Now that the dust has settled on 1984, we can take stock. Friends of liberty might be tempted to write off the year behind us as a 366-day stroll further down the road to serfdom. Actually, though, the spirit of American individualism was alive and well in those twin temples of youth, the movie theater and the concert hall.
Hollywood, long excoriated by the political right as eager propagandists for left-liberal causes, gave us Ghostbusters and Splash, a pair of wildly successful teen comedies with anti-government subthemes; as well as Red Dawn, John Milius's interesting paean to anti-Soviet guerrilla warfare.
Rock 'n' roll was no less fecund. Punk rock, or what's left of it, remained a combustible admixture of anarchism and suburban restlessness, ignited by militantly anti-authority bands like TSOL (True Sounds of Liberty) and Husker Du. Even heavy metal produced raucous screw-you anthems like Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" and Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55."
But the year's most fascinating development in popular culture was the release of new albums by mainstream rockers (and best friends) Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven Van Zandt. As suggested by the albums' titles—Born in the USA and Voice of America, respectively—they are the work of two deeply patriotic men trying to reconcile an ineffable love of the homeland and its bountiful promise with the often discouraging realities of life in the land of the free. Much like many of REASON's readers, I would guess.
Voice of America is the most explicitly political album in memory. Van Zandt stakes out his territory early. Side one opens with the anthemic title cut, a lamentation of lost national virtue:
We knew right from wrong once upon a time
Everything we stood for has been compromised.*
The song ends with Van Zandt recapturing the flag and defiantly asserting, "We're the Voice of America."
That voice proceeds, over the course of the next nine songs, to reject the depredations and militarism that discolor our recent history, while gloriously reaffirming the beauty of the Founders' vision of a free and peaceful America. "I want justice," screams Van Zandt in the second song, and his gut-wrenching delivery makes us believe his vow to "be here fighting till the day I die."
Next come a pair of anticommunist numbers unlikely to pop up on Pete Seeger's play list, the bouncy "Solidarity" and the elegiac "Checkpoint Charlie." The latter, bemoaning not only the cursed Berlin Wall but also Western indifference to it, is a stunner. Agonizingly slow, dirge-like, "Checkpoint Charlie" is at once a stark indictment of the free world—
Why do we let it happen
Or is it that we don't mind
Somebody bein' punished for their fathers' crimes*
—and an expression of hope in a situation universally acknowledged to be hopeless.
Side one closes with "Out of the Darkness," a ringing tribute to the redemptive power of love in a dangerous world, and before you can ask, "What ever happened to Joan Baez?" Van Zandt is at it again on side two, paying homage to the peasant victims of Latin American death squads in "Los Desaparecidos." Two lesser songs follow, the ambitious "Fear" and the sanguine "Among the Believers."
Sandwiched between is the crown jewel of this remarkable album, the simple reggae song "I Am a Patriot." No, that's not a typo. Van Zandt gave us, in a year whose political boundaries were demarcated by the bombastic nationalism of the self-proclaimed America's Party on the right and the Rev. Jesse Jackson's odious Third World socialism on the left, the most authentically patriotic song since Woody Guthrie saw the redwood forests. With utter lack of self-consciousness, he sings,
I am a patriot
And I love my country.*
Van Zandt ends this wondrous song with a statement of principles fitting for an album that features sketches of Thomas Jefferson and the Statue of Liberty on its back cover:
And I ain't no communist
And I ain't no capitalist
And I ain't no socialist
And I sure ain't no imperialist
And I ain't no Democrat
And I ain't no Republican either
And I only know one party
And its name is freedom I am a patriot.*
Voice of America closes with "Undefeated," a rousing ode to isolationism that could get the Old Right of the 1940s up and dancing:
Ain't no peace with honor baby
No matter what you hear
Ain't no peace with honor baby
Until we disappear.*
Bruce Springsteen, Van Zandt's best buddy, has fashioned his own celebration of the land of Jefferson on the album Born in the USA. Less overtly political, Springsteen explores the parlous state of individuals in a nation whose government seems to have forgotten just why it was instituted in the first place.
Born in the USA marks the ninth anniversary of the release of Born to Run, the album that established Springsteen as the new ____________________(fill in the name of your favorite tough-tender punk poet). What a difference a decade makes. Born to Run glorified the greasy street tough with a heart of gold and offered a vision of the vibrant, cacophonous, violent, neon-lit backstreets of the inner city as the promised land. A car and a guitar were the keys to the kingdom.
Springsteen's characters on Born in the USA (as well as last year's haunting Nebraska) have deserted his asphalt playgrounds and, like Huck Finn and Sal Paradise before them, seek liberation in the untamed South and West. Indeed, in his most unrestrained, exuberant moments ("Darlington County," "Working on the Highway"), Springsteen reminds one of the late, great individualist novelist Jack Kerouac.
But unlike Kerouac, Springsteen emphasizes the life-giving functions of thoroughly middle-class values like hard work and family ties. Deprived of these moorings, either by chance ("Down-bound Train") or by the government ("Born in the USA"), a person is doomed to an aimless, peripatetic existence. Freedom, in Springsteen's hands, no longer means the absence of responsibility. On the contrary, the characters on Born in the USA want nothing more than the opportunity to settle down, assume their responsibilities, and live their lives free from interference. All too often, though, the pursuit of happiness is interrupted, whether by conscription or the cops.
Critics in the cultural vanguard have attacked Springsteen for adhering to such arrantly old-fashioned notions, some even sniffing that it's redolent of the American Dream nonsense. Get married, work hard, be loyal to your friends and family, maybe raise a little hell Saturday night at the union hall or the local pub—not exactly the stuff dreams are made of? Let Springsteen speak for himself in the peroration of "No Surrender":
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†
Isn't that what the USA is all about?
William Kauffman is a graduate student in political science at the University of Rochester.
*Reprinted by permission. Copyright © 1984 by Blue Midnight Music, administered by Bug Music.
†Reprinted by permission. Words and music by Bruce Springsteen. Copyright © 1984.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: Individualism with a Beat".