Two years after his 1982 album Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen released Born in the U.S.A. The first was a bleak tribute to a working class in decline, the second a set of feel-good ballads. Together, they provided a tragic-romantic view of Reagan-era America.

Bruce Springsteen performing live onstage during the Born In the U.S.A. tour, January 1, 1985. (Richard E. Aaron / Redferns)

Review of Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making Of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska by Warren Zanes (Penguin, 2023).

Back in the old smug, condescending days, when boyish, prep school–faced conservative intellectuals wore bow ties and peered from lordly heights at pop culture, Washington Post columnist George Will stuffed wads of cotton in his ears and stood through the whole four-hour duration of a Bruce Springsteen concert. He arrived at a stadium in the suburbs of Washington, DC, without knowing how marijuana smelled or what Springsteen’s music sounded like, and emerged, still a bit puzzled about whether he’d been in the company of stoners, feeling as if he had the wind at his back. Here, at last, was a “wholesome cultural portent.” A star without even “a smidgen of androgyny.” An image of an ideal, made-for-Reagan working class. “Rock for the United Steelworkers” that didn’t languish in shuttered-factory blues, or export blame onto the rich, or “whine” and curl into helplessness. Springsteen was a greasy-denim, bandana-sporting dynamo — abruptly muscle-ripped, after a waifish early career — whose power cords and corn-fed “homilies” instructed fans to “‘downsize’ their expectations,” to buckle in for a lifetime of hard work, to embrace “family and traditional values,” and to well up with passion when they saw the stars and stripes.

“If all Americans — in labor or management, who make steel or shoes or cars or textiles,” Will wrote in his next column, “made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about protectionism.” We lived in lazy, profligate times, fearful of the rest of the world’s productive capacity, but Springsteen — the “hardest working white man in show business,” one critic quipped — made music infused with the great American work ethic. It was the summer of 1984, and Springsteen wasn’t the only act on tour: Ronald Reagan, too, was out cruising the country, parading down the campaign trail. Will whispered his way into the president’s ear: it was time for the Republican Party to nourish itself on the hearty blue-collar patriotism of Born in the U.S.A.

Five days after Will’s column came out, the America Prouder, Stronger, Better tour, the follow-up to 1980’s Let’s Make America Great Again campaign, pulled its plush, dollar-soaked bandwagon into the slipshod center of New Jersey. Out came Reagan, striding into the gushy set of a Robert Altman movie. “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts,” he told the crowd. “It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man 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.” Seven records in, Springsteen had just released his first truly superstar-level pop album; now he found himself sent off to fight in the culture wars.

Nebraska Death Trip

Young Springsteen wasn’t much for political statements. His first, nervous public pronouncement occurred on stage in 1980, the night after Reagan ascended to the White House. “I don’t know what you thought about what happened last night,” he told the student body at Arizona State University. “But I thought it was pretty frightening.”

Four years later, he hissed out another. After the DC show, the Born in the U.S.A. tour swung through the Rust Belt, stopping in Pittsburgh the night after Reagan’s New Jersey speech. Five songs in, Springsteen paused to let everyone know he’d heard the president’s words. “I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he was listening to this one.” Then he launched into the spare, spectral, quickstep acoustic haze of “Johnny 99.”

“Johnny 99” is both classic Springsteen and Bruce way out on the margins: it opens with an auto plant closing and ends with a convict pleading for a judge to exchange his ninety-nine-year sentence for the death penalty. The man’s job left; the bank kept hounding him about his mortgage; things kept boiling, until one night he mixed wine and gin and killed a stranger. All the rusty, nine-to-five New Jersey imagery, familiar from Springsteen’s early albums, returns here, but the old twilight avenues of hope and escape have shut down. No more Chuck Berry, no more open roads, no more hand-me-down vistas of rock ’n’ roll freedom. Just execution lines, judges, cops, cracked dreams, and lowercase bosses.

Gone, too, are the candied sax solos, the glistering piano, the alert straight-time drums, the revving electric melodies of Springsteen’s E Street Band — all subbed out for solo Springsteen, alone and acoustic and austere. And not really even Springsteen — he hides himself beneath a series of character masks, pared down to near invisibility, another nobody on an album filled with rootless, cruel, pummeled lives. Calm, confused murderers, singing from the electric chair; families fraying amid foreign wars and Midwest farm disasters; sad, wonder-filled children, crouching in corn fields below steel-gated, light-spangled mansions. This is the world of Nebraska, Springsteen’s seventh album, released in 1982 at the nadir of a recession let loose by Reagan’s crushing of the labor movement and Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker’s yanking up of the interest rate. An album right on time and out of it, stalking a ghost-thick past.

