A generation after Ronald Reagan famously mistook Bruce Springsteen’s music for uncritical patriotism, Democrats claimed "Born in the USA" on Thursday for the theme it was meant to project — to describe a splintered country they say desperately needs new policies and new dreams.
Delegates danced, cheered and waved flags Thursday night as Springsteen’s arena-rock anthem brought the final evening of the Democratic National Convention to life. It was a significant moment — and a sign that, unlike in Reagan’s 1984 campaign, the Democrats are exhibiting savvy about their use of music in political settings.
Though he never actually used the music in his campaign as widely believed, Reagan famously interpreted Springsteen’s music as a "message of hope" for the nation. The song and album "Born in the USA" were popular at the time, and most assumed Reagan was referring to them. Springsteen, a Democrat, bristled at his art being invoked for causes he opposed.
But using "Born in the USA" in the finale of this year’s convention — and letting the entire song play through while cameras pan the crowd — fits the goals of Barack Obama, whom Springsteen has endorsed.
"Born in the USA" tells of a man who was "born down in a dead man’s town," got sent to fight in Vietnam and returned home to no job and few veterans’ benefits. The song ends with little hope:
"Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
Ten years burnin’ down the road
Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go."
After eight years of the administration of George W. Bush, whose father was Reagan’s vice president, Obama says major changes and an infusion of hope are needed to get America back on track.
His speech Thursday night hit some of those themes. It said America was locked in "one of those defining moments — a moment when our nation is at war, our economy is in turmoil and the American promise has been threatened once more."
While "Born in the USA" spoke of the effects of Vietnam, Obama’s speech spoke of the effects of Iraq. While the song spoke of a man turned away from work at the town refinery, Obama bemoaned a government that he said "lets veterans sleep on our streets and families slide into poverty."
But while the song ends on a sour note, Obama’s "everyday American" theme insists that a Democratic administration can restore the chances — and the future — of people like Springsteen’s protagonist.
Whether that’s the case or not, one thing is clear: In a political landscape where context is often in short supply, the Democrats’ use of music Thursday night was right on the mark — a very rare event when songs and politics collide.
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