As the release of Born in the U.S.A. approached in spring 1984—and with it, one of the greatest commercial ascents in the history of popular music—Bruce Springsteen was feeling apprehensive. It wasn’t because of “Dancing in the Dark,” which he added last-minute after his manager convinced him to write one more surefire attempt at a hit. It wasn’t because of the title track, a booming anthem whose chorus could be misinterpreted as a rallying cry for Reagan-era jingoism. And it wasn’t because of the cover art, a photograph by Annie Leibovitz that could be mistaken for a man urinating on an American flag. It was because of a song called “No Surrender,” and, in particular, its final verse:
Now on the street tonight the lights grow dim
The walls of my room are closing in
There’s a war outside still raging
You say it ain’t ours anymore to win
I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover’s bed
With a wide open country in my eyes
And these romantic dreams in my head
Something felt off as he sang these words. Who could be so blindly optimistic? During the tour for Born in the U.S.A., which spanned 16 months and brought the E Street Band to the biggest audiences they had ever played, Springsteen tried retooling the driving arrangement as a tender acoustic ballad; he rewrote the verse and changed his delivery. By the end of the run, it only appeared sporadically in setlists. “It was a song I was uncomfortable with,” he wrote years later. “You don’t hold out and triumph all the time in life. You compromise, you suffer defeat; you slip into life’s gray areas.”
So how did it wind up on the album? It wasn’t for a lack of material. Most casual fans know that as Springsteen was in the process of piecing together this full-band masterpiece, he first recorded an entirely different one: 1982’s solo acoustic Nebraska, originally intended as demos for the follow-up to 1980’s The River. But there was more where that came from. Before he landed on the dozen songs that would comprise his bestselling album, Springsteen continued down Nebraska’s folky path with story-song outtakes like “Shut Out the Lights”; he worked with the band on epics like “This Hard Land” and straight-ahead rockers like “Murder Incorporated.” He wrote a goofy song about having his story told in a TV movie and a strange, apocalyptic one about the KKK. He is estimated to have recorded somewhere between 50 and 100 songs, hoping to amass enough material for one cohesive record.
In his early 30s, and a decade into his recording career, this was a period of introspection and desperate searching. For the first time after an album release, Springsteen didn’t go on tour for Nebraska. Instead, he went on vacation, taking a cross-country road trip with a friend. The type of open-road escape he sang about so convincingly, however, ended up being an emotional breaking point. As the trip took him from Jersey, through the South, and eventually to a new home he had purchased in the Hollywood Hills, Springsteen found himself crushed by waves of hopelessness and debilitating depression: collapsing in tears, feeling isolated, losing touch with whatever momentum had kept him burning down the road all this time.
In response, he sought therapy. He also went to the gym. A lot. “I was a big fan of meaningless, repetitive behavior,” he reflected in Peter Ames Carlin’s biography Bruce. “And what’s more meaningless than lifting a heavy object and then putting it down in the same place that you found it?” Weightlifting suited him, and gradually, the scrawny, scruffy misfit from the Jersey boardwalk started looking a bit more like the lead in an action film—someone who could feasibly play a hunky car mechanic in a music video, and, you know, have his ass photographed on an album cover.
The culture around Springsteen’s music was also shifting. MTV had evolved into a legitimate arm of the music industry, and Springsteen’s new look helped him gain traction in an image-centric medium. Meanwhile, vinyl had given way to cassettes, which were now ceding to compact discs. (Upon release, Born in the U.S.A. was advertised as the first CD manufactured in the United States; previous releases were mostly Japanese imports.) Adapting to the new technology, pop radio gravitated toward electronic strands of dance music, an innovation that Springsteen found inspiring. One song on the album, “Cover Me,” was something he originally wrote for Donna Summer, and you can hear her influence in his fiery, percussive delivery. (“She could really sing,” he wrote, “and I disliked the veiled racism of the anti-disco movement.”)
