#1: Bruce Springsteen - "Born in the USA" (1984)

First of all, we’re doing a thing this year on Mookbarks Dot Net: every week either Emily or I will listen to an album that we don’t know very well but perhaps feel like we ought to by now – and on a Sunday morning we’ll blog about it. I suspect, gentle reader, that there will be some things that you really like, and are surprised that we’ve not got around to yet. There’ll probably also be some things that you don’t know, or haven’t hitherto been interested in. For me, Mookbarks over the last few months has been about broadening my horizons, and discovering interesting things where I might not have expected to come across them. I very much hope you’ll join us here.

A friend once described my music as “the beards and cardigans playlist”. I’m going to come out of the end of 2017 with a modicum of taste if it kills me.


I cannot tell whether it is irony or just aptness that this week I have sat in my childhood bedroom with my headphones in, listening to Bruce Springsteen.

Some music seems to attach itself for me to being a particular age, or the feelings that come from being a particular age. “Born in the USA” is straight up painful early twenties: that time where you’re not studying any more, you have to get up and start doing whatever it is you want to be doing for the rest of your life, and maybe you’ve been trying to do that for a year or so but you’ve still no idea what direction it is you’re actually heading in. It’s that combination of restlessness and dissatisfaction, with a dash of political militancy and a mighty great wodge of mixed feelings for the place you grew up in. The moment when you know what the question is – it’s “What do I want to do now?” – but the only answer you can come up with is a list of negatives: not this place, not this dynamic, not this office, not this quantity of paperwork. I want something else. Will somebody please tell me what that something else is?

It’s funny, because I didn’t expect straight-up insecurity from a Springsteen album. Perhaps that’s more a function of my biases than a reflection on the actual music, though – I think far more people (and I count myself one of them) have a certain, quite brash idea of what “Springsteen music” is like than have actually listened to it. When I happened to mention this was a thing I was listening to this week, a family member asked, “Oh, is that the shouty album?” But surprisingly enough, it’s not really. This is the album that brought us this:

…and that really speaks to me.

I suspect part of the reputation of “Born in the USA” comes from the title track, which you either know from massive rallies for a certain kind of politician, or from other people (hello!) explaining how that’s actually a gross misuse of it and it’s actually pretty anti-authoritarian, anti-war, not very jingoistic at all. In fact, it references the treatment of Vietnam veterans – and here is a moment where I had to look things up, because the Vietnam War finished in 1975, and “Born in the USA” came out in 1984, and again there’s this nostalgia there for a time of youth and simplicity, for battles we know we can win because they’re a decade or two in the past and we know how they end. That follows through in the rest of the album, from the catalogue of misfortunes in “Downbound Train”, to “Bobbie Jean” about the escape of a childhood friend. In “Born in the USA”, the difference between teenagerdom and adulthood is the difference between certainty and uncertainty, between the possible and the immovable. It’s affecting, and it’s not at all what I was expecting – but with approximately a squillion thinkpieces over the last few years about how popular culture these days is so heavily based on nostalgia, “Born in the USA” makes me feel like it’s nostalgia all the way down. There never was a golden age, was there? I wonder, in another decade, how we’ll remember the 2010s.

Lest it sound like this album is actually a bit of a downer, I would like to draw attention to two things. The first is the album cover, featuring That Shot of Bruce Springsteen’s trousers that is probably the best-known thing about the whole album. Am I sorry? No I am not. A+ iconic cover; would memorise again. And the other is that there are worse things than uncertainty out there. 2017 seems like a good year to remember that.