In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1985: Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA
In a recent episode of his Hit Parade podcast, critic Chris Molanphy pointed out something funny about the career of Bruce Springsteen. For the first decade, as Springsteen released songs and albums that are now revered as classics, he didn’t have much in the way of crossover pop hits. His first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, sold well among his local fanbase in New Jersey and New York but didn’t do much elsewhere. When Springsteen finally broke out with 1975’s Born to Run, an album that got him on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously, its immortal title track only got as high as #23 on the Hot 100. 1978’s Darkness On The Edge of Town, didn’t do as well as Born To Run but was still a decent seller though its two singles “Prove It All Night” and “Badlands” made it to #33 and #42 respectively. Springsteen and his E Street Band were doing big business on the road but couldn’t do the same on the pop charts.
But while songs from Springsteen couldn’t get over much on the radio, songs written by Springsteen that other artists covered had no problem becoming big hits. In 1977, the British band Manfred Mann’s Earth Band had a #1 hit with a freaked out pseudo-prog cover of “Blinded By The Light,” a song Springsteen wrote for Greetings From Asbury Park. The next year, punk poet Patti Smith had her biggest pop crossover hit at #13 with “Because The Night,” a song Springsteen couldn’t finish before letting Smith finish and record the song for herself. Then, the next year, the R&B group the Pointer Sisters took his song “Fire,” initially written for Elvis before he died, to #2 on the Hot 100. If you’re Springsteen, that has to be frustrating to see your songs get big for others while you yourself have yet to enjoy that type of massive pop crossover success.
It was that situation that led Jon Landau, Springsteen’s manager and producer, to push him to record and release “Hungry Heart” for himself instead of giving it to the Ramones as originally planned. Landau knew what he was doing as “Hungry Heart” became Springsteen’s first Top 10 hit peaking at #5 around Christmas 1980 helping his accompanying album The River become his first album to hit #1 going five times platinum becoming the #10 album of 1981. Coming off that commercial breakthrough, Springsteen followed it in 1982 with a very uncommercial album in Nebraska, an album made up of sparse demos that Springsteen recorded and played himself. Yet for an album that wasn’t meant to be a big hit, it did pretty well going to #3. But it was the songs Springsteen recorded with the E Street Band during the sessions for Nebraska that would wind up being the biggest thing that all of them would ever be a part of.
Recorded in over two years, Springsteen’s seventh album Born In The USA was what helped him achieve what he had avoided during his first decade of fame: big-time hitmaker status. Springsteen went from being just a popular songwriter and performer into a full-on ‘80s pop superstar along the lines of Michael Jackson. And like Jackson, Born In The USA spun off lots of hits over a drawn-out period immediately tying Thriller for the most Top 10 hits from an album at seven. (“Dancing In The Dark,” “Cover Me,” “Born In The USA,” “I’m On Fire,” “Glory Days,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” and “My Hometown.” Two other albums that this column will eventually get into would tie it before Drake’s Certified Lover Boy recently broke it at nine.) But unlike those other albums, Born In The USA did not spawn a #1 hit. Its leadoff single, “Dancing In The Dark” is Springsteen’s highest-charting hit as an artist but in the summer of 1984, it only reached #2 stuck behind both Duran Duran and Prince. But regardless, there was no denying that Springsteen had reached his peak hit-making and pop-cultural status.
Despite its status as the biggest album of 1985, Born In The USA was actually released in June 1984 and in a month was already the #1 album in America just in time for the 4th of July staying there for the rest of the month until Prince’s Purple Rain soundtrack dethroned it. Purple Rain was #1 for 22 straight weeks all the way to January 1985 and just what album ended that long hold on #1, Born In The USA which spent another three weeks on top. What this performance means is that had Prince not come out with his big career-defining work, Born In The USA could have been America’s top album for 29 weeks! Between that, “We Are The World,” the Born In The USA tour, and many of its singles being hits on the charts, 1985 was clearly Bruce Springsteen’s year.
It’s easy to hear Born In The USA as a pure sellout move, the kind that many rock fans typically despise. Here you have someone already known as one of the greatest songwriters and performers of all time making an album that utilizes a lot of the ‘80s production techniques including synthesizers to appeal to a greater audience. But upon listening to the album for this review, yes it’s obviously Springsteen at his most mainstream but it still maintains a lot of the qualities we know and love about Springsteen. It’s a best-case scenario for an artist taking the popular sounds of the moment and filtering it through their style to make it their own. Plus, Springsteen and the E Street Band were already known as loud dynamic performers so the booming sound common on ‘80s productions wasn’t that out there for them to adapt to.
