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Sex With Bruce Springsteen: The Gender Politics of Born in the USA

"Born in the U.S.A.", which turns 25 this year, stresses male sexuality as imperative to the American Dream. Where does that leave women?

Two minutes and ten seconds into Born in the U.S.A. , the first of the album’s many female characters appears. She is given no physical or character traits; just two lines detailing her relationship with a fallen male hero. “He had a woman he loved in Saigon / I got a picture of him in her arms,” Bruce Springsteen proclaims, in the voice of a destitute Vietnam vet recalling his departed brother, killed in the same war that ruined the narrator’s life. It is a telling image, and properly foreshadows the role of women in the U.S.A. where Springsteen and his characters were born.

That is the U.S.A. of the American Dream, where meritocracy is accepted as gospel until it’s proven as myth, where all men may be created equal, but are born into grossly unequal circumstances. It is also the U.S.A. of rock and roll, which helped liberate bored teenagers like Springsteen, and even helped ignite a sexual revolution. Throughout his career, Springsteen has grappled with the shortcomings of the American Dream: that great myth that hard work will pay off with material comforts and prosperity. What is less established is that sexual satisfaction is an integral part of Springsteen’s American Dream; a basic human right every bit as essential as life and liberty.

His ouevre is teeming with vaginal metaphors (“The River”, “Candy’s Room”, “Tunnel of Love”, “Pink Cadillac”) where the female anatomy provides some sort of sanctuary from a dark, spirit-crushing world where innocent, hard-working men are denied their entitlement. Like rock and roll itself, women are a surrogate release, pillars of stability and tokens of success. In women, both Springsteen and his characters (as much as they can be objectively separated) often find the promise that has been denied them elsewhere, but they just as often get denied here as well. Sex, like the other aspects of the American Dream, offers a lot of seductive promises, but no inalienable guarantees.

Side 1: “I Got a Bad Desire”

Born in the U.S.A. is a masculine album, and even the cover asserts this. The tight, ass-hugging blue jeans, the tucked white t-shirt, the bulging bared biceps, the red cap dangling off the back pocket, all converging before a giant American flag: it’s an assertive, in-your-face image, one that evokes the superpower that had won World War II and was about to win the Cold War, and its ethos of rugged individualism. Viewed from the back, Springsteen could be any of a million salt-of-the-earth guys who, often thanklessly, keep that superpower thriving. But guys is the operative word here: the various perspectives on the album are uniformly male, and within their viewpoints, women are limited in their capacity, doomed to sexual subservience and distressing domesticity. And yet, the pursuit of these women motivates much of the action on Born’s powerful first side.

Nowhere is this more blatant than “Cover Me”, which follows the title track, and turns “Born’s brief image of woman-as-protector into a motif. In it, Springsteen recoils at the horrors of this rough old world, and pleads for the most desirable solution: “I’m looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me.” Here, a woman, that one special woman and the sex she would ideally provide, offers asylum from natural disasters and manmade catastrophes. When Springsteen sings, “Promise me baby you won’t let them find us/ Hold me in your arms, let our love blind us”, one can almost envision the “Born” soldier’s late brother whispering those very words to his Saigon sweetie, as sniper fire audibly rages in the distance.

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