Because of its monocultural success, the ’80s gloss of Born in the U.S.A. can be somewhat overstated. It is a pristine and precise record whose synth pads, massive drums, and front-and-center vocals represent the defining qualities of the decade’s mainstream rock production. But listening to it now, I am struck by how physical, how alive the music sounds. Most of the songs were recorded live by the band in just a few takes, with Springsteen shouting cues, whooping and hollering off mic. And the writing, which blends the detailed narratives of Nebraska with the tighter pop structures of The River, is as thoughtful and emotional as any of his less polished material.
It is the sound of the E Street Band, then, that makes this feel uniquely like pop music. Roy Bittan’s synth is particularly effective—a thick humidity against the train-track momentum of “I’m on Fire,” and a taught fuse serving as a secondary bass line in “Dancing in the Dark.” Drummer Max Weinberg often takes center stage, calling the shots during the turnarounds in “Glory Days” and the title track with snare hits that match the energy of Springsteen’s prolonged runner’s high. He leads the band with such a locked-in sense of motion that, in the fadeout codas to songs like “Cover Me” and “Dancing in the Dark,” their backing tracks can feel a little like electronic music. It’s a sound that 21st-century bands like the War on Drugs would reinterpret as a kind of psychedelia, and that dance producer Arthur Baker capitalized on at the time with a fascinating series of club remixes.
After the willfully unmarketable Nebraska, Springsteen’s commercial reinvention thrilled the label executives, who are reported to have risen from their seats to dance during the playback sessions. (One said—upon hearing single after single, each better than the last and all mixed by Bob Clearmountain to sound tailor-made for radio—he might have actually pissed his pants.) It was also a windfall for Jon Landau, the music critic-turned-manager whose career-long belief in the life-saving power of rock music was gratified by these aspirational songs, some of which were actually about the life-saving power of rock music. Springsteen himself, already viewing his career with the analytic lens of a critic, couldn’t help but notice what this shift represented. “I was fascinated by people who had become a voice for their moment,” he would later say. “I don’t know if I felt I had a capacity for it or just willed my way in that direction, but it was something I was interested in.”
There was one person who wasn’t so interested. It was E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, a man with rare access to the inner workings of the artist’s brain. The pair united as like-minded outcasts growing up in New Jersey, where they bonded at battles of the bands and spent countless nights in each others’ homes, side-stepping their intimidating fathers and evangelizing the records they loved. As they embarked on their careers together, Van Zandt is often credited with helping his pal lighten up a little: arranging the ecstatic horn parts on Born to Run, suggesting the title track’s iconic riff be transposed into a major key, and helming the party-in-my-garage production on The River.
A co-producer on Born in the U.S.A., Van Zandt brings the same sense of uplift to these songs. The most joyful moment comes in “Darlington County.” When Van Zandt honks his way through the vocal harmonies—“He don’t work and he don’t get paid”—Springsteen starts to laugh: Boy, does that sound ugly, you hear him think, it’s perfect. Same goes for the mandolin part in “Glory Days,” which Van Zandt recorded impromptu into a vocal mic so that it couldn’t be edited out without scrapping the entire take.
Fitting for an album that buries its anxiety beneath a bright veneer, these moments coincided with a new tension between the two. Recording under the name Little Steven, Van Zandt was completing his own album, ambitiously titled Voice of America, and its raw sound and spirit of protest felt at odds with the commercial intent of Springsteen’s latest music. Van Zandt floated the idea of promoting their albums together on a joint tour—I love imagining the response to this proposition—and confessed to feeling a bit undervalued. Sensing a crossroads, and by now well-acquainted with his friend’s stubborn self-reliance, Van Zandt quit the band.
While Springsteen stood his ground, he wasn’t as confident as he might have seemed. With an overabundance of material, he extended his creative process beyond the inner circle, inviting friends into his home to pore over the multitude of tapes and piece together a tracklist while he went out for runs or waited patiently at the kitchen table. His engineer, Chuck Plotkin, went so far as to present an acetate copy of the record he envisioned. Landau wrote a five-page letter justifying his preferred sequence. Eventually, Springsteen took some of their advice, ignored a lot of it, and turned in his completed album.
