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How Music Videos Invented Bruce Springsteen, the Idea.

In an excerpt from his new book, ‘There Was Nothing You Could Do: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and the End of the Heartland,’ Steven Hyden explores how the Bruce Springsteen Character was forged on MTV in the mid-’80s

By Steven Hyden | May 28, 2024 7:10 am. The Ringer

Forty years ago next month, Bruce Springsteen released what would become the album most entwined with his legacy and American culture writ large: Born in the U.S.A. In his new book, out Tuesday, There Was Nothing You Could Do: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and the End of the Heartland, veteran rock critic Steven Hyden explores how it became what it did—and what it meant for Bruce, rock music, and the greater zeitgeist. In this exclusive excerpt, Hyden looks at the medium that introduced many people to the album: the music video.

Bruce Springsteen is not a great music video artist. I am certain that he would not be offended by this statement because I don’t think that being a great music video artist was ever a priority for him. During the Born in the U.S.A. era, music videos were a means to an end.

The most memorable image of Bruce from this era derives from the Born in the U.S.A. album cover shot by Andrea Klein and famed Rolling Stone photographer Annie Leibovitz, which was later recreated in the title song’s video. As Dave Marsh relates in his 1987 book Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s, Leibovitz shot Springsteen over five or six sessions and amassed a series of photos that depicted him in various epic poses. One such picture—Bruce is dressed in a blue shirt, black leather jacket, and black pants and is captured airborne with his legs stuck at a 45-degree angle—was used for the cover of the “Dancing in the Dark” 12-inch single. Another shot of Bruce leaping in front of the American flag with his right arm frozen in a Pete Townshend–style windmill over his guitar was utilized for the cover of the Born in the U.S.A. tour program.

As for the photo that made the album cover, Leibovitz did not consider it her best work, referring to it dismissively as a “grab shot.” It’s true that, when compared with some of the Born in the U.S.A. outtakes, it’s not as artfully composed. But the photo proved to be a remarkably pliable image that conveyed several messages at once. The white work shirt and blue jeans were shorthand for the album’s working-class themes. The red and white stripes obviously represented America. The focus on Bruce’s ass had sexual overtones. The combined alchemy of these elements communicated the paradoxical idea that Bruce was an everyman and the man of his place and time.


That idea carried over to the first music video he made for Born in the U.S.A., “Dancing in the Dark.” I do not need to repeat the particulars of the “Dancing in the Dark” video because anyone who is remotely familiar with Bruce Springsteen can picture scenes from it in their mind. What’s important is that the video undeniably made him more famous in the short run, and it unquestionably made it easier to make fun of him in the long run. I have a friend who hates Bruce Springsteen, and when he wants to annoy me, he will text me GIFs of Bruce dancing in the “Dancing in the Dark” video because he knows I can’t defend it. That video personifies everything that is corny about Bruce Springsteen and almost nothing that is cool about him.

For a long time, I thought the strangest thing about the “Dancing in the Dark” video was that it was directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Brian De Palma. A friend of Springsteen and Jon Landau, De Palma stepped in at the last minute after a previous attempt at making a video for the song failed. He was not an obvious choice. Very little about “Dancing in the Dark” aligns textually with De Palma’s cinematic output in any obvious way. A high-IQ pervert best known for making lushly choreographed and technically brilliant thrillers loaded with tawdry sex and graphic violence, De Palma’s work on “Dancing in the Dark” seems incongruously wholesome in comparison.

But subtextually, “Dancing in the Dark” shares at least two attributes with Body Double, the highly controversial and very entertaining Rear WindowVertigo rip-off that De Palma also made in 1984. The first is that both films sexualize their protagonists. (“Dancing in the Dark” opens by lingering on Bruce’s crotch and butt; Body Double stars Melanie Griffith as a porn star.) The second is that De Palma deftly uses flashy and kinetic imagery to distract the audience from a ridiculous plot. (A rock star singing about his inescapable loneliness while smiling ear to ear with future Friends star Courteney Cox in “Dancing in the Dark” versus a dim-witted actor caught in a convoluted double cross that inexplicably frames him for murder in Body Double.)

Bruce had mixed feelings about the video’s slickness and feel-good pop presentation, though he could also recognize that “Dancing in the Dark” achieved exactly what it was supposed to. As he related to Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder in 1984, “I was on the beach and this kid came up to me—I think his name was Mike, he was like seven or eight—and he says, ‘I saw you on MTV.’ And then he says, ‘I got your moves down.’ So I say, ‘Well, let me check ’em out.’ And he starts doin’, like, ‘Dancing in the Dark.’ And he was pretty good, you know?”

Any hardcore Boss-head who still harbors ill will toward “Dancing in the Dark” should go on YouTube and look up the original video that Bruce was forced to abandon. (The footage that leaked is supposedly a rehearsal take, but it provides an adequate approximation of the concept.)

Directed by Jeff Stein, one of the most important early music-video filmmakers and another personal friend of Bruce, this “Dancing in the Dark” presents Bruce Springsteen moving by himself on an all-black stage and against a black backdrop. The concept (I guess?) is that he is dancing near the dark. But that’s all that we see. In a single take, the camera zooms in and out while Bruce robotically tosses his arms and swings his hips. He is wearing a sleeveless white undershirt, tight black pants with black suspenders, and a black headband. His muscles are exposed. His armpit hair is glistening. He looks like a mime attending a Jazzercise class.

