The conservative brain: loving Springsteen’s Born in the USA, hating Fortunate Son
I have something to say to every single conservative who has criticized Bruce Springsteen for singing Fortunate Son but said nothing about his performance of his own classic Born in the U.S.A.: thank you!
No, really, thank you. By “you,” I mean everyone, from The Weekly Standard’s Ethan Epstein to the random tweeter, who was outraged when Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, and Zac Brown covered Creedence Clearwater Revival’s hit Fortunate Son during the Concert of Valor that took place Tuesday on the National Mall. You see, you are wrong about Fortunate Son being an “inappropriate song.” As others, including Amanda Marcotte, have already explained, the song, which was written by John Fogerty, himself a vet of the Vietnam War, is not anti-soldier. It is anti-rich-politicians-sending-poor-people-to-die-kill-and-fight-their-wars-for-them. It is pro-soldier in that it wants soldiers to actually not be killed. Get it?
But the best part of your meltdown is that you said NOTHING about another song that Springsteen performed. The Boss actually wrote this one. And it’s called Born in the U.S.A. You see, if you think Born in the U.S.A. is unpatriotic, you’d be wrong, just like you’re wrong in your analysis of Fortunate Son. But you’d at least be consistent in that you would, once again, be confusing criticism of the government and elites with criticism of Americans.
But conservatives, you aren’t really good with nuance, ideas, substance or irony. Just last week, I wrote about Jody Hice, the radio show host, Baptist minister and congressman (R-Ga.) who actually cited a satirical essay he mistook for a true confession of homosexual sin. Though the author of the essay explained it was satire in the opening line, in his book It’s Now or Never: A Call to Reclaim America, Hice actually refers to “These shocking words by Michael Swift,” which “have been considered part of the ‘gay manifesto’ by many, and reveal the radical agenda that is currently threatening our nation:” And Hice isn’t the only one who doesn’t get it. Traditional Values Coalition includes the essay in its video Gay Rights, Special Rights.
A 2009 study from Ohio State University published in the International Journal of Press/Politics, found that conservatives were more likely to think that Stephen Colbert only pretends to be joking and actually means what he says and dislikes liberals. Wow. The fact that a single person can think that is pretty astounding to me.
Now, before going on, I should admit that as someone who sometimes writes satire I have been misinterpreted by reactive liberals. But, I’m not Bruce Springsteen. And, in general, liberals are better at humor and nuance than conservatives. (I’ll follow up on this more in another post. But for now… see this.)
OK. Now, back to Born in the U.S.A. In all fairness to the conservatives of today who ignore or like Born in the U.S.A. and rail against Fortunate Son, you come from a long and proud tradition of misinterpreting the former. Some of your heroes are equally clueless. Springsteen wrote Born in the U.S.A. in 1981, recorded it a year later and released it on his album of the same name in 1984. Let’s take a look at the lyrics
Born down in a dead man’s town/The first kick I took was when I hit the ground You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much/ ‘Til you spend half your life just covering up now Got in a little hometown jam /So they put a rifle in my hand Sent me off to a foreign land/ To go and kill the yellow man Come back home to the refinery/Hiring man says, ‘Son, if it was up to me…’ Went down to see my VA man/He said, ‘Son, don’t you understand?’ I had a brother at Khe Sanh/ fighting off the Viet Cong They’re still there, he’s all gone/ He had a woman he loved in Saigon I got a picture of him in her arms now Down in the shadow of the 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.
The critical message of the song is pretty hard to miss, even though it is expressed through irony. I mean, when Springsteen refers to “the yellow man,” he’s not actually embracing the racist term for Asian people and the demonization of the Vietnamese. He’s critiquing it. So the song basically tells the following story: a poor guy is born in a poor, economically depressed town; he’s sent to fight in a war which the government sells with the aid of xenophobia and racism. The war includes the battle of Khe Sanh, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, which we wound up losing. The man returns home to country with a bad economy where he can’t find a job and is mistreated by the VA. But at least the prison industrial complex is booming. And in case you’re holding out for a happy ending, the tale ends with the man with nowhere to run or go, i.e. trapped.
And yet, immediately, conservatives demonstrated their lack of critical reading skills. Conservative columnist Bernard Goldberg said, “[Springsteen’s] shows are like old-time revivals with the same old-time message… If they work hard enough and long enough, like Springsteen himself, they can also make it to the promised land.” George Will wrote about attending a Springsteen performance where “flags get waved… while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’” And even Ronald Reagan cited Springsteen in a stump speech in 1984, saying, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”
So, conservatives, at least you’re in what you would consider to be good company. It’s nice to know that the same kind of thinking that gets Born in the U.S.A. wrong for thirty years, is also wrong on Fortunate Son. And in all fairness to conservatives, it’s possible some of them get it but are just lying. I’m not sure which is worse. Either way, both songs are part of a tradition which defends the powerless and critiques the powerful. No wonder conservatives are so afraid of it.