One of the most famous misinterpreted song of all time must be Born in the USA. To a superficial listener this could be a fist-pumping patriotic song about American pride. When examining the lyrics more closely you realise it’s actually an ironic and biting commentary on the hypocrisy of patriotism.
One of my favourite things to do between Springsteen tours is to read blogposts and to listen to podcasts about Springsteen related topics.
I enjoy very much to look more closely on the lyrics of songs (especially Springsteen songs). For example, I listen to the podcast Bruce Springsteen sings the Alphabet that publishes two episodes a week. In each episode Rob and JB are discussing/analysing a new Springsteen song (in alphabetical order). In the blog estreetshuffle.com Ken writes (among other things) extended articles, in which he dissects known and unknown Springsteen songs. These inputs and their insightful elaboration have made me even more aware of possible interpretations and themes of songs and they have made me like the songs more.
Every now and then I venture to analyse songs myself when writing for my own blog. In my latest blogpost I used the song Livin’ in the Future to illustrate the Swedish general election and @JulianG922 ‘s reply (and the conversation that followed) on Twitter inspired me to write today’s blogpost
(read the thread here: https://twitter.com/juliang922/status/1038911887780589568?s=21)
I once learned three easy steps for unpacking the meaning of artwork. This old method is for understanding and analysing paintings and other artwork but I think it’s quite applicable for analysing songs too.
The first two – look and see – are about using your observational skills, your eyes (and ears). The third requires a bit of thought, drawing on what you already know and creatively interpreting what you’ve observed within the broader context.
When looking (or listening), you look at what’s there, literally right in front of you.The artist will have made some very deliberate decisions about the materials, style and approach, and these will feed directly into the overall feel and meaning of the work. [The repetitive chorus of Born in the USA and it’s iconic star-bangle banner album cover is suggesting a fist-pumping patriotic song about American pride].
Seeing (or hearing) is about applying meaning to what you have looked at. When we see we understand what is seen as symbols, and we interpret what’s there in front of us. [Listening to the verse as well as the chorus, noticing that Bruce Springsteen dressed up as a Vietnam war veteran is looking somewhat worn and battered]
The final step involves thinking about what you’ve observed, drawing together what you’ve learned from the first two steps and thinking about possible meanings. This is a process of interpretation. It’s not about finding the “right answers”, but about thinking creatively about the most plausible understanding. The key here is context. The broader context will help make sense of what you’ve observed. [You detect a song about the struggle between patriotism and self-doubt, an anti-war song that speaks of the heartache and disillusionment of a man returning from the Vietnam war. The song paints a portrait of the protagonist’s post-war, post-job future. It’s the tale of a broken system and of a government that sees its citizens as disposable cogs in a war machine.]
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
An artist must be aware of that every time he or she publishes anything it will be interpreted in many different ways. There is always a risk of misinterpretation (like with BITUSA) and to avoid that, especially if you have a distinct intention to say something with your song, sometimes adding an extra explanation can be advised (like with Livin’ in the Future). My opinion is that the artist has the privilege of interpreting his or her own art but that there are ways of uncovering the meaning of, for example a song, with help from the method I’ve just presented.
A song doesn’t have to have a deeper meaning or political message, though.q In fact, many artists tend to go out of their way to avoid discussing politics, or anything controversial for that matter.
Bruce Springsteen has grown louder and louder with his political views during the years and that is something I appreciate. The fans who don’t agree with him politically grumble that they wish he’d “shut up and sing”, but if you are a big enough fan, can you just look the other way? Is it possible to ignore what he expresses, both in person and in obvious politically relevant lyrics?
Born in the USA is the title track of Springsteen’s seventh studio album, which was released on June 4, 1984.
Thanks for the shoutout, Anna, and for the insightful article. I’ve never really understood the “shut up and sing” crowd. Pretty much every song has a theme or a message–sometimes fraternal, sometimes romantic, sometimes communal, and sometimes political. If you can listen to, say, “Nebraska” without getting upset at hearing a serial killer excuse his actions, why should, say, a song like “Magic” or “Livin’ in the Future” bother you? Art gives us new ways to receive and reflect on opinions that might conflict with our own–that’s a good thing. We don’t have to agree with a song’s message to admire and appreciate it. Anyway, great post, and I love your famework–I’ll keep it in mind when reviewing songs up the road. 🙂
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Thanks Ken! It means a lot to me that you read and appreciate my blogposts.
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Reblogged this on It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City.