He was half-Dylan, half-Elvis, born under a blistering James Brown sun — proof that rock ’n’ roll could keep its mainstream middle lane open, post-disco and post-punk.

As Warren Zanes argues in his new book, Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, the record stands as the essential hinge point in Springsteen’s career, uprooting the far left post of what a Springsteen album might sound like and planting it way out in the hinterland. Nebraska limned one hushed, saturnine, cult-worshipped half of where Springsteen’s music might go. The other half, represented by the huge pop splash of 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., couldn’t have been more different. It traded out noirish black and white for full-on florescent color, ghostly quiet for up-to-date synth and continent-sized snares, authorial vacancy for all Bruce, all the time.

Yet bafflingly, alluringly, these two twinned, polarized albums were cooked up in the same notebooks and studio sessions and even briefly planned together as a double album. The whole of Springsteen, stirring inside one record sleeve. And not just Springsteen: part of the retrospective magnetism of that legendary 1982–84 run is how much of our own time-trapped, culture war–haunted world of feeling still seems to live here, pinched within these wide, confining boundaries. Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A.: two records that caught a view of the future in the rearview.

The ’50s in the ’80s, the ’80s in the ’50s

After The River (1980), the suits at Columbia Records expected Springsteen’s star to keep rising. In the same market-saturating week, he’d already appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and he was coming off his first number-one album and first top-ten single, “Hungry Heart.” His writing had grown starker, more grounded and realist, deepening his music’s air of working-class authenticity without letting go of youth and romanticism — even tacking, at times, toward new frontiers of melody and pop-friendliness. Radio loved him; the live shows rocked all night. Critics poured in prophecies and execs laid down plans. He was half-Dylan, half-Elvis, born under a blistering James Brown sun — proof that rock ’n’ roll could keep its mainstream middle-lane open, post-disco and post-punk.

Back in New Jersey, however, Bruce was planless. A bit mapless, too: few people, bandmates included, really knew where he lived. He’d rented a modest ranch house in Colts Neck, ill-furnished and thick with orange shag carpeting, and fell into a meditative sort of depression. He’d lost touch. His family had long ago packed up for California. He was single. His only friends were his employees. A radio DJ asked him whether he had a life outside of music, and he confessed that he didn’t really, that he only had one non-biz friend, a guy named Matty who “owns a motorcycle shop.” He sat in the dark at night and watched whichever movies flashed onto his TV, falling into a trance over Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), a fictionalization of the Charles Starkweather murder spree in 1950s Nebraska. He pored over the gothic enigmas of Flannery O’Connor. He paged through WPA-era songbooks of old folk tunes, and felt his mood mirrored in the desolate rural world of country and blues. Driving at night through Freehold, the dead-end town where he grew up, he’d stop his car in front of his grandparents’ old ramshackle house — the house he lived in, more or less without parental supervision, suffering and exploiting a kind of terrible freedom, until he was six. In a zig-zag, groping-in-the-dark way, he was working.

Back at home he would sit with his guitar at the edge of his bed and his feet on the orange shag carpet and sing. His roadie, Mike Batlan, had bought him a TEAC 144, a relatively cheap, newish piece of technology that captured multitrack recording on a simple cassette-tape. It gave off only a lo-fi sound, but it suited Springsteen’s needs perfectly: he was just sketching, recording drafts that he planned to polish up in a sleek Manhattan studio with the E Street Band. With Batlan as a silent background presence, Springsteen entered a bedroom world of his own, singing rough songs into a cassette. He had no idea that he was recording Nebraska.

The songs came out as confessions, or testimonies, often sung from the perspective of first-person characters and addressed to some unreachable Kafkaesque authority, mixing intimacy and distance. They told stories of loneliness, of people whose communities collapse and whose moral compasses spin out of control: narrators who kill people without much immediate reason, or spend their days haunted by a bittersweet past.

Leftist critics often knock Springsteen for being an unreconstructed New Deal liberal, nostalgic for an idealized set of historical images that never really existed. But Nebraska strips the shine off this postwar myth.

Springsteen approached these characters with a sort of still, low-toned empathy: he presented their lives plainly, without judgment, framed by spare landscapes of context. He could do this because he felt they were a part of him. He, too, lived in a community-less vacuum. He, too, felt called back to a mysterious, melancholic childhood, where the air in his grandparents’ house hung stale with the never-finished grieving of a long dead daughter, and where the lights in his father’s house were always shut off, obscuring a figure alone in the kitchen, drinking silently each night after long days at the factory.

