“Born in the U.S.A.”
By Bruce Springsteen
Pulled From: Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Campaign
Ask a political nerd or a music nerd to name the most famous instance of a politician using a song without the permission of the artist, and odds are this is the one that’ll get mentioned. It’s just so delicious and on so many levels. As legend has it, Reagan didn’t merely co-opt the title track of Bruce Springsteen’s just released but already wildly popular album. He attempted to trade on Springsteen’s massive popularity just by dropping his name.
Reports vary on when, or even if, the Gipper actually used the tune at an event. What’s clear is that he tried to jump on that Bruce bandwagon, and it was all this guy’s fault.
It all started because George Will — yes, George Will — went to see the Bruce in person and got all patriotically hot and bothered. On September 13th, Will published a piece about attending a Springsteen concert in the Washington Post. The thing is packed with gems (“I may be the only 43-year-old American so out of the swim that I do not even know what marijuana smoke smells like”), but Will wraps it up thusly: “Springsteen’s tour is hard, honest work and evidence of the astonishing vitality of America’s regions and generations. They produce distinctive tones of voice that other regions and generations embrace. There still is nothing quite like being born in the U.S.A.”
Six days later, President Reagan started slipping Springsteen’s name into his stump speeches — and the first was in New Jersey, for god’s sake. How’s that for pandering? Suffice it to say, the Boss was not thrilled. He asked the Reagan campaign to stop using the song, and they complied.
There are two delicious ironies about the “Born in the U.S.A.” kerfuffle. The first, of course, is that “Born in the U.S.A.” is a terrible choice for a campaign song. Lyrically, it says pretty much the exact opposite of what politicians imagine it to say. Springsteen acknowledged this in live performances at the time, joking that he was pretty sure that Reagan had never heard Nebraska, but then again, he obviously hadn’t actually listened to “Born in the U.S.A.” either.
But the sweetest morsel of all is that this incident pretty much turned the apolitical Springsteen into a political figure. For decades now he’s used his concerts as opportunities to support local food banks. And more importantly, he began to speak openly about the things his music had been saying all along, as in this interview with Rolling Stone: “You see it in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, ‘It’s morning in America,’ and you say, ‘Well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh.’”
Reagan wasn’t the first to use the song — Senator Bob Dole’s campaign also busted it out, and Springsteen once again slapped them down. Pat Buchanan used it, too. And he won’t be the last. As Springsteen put it in an interview with NPR in 2005: “This was when the Republicans first mastered the art of co-opting anything and everything that seemed fundamentally American, and if you were on the other side, you were somehow unpatriotic.”