Like many of the big ‘80s albums, Born in the USA plays like a readymade greatest hits album. It’s an enjoyable listen that doesn’t drag during its 12 track run to where even the non-singles don’t feel like filler. The album is just banger after banger starting off big with the title track and only slowing down in the middle for the two and a half minute rockabilly slow jam “I’m On Fire” and on the final track, the sparse synth-driven “My Hometown,” a song that details Springsteen’s upbringing amid the racial tensions of New Jersey in the ‘60s like the kind showcased in the recent Sopranos prequel The Many Saints Of Newark. Springsteen himself perfectly describes the quality of the album in his 2016 autobiography Born To Run, “My Born In The USA songs were direct and fun and stealthily carried the undercurrents of Nebraska.” The album carries on Springsteen’s typical working man lyrical observations while turning them into enjoyable crowd-pleasing arena and road trip anthems.
It’s probably that socially conscious lyricism combined with mainstream-friendly singalongs that explains why Born In The USA turned Springsteen into a big political topic. The first controversy arose around the famous album cover shot by Annie Leibovitz showing Springsteen’s back amid the American flag which many thought showed him peeing on the flag. Springsteen was quick to deny that assumption in a 1984 Rolling Stone interview, “We took a lot of different types of pictures, and in the end, the picture of my ass looked better than the picture of my face, that’s what went on the cover.” But Springsteen also said correctly, “The flag is a powerful image, and when you set that stuff loose, you don’t know what’s gonna be done with it.”
The second and biggest controversy over the album came with its title track which was written as a protest against the American government’s treatment of Vietnam veterans who were struggling to make a living after coming home from the war. But with its anthemic hook of Springsteen shouting out the title over and over, it wasn’t long before politicians began misappropriating it as a patriotic anthem most notably with President Ronald Reagan who during his 1984 re-election campaign shouted out Bruce Springsteen during a New Jersey campaign stop. This happened despite Springsteen declining the campaign’s request to use “Born In The USA” at their rally. Springsteen soon called Reagan out in his next concert but did not make an endorsement in the ’84 election for him or his Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. That controversy is what may have led Springsteen and his team to release the title track as a single on October 30th, days before Reagan’s landslide victory.
In following up his career-high point, Bruce Springsteen’s next move is arguably the riskiest any artist in his position has ever done. He put together a live album that consisted of various performances from his past decade of concerts totaling 40 songs meaning it was released as a five-disc vinyl LP box set. But Springsteen was so hot in 1986 that the high cost and run time of such box set didn’t matter to record buyers. It’s reported that 1.5 million copies of what would be Live/1975-85 were ordered in advance with lines forming around record stores on the day of its November 1986 release. That hype led Live/1975-85 to debut at #1 on the album chart in the pre-SoundScan days when such debuts were not common at all. (In fact, it had been 10 years since an album debuted at #1 which was Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life.) Today, Live/1975-85 is the second best-selling live album of all time behind only Garth Brooks’ Double Live.
His next studio release, 1987’s Tunnel of Love, spawned a couple more Top 10 hits and went triple platinum which is still great but a noticeable calm down from Born In The USA. It was clear that Springsteen’s imperial period had passed. In the years since Springsteen has remained active. He won a Best Original Song Oscar in 1994 for “Streets of Philadelphia,” his last Top 10 hit to date, which was written for the 1993 Tom Hanks/Denzel Washington film Philadelphia. He reunited with the E Street Band, the first time together since Born In The USA, for 2002’s highly rated The Rising, an album processing the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He’s been inducted into both the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. After his initial hesitancy to support political candidates, Springsteen has emerged as a big supporter for Democrats including Barack Obama with who he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from and this year got together with to host the Spotify podcast Renegades: Born In The USA which has just been turned into a book.
These days at 72, Springsteen has shown no signs of slowing down. He’s still putting out albums and remains a reliable live draw with plans reportedly in place for him and the E Street Band to go back on tour next year. There’s also been a successful Broadway residency that from people I know who’ve gone was pretty good. Springsteen would most definitely still be the famous and acclaimed artist he is without Born In The USA but without that album, he wouldn’t have had the moment where he was finally able to translate his music into blockbuster mass audience hitmaking success. That’s something you can’t take away from him.
Next time: We discuss Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut album which through a careful label rollout turned her into a superstar for better or for worse