Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. roared into our collective conscious 30 years ago on June 4, 1984, when the landmark album of the same name was released to almost instant recognition as an iconic piece of music. Springsteen had actually created Born in the U.S.A. for his Nebraska album. The song didn’t fit into the album. It was too brass, too electric. When Springsteen and his E Street Band wanted to do an “electric” version of Nebraska, Born in the U.S.A. was revived. What can artists learn from Springsteen’s development of his most famous anthem/protest tune?
- Find inspiration everywhere. Born in the U.S.A. was inspired by a biography Springsteen had read about Woody Guthrie as well as his meetings with paraplegic founder of Vietnam Veterans of America Bobby Muller. The song was going to be about a soldier returning home from Vietnam and taking a solemn, thoughtful taxi ride to his hometown in New Jersey. Springsteen used the people, places and things around him to create his own art. Let yourself be inspired by the people, places and things around you.
- Don’t be afraid to change. Born in the U.S.A. was going to be called Vietnam. The song was decidedly not up tempo. In other words, it was nothing like the song we know today. While working on the refrain of the song – “You died in Vietnam” – Springsteen received a screenplay titled Born in the U.S.A. He started singing the title as his refrain instead. Still, the song didn’t fit in with the Nebraska album, so it was cut, which leads to the next lesson.
- Put things aside if they aren’t working at the moment. No one is telling you to kill your babies, but if something doesn’t fit into the project at hand and you think it has some merit, set it aside. Even though Born in the U.S.A. was a good song, Sprinsteen and his producers didn’t try to force it to fit on Nebraska. Timing is everything. Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole because that square might become it’s very own project like Born in the U.S.A.
- Take leaps as an artist. Working on Born in the U.S.A. was one of the first times Springsteen relied on a synth riff. It marked a significant change in his more organic sound and was the launching pad for Springteen’s career as the stadium-filling rock star we know today. The change in sound didn’t mean his lyrics were any less thoughtful or heart-felt; it just meant he was stretching his wings and taking risks (he was already famous for his other sound).
- Have an artistic vision. Since this song was going to be different, Springsteen recorded it differently too. Rather than run through the entire song with the band in advance of turning on the recorders, Springsteen taught the players individual sections beforehand. In his mind, there would be a more spontaneous sound when the band played together for the first recording. And it did sound more spontaneous. As an artist, you have to experiment and innovate. Don’t get stuck in a rut.
Born in the U.S.A. was the third of the seven singles from that album, all of which reached the top 10. Springsteen knew it was something special when he was working on it. “I knew that that particular song was just a song that comes along once in a while, even if you write good songs. It had some power to it that seemed to speak to something that was so essential, similar to the way that ‘Born to Run’ did. It’s not that you have better songs or worse songs, but that’s a particular type of song,” he said.
Do you have something you feel is that special? Let us know in the comments below!