Track of the Day: ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ by John Mellencamp

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

I love watching the Kennedy Center Honors for artists I like. In 2010 Bruce Springsteen was honored. John Mellencamp covered “Born In The U.S.A.” Not until I watched and listened to the complete video of his performance did I really understand what this song was saying: not the triumphal rock of a performance by Bruce, but how stark and gritty life could be, especially at that time for young men facing the draft and fighting in Vietnam.

Readers have written before in this series about the complicated patriotism of “Born in the U.S.A.” and other sad, proud-sounding songs. But this song, particularly in Mellencamp’s mournful rendering, felt right to feature on Sunday—15 years after the attacks that have so profoundly shaped, and deeply complicated, what it means to be American now.

I was 8 years old on September 11, 2001. I grew up in a political climate in which the phrase “9/11” has come to sound at times like a cliché, divorced from its meaning, ubiquitous and tacky as a pair of flag-print shorts on the Fourth of July. I knew only vaguely what the Patriot Act was and what the Iraq War meant, and so I understood them in terms of the symbols that gathered around them: flag pins and bumper stickers, shouted slogans of American pride. In the heat of the 2004 election, at the height of our preteen cynicism, my friends and I considered Springsteen and “Born in the U.S.A.” and classic rock in general of a piece with this noisy patriotism, until my mom caught us mocking some guitar-heavy track from The Rising and scolded us to think about what we were making fun of: an album responding to a tragedy in which thousands of people had died. “It’s fine if you don’t like the music,” she said. “But you listen to what he’s singing about.”

So I listened. The Rising, released in 2002, is an album of mourning and resilience, with songs of lost loved ones and empty skies and also resurrection. Its gospel-influenced refrains sound like prayers, or chanted affirmations: It’s all right, it’s all right. May your strength give us strength. Come on, rise up!

In one track, “Nothing Man,” Springsteen comes back to a character similar to the Vietnam vet of “Born in the U.S.A.”—disillusioned, struggling back to everyday life in a small town where he’s alienated by what he’s been through. It’s a song about first responders, coping with the aftermath of the attacks and the guilt of surviving as heroes. But in the years since its 2002 release, it’s come to apply as well to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, whose experience, as James Fallows has documented, is a kind of inverse of Vietnam veterans’—surface-level veneration for their sacrifice, but little substantive support for soldiers returning from a pair of widely unpopular wars. “You want courage?” the nothing man asks. “I’ll show you courage you can’t understand.”

(The video embedded below contains images that may be upsetting; you can also listen to the song here.)

What stands out to me in both of these songs is their sense of disconnection—the lostness shared by a “nothing man” and a “long-gone daddy” with nowhere to run. There’s an echo of that disconnect in the way the flag seemed to lose its meaning when I was growing up. Tragedy cuts us off from ourselves, from our symbols, from the touchstones we feel certain of. And that’s where Springsteen’s refrain, “I was born in the U.S.A.,” comes in—a cry of anger, maybe, but an affirmation of identity, too.