This week I released a new book about Bruce Springsteen. It’s called There Was Nothing You Could Do: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” And The End Of The Heartland. As you can ascertain from the title, it focuses on Bruce’s seventh studio album, which came out 40 years ago next month. For those who don’t know: Born In The U.S.A. is one of the most popular rock albums of the past several decades. It has sold an estimated 30 million copies worldwide and spawned seven Top 10 singles, including all-time classics like “Dancing In The Dark,” “I’m On Fire,” “Glory Days,” “My Hometown” and, of course, the title track.

But the book also covers the entirety of Bruce’s career, particularly how the albums that came out before Born In The U.S.A. set the stage for that multi-platinum phenomenon, and how his professional path afterward was shaped by reacting to the album’s massive success. Beyond that, there’s also a broader exploration about how American culture and music have changed since 1984. (Because — spoiler alert! — it has changed a lot.) CCR, the Vietnam War, the films of Paul Schrader, Elvis and Dylan, Ronald Reagan, Appetite For Destruction, 9/11, the Obama administration — connections to these events, people and institutions (and more!) are made in the book.

As you can tell, There Was Nothing Could Do covers a wide range of Springsteen-related topics. But it doesn’t cover every Springsteen-related topic. I tried to cover all of them, but my editor wouldn’t let me. You will overload the readers with Springsteen-related topics, he warned.

One topic my book does not cover is this: The songs on Born In The U.S.A., ranked in order from least favorite to favorite. So why don’t we do that right now?

12. “Cover Me”



There are no bad songs on Born In The U.S.A. When more than half of a record goes on to dominate the charts — and there are deep cuts that could have been hits had they been released as singles — you know you’re dealing with a studio LP that doubles as a de facto greatest hits album.

Having said all of that: “Cover Me” is the song I skipped the most across the approximately 4,592 spins of Born In The U.S.A. I enjoyed while writing this book. It’s a good pop tune — it was the second single, peaking at No. 7 — and the guitar solos are tasty. But this is the least famous hit from Born In The U.S.A. for a reason.

(Also — this is something I get into in the book — there is the matter of the literally dozens of songs that Bruce wrote and recorded for Born In The U.S.A. that didn’t make the album. I’m talking about “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” I’m talking about “This Hard Land.” I’m talking about “Shut Out The Light.” I’m talking about “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart.” I’m glad “Cover Me” made it because I love Born In The U.S.A. as it is. But it is not as good as those songs.)

11. “I’m Goin’ Down”

The second least-famous hit from the album. It’s still, obviously, an incredibly breezy and fun rocker culled from Side Two, one of the greatest album sides in Bruce’s entire canon. To call “I’m Goin’ Down” the weakest track on that half of the album is hardly a put-down.

10. “Working On The Highway”



The formula for Born In The U.S.A. originated with “Hungry Heart,” the hit from 1980’s The River. This formula, to put it simply, shall be known as “making sad songs sound happy.” (This was a departure from Bruce’s formula on 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, which was “making bleak and despairing songs sound bleak and despairing.”) For “Hungry Heart,” Bruce set a narrative about a deadbeat who decides on a whim to ditch his family to gooey ’50s-style pop-rock. And it worked — “Hungry Heart” landed in the Top 5.

Born In The U.S.A. consists almost entirely of similarly sunny-sounding downers, as typified by this happy-go-lucky rockabilly number about a working man who goes out, has a little too much fun, and winds up working on a chain gang after being jailed for statutory rape.

9. “No Surrender”

The lead-off track from Side Two. Bruce initially resisted putting it on the record because he thought the song’s sentiment — “we learned more from a three-minute record baby than we ever learned in school” is the nutgraf — was naïve and simple-minded. Bruce’s pal and consigliere Steven Van Zandt disagreed, arguing that the song’s romanticism and rock evangelism were essential for the record. Who was right?

They both were right.

8. “Darlington County”



In this song, Bruce (and his buddy Wayne) appear to solicit a sex worker in the second verse. (Perhaps that’s why it is grouped with “Working On The Highway” and “I’m On Fire” on Side One, aka the horny half of Born In The U.S.A.) Otherwise, it should be noted that Darlington County in real life is located about 650 miles from New York City, not 800 like the song claims.

7. “Glory Days”

People like to clown Bruce for saying “speedball” instead of “fastball,” but that’s because they don’t understand the level of verisimilitude that Bruce is going for. He is singing about a friend who is a baseball player, whereas Bruce — the narrator, a musician/songwriter/cool rockin’ daddy — is conveying in a sly, subtle way that he knows absolutely nothing about sports. (This is how I address the speedball/fastball controversy in the book, which comes up exactly once.)

6. “Dancing In The Dark”



Possibly the only Bruce Springsteen song that sounds better on record than it does live. And that’s because “Dancing In The Dark” is a perfect ’80s pop-rock recording. It’s lean, it hits hard, it’s very catchy, every musical element is in the right place, and it’s not-so-secretly filled with bile and self-hatred. Also, for an album without much Clarence Clemons, the outro to this song gives The Big Man his moment to shine.

5. “I’m On Fire”



For the non-Springsteen fan, this is the most popular track from Born In The U.S.A. It’s also the Bruce song that artists under the age of 40 are most likely to cover. It is not hard to figure out why. The songs on this album cover a range of topics: disillusionment over Vietnam, the value of friendship, the emptiness of nostalgia, the crumbling state of America’s small towns. “I’m On Fire” meanwhile is about desperately wanting to have sex with someone who may or may not want to have sex with you. And that is a subject that transcends eras.

4. “Downbound Train”

The sleeper of Born In The U.S.A. for me. Not the deepest song lyrically — the guy’s name is Joe, the girl says he’s gotta go, because they had it once and they don’t have it anymore — but musically the combination of guitars and synths is a foundational text for scores of rock bands that aspired Springsteen-esque heartland rock in the 21st century, from The Killers to Arcade Fire to The War On Drugs. (Also: I must mention Kurt Vile, who covered “Downbound Train” very well.)

3. “Bobby Jean”



There are more famous songs from Born In The U.S.A. But they don’t pack the same emotional punch. In the book, I make that case that “Bobby Jean” typifies Bruce’s mastery of love songs about men who platonically adore other men. “Backstreets” is the greatest example of this kind of song. The Born In The U.S.A. outtake “This Hard Land” is up there as well. But “Bobby Jean” is the finest “guy who loves his bro” anthem on the album. It’s also the most meta Springsteen track — he imagines Bobby Jean (aka Steven Van Zandt) hearing this very song on the radio and being deeply moved, just like the rest of us when this track comes on.

2. “Born In The U.S.A.”

The thesis track. The song most known for how millions of people don’t get it. The one that Bruce himself has mixed feelings about. A savage howl of righteous rage. A multi-course emotional banquet. One of the most morally complex and fascinating tunes that Bruce has ever written. A classic. And yet … there is one song on Born In The U.S.A. that I like more.

1. “My Hometown”



The 12th track on the record, but No. 1 in my heart. The title of my book derives from this song. It comes in the verse where Bruce talks about racial strife that rocked his high school in the 1960s. (The song is based on a true story about a shooting that occurred in Bruce’s hometown of Freehold.) “My Hometown” is the critical bookend track that connects with “Born In The U.S.A.” as the start of the record and makes the album feel like a cohesive statement about the state of the country, no matter the songs about unrequited lust and depressive trains that pop up in the middle. It also bookends my own experience with the album. I heard Born In The U.S.A. for the first time in my dad’s car in the summer of 1984. Forty years later, I often play it in my own car while driving my kids around. My love for this album has not changed. What’s changed is everything else.

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