He played it for Van Zandt, who was not a fan of “Dancing in the Dark.” The lyrics—so self-conscious, so vulnerable—were anathema to his image of rock’n’roll heaven, where everyone’s young and beautiful, forever strutting. And don’t get him started on the production. Still, his main concern was “No Surrender,” his favorite song, which was nowhere to be found. The hope, the romance, the guitars—that’s the whole point of what we do! At the eleventh hour, Springsteen slotted the song back into the tracklist, right at the start of Side B.
If this operation sounds haphazard for a noted perfectionist like Springsteen, it kind of was. To this day, he speaks about Born in the U.S.A. with a sense of discomfort. The bookending songs—the title track and “My Hometown,” the only explicitly political material that made the cut—are what he’s proudest of. “The rest of the album,” he writes, “contains a group of songs about which I’ve always had some ambivalence…. [It] really didn’t flesh out like I had hoped it would.”
But while the recordings span several years of sessions, plagued with interpersonal struggle and self-doubt, bouncing between genre and mood, built on creative compromise and commercial aspiration, overexposed and eternally misunderstood, there’s really not a dull moment. With its grab-bag nature, the whole thing explodes like an encore run—when the lights are up and there’s nothing left to play but the hits; when fatigue converts into a kind of euphoria and the energy builds until it seems a little dangerous.
That’s how “No Surrender” earns its place; the optimism is hard-won, doomed to be short-lived. “You say you’re tired and you just want to close your eyes,” he sings against the rhythm, “and follow your dreams down.” But down where? If you were to place a compass in the wide open country of this album, down is where the arrow would constantly point. It’s in the opening lyric (“Born down in a dead man’s town”), and it’s the next move for the couple in the closing “My Hometown,” who plan on packing up the family, “maybe heading south.” It’s where all the signposts of security—work, marriage, community—send the narrator of “Downbound Train,” and it’s a syllable that gets stretched into a slapstick, rockabilly hiccup in the chorus of “I’m Goin’ Down.” For many of the characters in these songs, down becomes homebase: the direction you’re cautioned to ignore when you’re at the top; the inevitable crash after any high.
The momentary bliss of “No Surrender” is followed on the tracklist by “Bobby Jean,” and while Springsteen has never explicitly confirmed its inspiration, fans have long seen it as his farewell to Van Zandt. Like all his writing about friendship, “Bobby Jean” flirts with the language of love songs—the gender is intentionally ambiguous—and, paired with a bittersweet piano melody, the sentiment is so heartbroken and earnest that it feels almost childlike. The crucial lyric arrives just before the last verse, and it’s a simple but effective choice of words: “Now there ain’t nobody, nowhere, nohow/Gonna ever understand me the way you did.” Not love me, not know me, but understand me. It’s a rare quality in a companion—especially in adulthood—and it’s a hard thing to let go of when you find it.
There would be more goodbyes to come. Within the next five years, Springsteen would file for divorce from his first wife, the actress Julianne Phillips; fire the E Street Band after the tour for 1987’s mostly solo Tunnel of Love; leave his home in New Jersey to raise a family in Los Angeles with bandmate Patti Scialfia; and ultimately attempt to shed his celebrity identity, retreating from the mainstream and confessing to feeling “‘Bruced’ out” after the attention and mania that Born in the U.S.A. introduced to his life.
Little Steven’s Voice of America, meanwhile, released a month before Born in the U.S.A., was a flop. It instantly became a footnote to an album that has now gone 15 times platinum in the U.S., prominently featured on lists of the bestselling releases of all time. But that didn’t deter Van Zandt. He kept touring, recording solo music, and making a few sizable contributions to radio, television, and world politics before eventually rejoining the E Street Band in the ’90s. “It seems that what keeps people human is their ability to keep dreaming about things,” Springsteen whispered from the stage during a show in Toronto, early in the tour for Born in the U.S.A. “It seems like when you lose that…” His voice trails off. “This is for Little Steven…. He’s one of my best dreaming partners.” The band leaves the stage and Springsteen plays the opening notes of “No Surrender.” Alone and at the apex of his fame, he gazes toward the massive crowd and dreams of where he’s been.
Buy: Rough Trade
(Pitchfork earns a commission from purchases made through affiliate links on our site.)
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.