Springsteen’s childhood memories brought him back to the 1950s, as did much of Nebraska’s source material: the Nebraskan serial killer Charles Starkweather, for instance, who murdered eleven people in the Great Plains between 1957 and ’58, inspired the album’s title and its opening song. These sources conjured up a menacing, alienated, depraved 1950s, a world of seething undercurrents and nighttime despondence far removed from the fizzy fountain drink, drive-in milkshake, juke-box imagery of old-time rock ’n’ roll lore.

This was a 1950s activated by the brash class war of Reagan’s 1980s: farmers in debt, workers fired, communities falling apart. The cusp of a new world. Leftist critics often knock Springsteen for being an unreconstructed New Deal liberal, nostalgic for an idealized set of historical images — proud male breadwinners, cozy class compromise, national glory days — that never really existed. But Nebraska strips the shine off this postwar myth. Spend time with this record, and you start to see the seeds of the neoliberal 1980s scattered all over the disquieting fields of the 1950s.

Bedroom Versus Studio

Really for the first time across the full stretch of an album, Nebraska brought Springsteen’s great mature theme into view: the confusion of public and private, the way the wider social world seeps into our personal lives. Never before had he turned out a suite of songs so thematically unified. Singing on the edge of his bed, Springsteen knew he had something good. But he also knew he had something different—too angular for Columbia Records, too quiet and darkly vulnerable for the E Street Band. And anyway, he had a range of material, a promising but shaggy draft, much of it sitting oddly against the low-frequency landscape of barren heartland violence. He scribbled a light note, confident and uncertain and jokey, and sent the tape off to his manager, Jon Landau. Landau listened and felt concerned for Springsteen’s mental health — all this strange, bleak, unexpected material. Then he sent the lone copy of the tape back, rallied the band, and booked a studio at the Power Plant in Manhattan.

The sessions sailed. After three weeks they pretty much had an album recorded — the only catch being that the album wasn’t Nebraska. A handful of songs off that cheap, lint-covered cassette had pulled away under the band’s influence, shown the ability to nestle inside the synth-y smash of a snare or a cinematic orchestral swell and transform into something new. Those storm-dark Nebraska clouds parted, and things felt lighter, more electric and anthemic. On the demo-tape, “Born in the U.S.A.” came across muted and depressed, a bitter song about a beat-down, jobless Vietnam vet born in a land of broken promises. Once E Street drummer Max Weinberg’s drum-machine-inspired snare crashed its way in, however, the track hit liftoff. It took on color and surge and pop-chart reverb, and grew vexing, its music and lyrics waging a bewitching war.

Springsteen picked up Reagan-era imagery, populist and all-American and nostalgia-soaked, and played with it, catching himself in a tangle of ironies along the way.

New possibilities opened up, worlds away from anything the rural, recession-haunted demo conjured. Football stadium shows, car commercials, Prince- and Madonna-level fame, a biting lefty protest anthem that George Will, too, might play on repeat. Something everyone might love or resent without anyone, Bruce included, really understanding.

The studio filled up with pop dreams, and Springsteen only felt more confused. The band had worked its magic on a good portion of the cassette, but the majority of its songs stayed reticent. The cleaner, bigger, and more baroque these songs sounded, the more they lost their character. And their characters. As Springsteen says: “Every step I took in trying to make [the songs] better, I lost my people.” The songs and the people they portray only lived if they were given space, left a bit askew—no synth, no polish, just dusty harmonica, dark-fabled glockenspiel, and lonesome lo-fi distance.

In 1982, these jagged songs had Springsteen’s heart. At first, he thought he’d turn out a double album, presenting two radically distinct sides of the same artist: bright, polished rock scored by the E Street Band up against faintly-lit solo folk-country. But in the end, he decided to halt the mixing process on the glamorous album that was shaping up to be Born in the U.S.A., and to go somewhere more lonely and baleful: the next Springsteen album was already here, in his pocket, on the cassette-tape that he’d mixed with an old water-logged boom box he’d left sitting on his couch in Colts Neck, half-dead after a canoe trip. It would take months to master, proving all but impossible to translate this drugstore-shelf tape to studio-level technology so it could be pressed to vinyl, and impossible too to enhance the tape’s sound quality really at all — much more than Springsteen anticipated, the record had to remain quiet and echoey, poor and pebbled and gaunt. But for Nebraska’s fans, many of whom — Bruce included, Zanes reveals — view the album as Springsteen’s best work, contingency and imperfection made the record. The sad hiss of the bedroom trumped the studio’s clean automated perfection.

