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Read between the lines, especially if it's campaign music

Sarthak Kaushik | Updated on September 11, 2020 Published on September 10, 2020

Gotcha: In the pantheon of misunderstood and misused songs, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA finds pride of place   -  REUTERS

Foot-stomping masterpieces are often misrepresented, especially during election season

* Springsteen came out and questioned this blatant misuse, raising questions about whether Reagan had lent an attentive ear to the music. “...when Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey, I felt it was another manipulation, and I had to disassociate myself from the President’s kind words,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1984.

As elections talk warms up in different parts of the world, it is perhaps as good a time as any to take a look at the role music has played in providing an often discordant soundtrack to ambitions at the hustings. Often the name of the song is taken too blatantly at face value, and the meaning of the lyrics gets relegated to the background. That is, till it is brought rushing back to the fore by the protesting voices of its creators. One of the foremost — and most influential — examples of misconstrued songs is the Bruce Springsteen blockbuster Born in the USA.

The foot-stomping masterpiece and title track of the American singer-songwriter’s seventh studio album by the same name, released in 1984, has often been used as an uber-patriotic quasi anthem to the home of the brave and the land of the free. What it really is, is a severe indictment of the treatment of Vietnam war veterans, the toll it takes on relationships and the ideal of life itself. Springsteen’s searing lyrics are still a stark reminder of the cost wars extract, and the chorus reminds us that the freedom to express anguish is as important as the celebration of freedom. America’s 40th President, Ronald Reagan, however, found it a convenient flagpole to wave his “I stand for the youth ambitions that Bruce epitomises” banner during his presidential pitch in the ’80s. Springsteen came out and questioned this blatant misuse, raising questions about whether Reagan had lent an attentive ear to the music.

“...when Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey, I felt it was another manipulation, and I had to disassociate myself from the President’s kind words,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1984.

In 2016, when Born in the USA was used by then presidential hopeful Donald Trump in one of his rallies, Springsteen again condemned its use, and then openly came out supporting Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton. In the pantheon of misunderstood and misused songs, Born in the USA certainly finds pride of place, given the punch-in-the-gut opening verse:

Born down in a dead man’s town

The first kick I took was when I hit the ground

End up like a dog that’s been beat too much

‘Til you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A

I was born in the U.S.A

There are other songs that have also suffered at the hands of nuance, though to a lesser degree. Rockin’ in the Free World by American-Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young is, on the face of it, a rollicking celebration of freedom, the fall of the communist structures around the world, and the breath of freshness that this freedom brings in attendance. What it is, though, is an acerbic response to George HW Bush’s call for a “kinder and gentler nation” during the Gulf War era, while Bush was actually waging war. Young mocked this irony with the lines “we got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand”, exposing the political hypocrisy of talking kindness while holding a gun to another nation. For those who get it, the song has layers of meaning, leaving the listener with the freedom to choose which side to pick.

Fortunate Son by American rock band CCR is often also seen as a stark take on the inequality of war for those who lack the privilege of escaping it. It is also a take on social standing in the US. “It ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son”, refers to president Eisenhower’s grandson, who was given a reprieve from joining the war.

So music as a vehicle to express sentiment beyond the patriotic even while using words that swell with nationalistic pride need to be heard for what they are too. John Fogerty himself has perhaps the most emphatic of last words for the situation. “Fortunate Son is a song I wrote during the Vietnam War over 45 years ago,” Fogerty said in a statement. “As an American and a songwriter, I am proud that the song still has resonance. I do believe that its meaning gets misinterpreted and even usurped by various factions wishing to make their own case.” Enough said.

Artistes have, for long, used the inexorable pull of the crafted verse to express their anguish. It is perhaps a good time to remind the listener to pay more attention to the words behind the melody.

Sarthak Kaushik   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Sarthak Kaushik is an RJ at Ishq 104.8 FM, Delhi

Twitter: @radiochaos

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Published on September 10, 2020
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