences of the Vietnam War, both at home and aboard. Bruce in fact had several friends who went to Vietnam, some never came back. Much of the basis of the song comes from his in-depth secondhand experiences.

The underlying message of the song is often misunderstood by the general public, thus often confusing the track to be a patriotic song. Speaking of being confused, then President of the United States Ronald Reagan thought the use of "Born in the U.S.A." would be great for his reelection campaign of 1984. However Bruce Springsteen, though he wasn't affiliated with a political party, was vehemently against Reagan's policies. In fact Bruce has always been a liberal his whole life. Bruce once responded to Pres. Reagen by playing "Johnny 99" - a song he wrote about an unemployed person's struggles.

"Born in the U.S.A." has been one of Springsteen's most recognizable songs. It was in fact very well received on rock radio, and peaking at No. 9 on US popular music chart. 

Analysis of lyrics:

Lyrics were written from the point of view of a person that actually went to Vietnam. I'll just name this person as Private Joker. Bruce wrote the verses such that they were broken into parts to reflect each part of Joker's life, namely childhood, adulthood, and latter part. What's worth nothing is the fact that Bruce himself was also selected for the draft, but he was never sent off due his lack of combat abilities.

First verse describes Private Joker growing up (little Joker) in a "dead man town,"1 supposedly in a lower socioeconomic class. Next two lines vaguely state his struggles as a kid.2,3 Nevertheless he never complained about this struggle to anybody as he "cover[ed] up" - meaning he kept everything to himself.4 This is my personal interpretation of this, of course if you think of this differently let me know.

Second verse is the most interesting, I think, because now Joker has grown up and about to get enlisted in the Marines. But before all that happens, he was in a local rock band having fun.11 However that was no time for rocking as the US was at war with the communists, so he and his friends were chosen for the Vietnam Draft.12 Not only that, Joker was good enough to be a Marine, unlike Springsteen, so he was sent off to Vietnam.13,14

Private Joker was lucky enough to survive the ordeal, and returned to the US safely22,  as discussed in the final three verses. He got a job at an oil refinery company22. He also went to the Department of Veteran's Affairs24 to claim some benefits he was probably promised beforehand. At the V.A. department he was told the War wasn't easy as anyone had thought25 -- that's what's meant by "son don't you understand now." This is very vaguely written that it could be interpreted differently.

Fourth verse is a reflection of Private Joker's dreadful experiences at the War. Joker had a fellow soldier fighting with him at the Battle of Khe Sanh27, but he was killed in combat.28 So in memory of his buddy, Joker got a tattoo on his arm.30

Fifth and final verse further explains Joker's enduring struggles after his return to the US. Living life after going though the Vietnam War was just as bad, as he had no proper place to stay.32 This is explained by "shadow of penitentiary," meaning living on the street at night, under bridges, and in public premises. Private Joker continued to live this oppressed life for a decade without any support from the government.34,35

If you are curious to know what's it like to be a Marine, Full Metal Jacket is a good movie to watch. It traces the lives of some Marines before and during the Vietnam War, but not so much of the aftermath they endure upon returning home. Nevertheless, I'd say this movie is a VERY accurate representation of the Vietnam War.

  1. Born down in a dead man's town
  2. The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
  3. You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
  4. Till you spend half your life just covering up

  5. Born in the U.S.A.
  6. I was born in the U.S.A.
  7. I was born in the U.S.A.
  8. Born in the U.S.A.

  9. Got in a little hometown jam
  10. So they put a rifle in my hand
  11. Sent me off to a foreign land
  12. To go and kill the yellow man

  13. Born in the U.S.A.
  14. I was born in the U.S.A.
  15. I was born in the U.S.A.
  16. I was born in the U.S.A.
  17. Born in the U.S.A.

  18. Come back home to the refinery
  19. Hiring man says "son if it was up to me"
  20. Went down to see my V.A. man
  21. He said "son don't you understand now"

  22. Had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
  23. They're still there he's all gone
  24. He had a woman he loved in Saigon
  25. I got a picture of him in her arms now

  26. Down in the shadow of penitentiary
  27. Out by the gas fires of the refinery
  28. I'm ten years burning down the road
  29. Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go

  30. Born in the U.S.A.
  31. I was born in the U.S.A.
  32. Born in the U.S.A.
  33. I'm a long gone daddy in the U.S.A.
  34. Born in the U.S.A.
  35. Born in the U.S.A.
  36. Born in the U.S.A.
  37. I'm a cool rocking daddy in the U.S.A.

Lyrics from


  1. "Got in a little hometown jam, So they put a rifle in my hand" rather refers to being in trouble with the law and implies enlisting as an alternative to jail, a common practice for the troubled souls of society.

    "Come back home to the refinery, Hiring man says 'son if it was up to me' " implies if it was up to the hiring man Private Joker would have a job, but either there were not enough jobs to go around or he was likely discriminated against by upper management for being a baby killer and went to see the VA man for alternatives. Anyone who has been given the run around by the VA and finally realized some benefits never were or are no longer available knows the VA man is asking for understanding of a futile situation.

    "I got a picture of him in her arms now" this doesn't seem to reference a tattoo, but an actual picture of his dead brother/buddy with his Vietnamese girlfriend, in HER arms, not on his arm.

    "Down in the shadow of penitentiary
    Out by the gas fires of the refinery
    I'm ten years burning down the road
    Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go" Likely refers to ironically being right where his effort at war attempted to avoid, prison. Private Joker joined to avoid prison, couldn't get a job because he was discriminated against for his military years, and ended in prison because he couldn't get a job. He now is in the pen which is close enough to the refinery for him to lament (much like Johnny Cash's train that needs to be moved farther from Folsom Prison). Ten years down the road, he likely would have been finished with the sentence he avoided by enlisting and would have had options, he now has nowhere to run (no family, job, or representation) but nowhere to go (prison).

    1. I agree with your assessment of the song's meaning. The last verse was more vague for me. I was thinking he may have just been released from prison after serving 10 years for the same reason you mentioned...he had lost options when he came home (probably had issues from what he saw and the loss of his friend) and he is standing in the shadow of the pen because he is just getting out. Irony is the refinery is nearby, but he has served time so no hope of getting a job; he is a vet with no benefits, no home, no family or friends to help him. So he has no way of surviving much less getting the American Dream. It is a song of lost hope, no options and not even a place to go. So basically has nothing and no way to change his circumstances. Definitely a huge critique of how we have treated our veterans in this country and possible reason why a few might be homeless.

  2. This song is very reminiscent of the movie deer hunter. which is a post Vietnam movie

  3. Funny no one ever mention " born on the 4th of July"

  4. George M. Cohan mentioned that he (Yankee Doodle Dandy) was "born on the 4th of July."

  5. You are a moron.

    Hometown jam is a reference to being in trouble with the law.

    You honestly have misinterpretted the entire song....


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