In a postmodern twist, the sonic texture of this ’50s-haunted, black-and-white-cover rural album offered a view of the future — musically, technologically, socially. Critics trace the origin of lo-fi music back to many possible sources — the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Paul McCartney’s McCartney — but Nebraska remains a perennial contender. A whole grainy, out-of-joint, DIY sound tumbled out of this record — the lean, half-haunted, zombied-out stuff of twenty-first-century nostalgia. A sound that doubled as a new at-home tech, bowling-alone way of life. Back in his bedroom, Springsteen presaged the solitary figure of the DJ, the end of the band, the rusted digital world. Bedroom beats and bedroom depression, thin and tinny and plugged in.

Postmodern Futures

This was the future Springsteen let us glimpse in ’82: communities vacuumed up, the working class in splinters. He returned in 1984 with a new picture. In between he’d suffered a breakdown, drove across the country with his one friend Matty looking for romantic salvation in the quaint communities his music idealized, and finally wound up in Los Angeles. He hid in the city’s anonymity and took on its routines. Therapy. Weight lifting. “I was a big fan of meaningless, repetitive behavior,” he told one biographer.

If Nebraska seemed like an odd-fitting anachronism that surreptitiously captured its era, Born in the U.S.A. was its through-the-looking-glass opposite: a plainly right-on-time album that nevertheless felt retrograde. On its cover, famously, were Springsteen’s Levi-clad ass cheeks, red bandana hanging from a pocket and the American flag striped in the background. The music videos had him greased up underneath cars, driving in to work at oil refineries, and operating huge drills at construction sites. Springsteen picked up Reagan-era imagery, populist and all-American and nostalgia-soaked, and played with it, catching himself in a tangle of ironies along the way: a crystallized, made-for-MTV portrait of the working class styled just as the late-century proletariat frayed into pictureless disorganization.

At best, Bruce-in-the-hard-hat offered a partial view of late-century workers; at worst, Born in the U.S.A.’s imagery played right into the Right’s post-’60s culture-war script, pitting flag-draped construction workers against stoned student-radical brats, macho jingoists and ordinary Real Men against down-with-the-patriarchy hysterics. Part of these images’ value lay in their playful showmanship, their wink and feint. But part of their power, too, rested in how they traded on authenticity, leaving the word stranded in a no-man’s-land between scare quotes and grounded belief.

Suspicious critics saw the record as Springsteen’s cynical attempt to cash in on the Reaganite moment. Springsteen countered, in frustration, that he’d been misunderstood, and that hucksters like Reagan and Will had exploited his art. As anyone who listens to the lyrics knows, “Born in the U.S.A.” indicts the US empire in a way few products of American pop culture ever have. The song is “not ambiguous,” Springsteen once said. But meanwhile, as anyone who hears the music and the way Springsteen sings the hook knows, the song traffics also in very different feelings: an unresolved alchemy where invective turns into pride, pride into spent bitterness, all swirled up in a confused, downtrodden euphoria. Contra Springsteen and Will, it’s hard to imagine a more ambiguous song. This is what gives it its power, its troubled cultural endurance.

As an album, Born in the U.S.A. is fun and uneven, a ridiculous stretch of hit after hit that plays well on a road trip but never reaches sustained depth or unity. As a leadoff song, however, festooned with the album’s lightning-rod imagery, “Born in the U.S.A.” haunts more than anything Springsteen’s ever done — in no small part because of the way it bears the mark of the Nebraska demo. You can still hear those ghosts smothered under its snares.

A whiff of ironic prophecy hangs about Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. Between them, these two albums’ joined-at-the-hip contrariness traced the outlines of our postindustrial, “new economy” cultural condition just as it was coming into formation. Somewhere drifting between their opposed sounds stalls a world lonely and backward-looking, image-obsessed and distrustful of images, disarrayed and yet held together by clapped-out archetypes that won’t leave us alone, pinballing around in our culture-war fever dreams. The self-divided compact of “Born in the U.S.A.,” the limit-case extremism of Nebraska: they leave us with the rug-pulling sense that we still don’t understand as much as we think we do, that we live in a cracked world in which identity can be pieced together through anything, shame and neglect mixing with pride.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the future seemed to be stirring in a thousand obvious subterranean musical worlds: the nighttime eeriness of David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s Berlin, the plastic mechanical mayhem of Devo’s gray deindustrial Akron, the cold techno coming out of Detroit, or the gender- and race- synthesizing funhouse of Prince’s freaky Paisley Park cyborg pop. And yet some sad, essential part of our time has been better captured by a body of music shorn of any futuristic trace: the neo-trad, contradiction-dense heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen.

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