Lindsay Zoladz on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984)
(Rdio, Spotify, iTunes)
In my 2012, there wasn’t an Independence Day. You lose a day when you fly over the Atlantic, and early on the morning of July 4, at an hour when nobody barbecues and the sky is too bright for fireworks, I got on a plane to Denmark. On long international flights, at a distance of 30,000 feet, the concepts that usually order our lives—clocks, mealtimes, holidays—have a way of first becoming abstract, and then seeming downright absurd. So I cannot even pinpoint exactly where I was (above Iceland seems as good a guess as any) the precise moment that the most quintessentially American holiday turned to a metaphysical speck and then quietly disappeared.
I almost did not get on a plane to Denmark, because up until two days before my flight, I didn’t have a passport. Only about three weeks before, I had been assigned to cover the Roskilde Festival, which is in a town about 20 miles outside of Copenhagen. The fact that I didn’t have a passport when I got this assignment was something I conveniently kept from my editor and that he probably still did not know until now (hi Mark!). But when you are a freelance writer and it’s the dead of summer so you’re kind of bored and the worst month in the swampland city you live in is fast approaching and you’ve never been to Europe and someone asks you if you’d like to go to a festival where Bjork and Bruce Springsteen are headlining, you say yes. Knowing full well how difficult it will be to get a passport in three weeks because you have lived in our nation’s capital of red tape and long lines and bureaucracy for seven years now, you say yes, you will find a way to make it work.
The people at the passport agency did not believe I was who I said I was. Not at first. They flagged my paperwork and made me come back on three different, excruciating, nails-bitten-to-the-nubs occasions. Later I found out why: although I’d been living in DC for seven years, I’d only very recently gotten rid of my New Jersey drivers license. This is suspicious, in the eyes of the National Passport Agency. It was actually just lazy, I tried to explain to the man behind the fogged up plastic window. But what I couldn’t quite explain to him was it also might have also been something else. I think that part of me felt like hanging onto my New Jersey license kept me grounded, connected to the place I’d spent the first 18 years of my life, proof that I was not entirely what I feared people from my hometown thought I’d turned out to be: that girl who flees to the big city first chance she gets (and to be a writer, of all things), globs a coating of faux sophistication over her past and forgets all about where she came from. But I wasn’t that girl, you see. Because last year I’d also changed my phone number, and my provider asked if I’d like a 202 area code. “Actually,” I asked, “Is it possible for me to keep the 856?”
I had been out of the country once before: Canada, when I was 18, on a trip that whose main cultural objective was to go to travel to a mystical land where 18 year-olds can drink and gamble publicly. I won about 30 American dollars on a slot machine, and I spent 100% of my winnings on strawberry daiquiris. When we were driving back through customs, we played that “America, Fuck Yeah!” song from Team America: World Police and giggled conspiratorially. That was my idea.
You can take the girl out of Jersey, etc. All my life when I’ve done something that a kind person would call gauche or provincial (see: never having “seen the world,” making it to 25 without a passport, etc.) or an asshole would call trashy, the easy thing has always been to chalk it up to being from New Jersey. And then I spent the early part of my adulthood trying, and maybe failing, to get away from all of that. An asshole did actually call me trashy to my face once, at a party when I was 19 or 20, a little while after I’d moved. My best friend from New Jersey and I were there together, feeling very cool, at this party full of older people. A drunk guy who’d been talking to her found out where we were from, and then he and his friend lead a rousing chant of “Jersey trash, Jersey trash.” (Assholes, naturally, will recognize this concept as “negging.”) We had a plan, though. We played nice enough to get his number (more specifically, his business card; older people!) and then stayed up half the night leaving vulgar, mean and—thanks to details we’d astutely picked up while playing nice—pointedly personal messages on his voicemail. That’s what happens when you mess with Jersey.
My senior year of high school, I got into two colleges. One was in New Jersey and the other wasn’t, so I picked the one that wasn’t in New Jersey. I met some people who liked music as much as I did and they lovingly teased me for saying wuter instead of water. Some of them asked if I liked Bruce Springsteen, and I said that honestly I didn’t very much, no. That was my parents’ music—Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A. That was New Jersey in the flesh, or by this time, so widely revered that it was more like New Jersey in statue form. Too hallowed, too close to home. “You would at least like Nebraska, I know you would,” somebody told me many different times, and somehow that put me off even more: The One Bruce Springsteen Album It’s Acceptable To Like In College. OK sure, I told them maybe I’d try it sometime, but I never did.
I was thinking of all this in June—your entire life tends to flash before your eyes somewhere around the fifth time a passport agent puts you on hold—after having just read David Brooks’ column about Bruce. The gist was, “You’ve never seen Bruce until you’ve seen him in Europe.” OK, sure.
By the grace of some obviously very high up saint (Clarence?), I got a passport and made it to Roskilde. And as soon as I got there, it was easy to gauge whose set was the most anticipated. American flags dotted the crowds all weekend. People in handmade Bruce t-shirts and hats. Fervent drunks in the bathroom line singing “Born in the USA” like it was last call at a karaoke bar the night before the apocalypse.
David Brooks is not right about everything, but he is right about Bruce. People in Europe go batshit for him. And alone for the first time in a country where I didn’t speak the language, Max Weinberg’s most iconic beat rattling my bones, I went a little crazy too.
I stood beneath one of the monitors and handed my camera to a Danish woman who I thought I’d overheard speaking English. “Take my picture!” I beamed, “I’m from New Jersey, like Bruce!” She snapped it, handed it back to me and said warmly, “Happy birthday!”
It occurred to me overseas that America is just America. From 30,000 feet, without the regional texture. Everyone knows that Bruce represents something American, but not everyone knows what it means to be from New Jersey as opposed to California or Maine. They didn’t know that Bruce represents something specific and hard-won and triumphant. And that if any asshole even tried to call it “trashy,” I’d be regionally obligated to seek a very personal sort of revenge upon their soul, and possibly their extended family.
“Born in the U.S.A” was the moment I was struck with this urge to tell everybody everything. I never thought I would have taken such strange, giddy pride in a sentence I’d spent my teens and half my twenties trying to stealthily inch away from: “I’m from New Jersey, like Bruce.” But I was. Born down in a dead man’s town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground. How many times had I heard this song before and tuned it out? I listened now, I felt the communicative texture of every word like Braille. End up like a dog that’s been beat too much / Til you spend half your life tryin’ to cover it up. Bruce is a writer so he had to learn this too, that you’ll spend half your life trying to pass as generic, the written equivalent of the newscaster’s non-regional dialect, and then quite suddenly you’ll spend the other half peeling off the varnish and getting down to the business of telling your story in your own cracked accent. You can’t mark this down on a calendar ahead of time: you cannot predict when this change will happen or where you’ll be when it does. But trust me when I say it will come. Independence Day.
Lindsay Zoladz is a writer now living in Brooklyn.
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