According to the excellent 2011 oral history I Want My MTV, Bruce knew in the moment how silly he looked. “He performed one time, we cut the camera, and he walked off the fucking set and didn’t come back,” says director of photography Daniel Pearl, who later shot iconic videos for U2’s “With or Without You” and Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain.”

“We stood around for half an hour,” Pearl says. “People scoured the building looking for him, and we finally realized, ‘Oh my god, he’s gone.’”

For his next video, Bruce set out to make the gritty version of “Dancing in the Dark.” In the “Born in the U.S.A.” video, we see Bruce onstage with the E Street Band in Los Angeles in 1984. The clean-cut, happy-go-lucky guy from “Dancing in the Dark” has been replaced by a grizzled, screaming arena rocker clad in denim and leather. He is technically lip-syncing, but it’s obvious that the live footage has been aligned with the record in postproduction. We see him really singing—and feeling—this song.

When we don’t see Bruce, we see clips of the America that the song describes—people lined up outside of a check-cashing business, a one-eyed mustachioed guy drinking a beer, ROTC soldiers going through their paces, a military cemetery lined with endless headstones. The dissonance of the “Dancing in the Dark” video is that the tone, mood, and imagery contradict the lyrics and Bruce’s usual persona. (He doesn’t even play guitar in the video.) But “Born in the U.S.A.” is a literal depiction of the song and Bruce’s idea of himself. It’s as “honest” as his music videos get.

The personnel for “Born in the U.S.A.” was just as illustrious as the makers of “Dancing in the Dark.” Director John Sayles was celebrated for making authentic slice-of-life indie films like Return of the Secaucus 7 and Baby It’s You. (The latter film includes several Springsteen songs on the soundtrack.) Per Bruce’s instruction to make a down-and-dirty video, Sayles shot in 16 mm, a choice that belies the world-class cinematographers on the project: Ernest Dickerson (who later shot Do the Right Thing) and Michael Ballhaus (who subsequently filmed Goodfellas).

Bruce opted to use Sayles again for the next two videos, though the director took Springsteen’s video image in yet another direction. In “I’m on Fire” and “Glory Days,” Bruce acts. He’s playing the characters in the songs, though it really feels like one character. In “I’m on Fire,” he is a greasy mechanic who contemplates an affair with a flirtatious (and largely unseen) rich woman. In “Glory Days,” he is a construction worker and family man who fantasizes about pitching against the San Diego Padres. He is also the frontman of a bar band that happens to look exactly like the E Street Band.

“I’m on Fire” features Bruce’s best performance as an actor. He is tasked with looking lustful, then reticent, as he hops in the woman’s Cadillac and takes it on a late-night drive to her home in the Hollywood Hills. The clip’s most theatrical moment is a crane shot in Bruce’s bedroom, which lowers the camera into his face as he rouses himself from bed during a sleepless night. His sheets do not appear to be soaking wet, but the look on his face effectively conveys the feeling of a freight train running through the middle of his head. Of all the Born in the U.S.A. music videos, this seems the most like a short film. When Bruce reaches his moment of truth and decides to slip the keys into the mailbox rather than ring the woman’s doorbell, you can hear the clang of the keys in the box, emphasizing the video’s brief but coherent narrative.

“I’m on Fire” is the leanest of the Born in the U.S.A. videos, which was appropriate for the album’s leanest-sounding hit. The song was cooked up in the studio quickly and extemporaneously, with Bruce stroking out a rockabilly guitar figure against Max Weinberg’s metronomic beat. Upon hearing the chorus, Roy Bittan was inspired to compose a simple but expressive one-note synth intro.

On an album loaded with big-sounding rock songs, “I’m on Fire” is a departure point. It’s also the song that sounds the most like an ’80s pop hit, which might be why it’s the Born in the U.S.A. track that has been covered by the widest spectrum of artists from beyond Bruce’s usual rock wheelhouse. “I’m on Fire” has entered the worlds of indie electronic (Chromatics, Bat for Lashes), alternative pop (Tori Amos), mainstream country (Kenny Chesney), mainstream pop (John Mayer), British folk (Mumford & Sons), and many places between.

The tension of the “I’m on Fire” video is, of course, sexual in nature. Just as the song exudes desire, the video creates an instant patina of longing. And yet the story (like Bruce’s lyrics) is about not following through on what the protagonist wants. Positioning Bruce as a carnal creature who is ultimately chaste was yet another ingenious way to make him mean different things to different audiences. “I’m on Fire” invites the audience to envision Bruce as the kind of man who could indulge in a naughty night of passion with a married woman but chooses not to do so. The “I’m on Fire” video was like a prophylactic for the Boss’s libidinous side. He could be the stud and the virgin simultaneously.

In “Glory Days,” we see Bruce as a wannabe baseball player. He’s not observing this person, as he does in the song. He is portraying a father, with a wife and a young son, who still likes to pretend that he’s a major-league pitcher. Basically the opposite of the real Bruce Springsteen, but also a decent approximation of a “regular” guy in 1985, starting with the love of baseball, which could still be credibly called the national pastime. The five largest television audiences for the World Series ever occurred over consecutive years right before the release of Born in the U.S.A., with 1978 coming in at no. 1, followed by 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1979.

Aside from the flag, baseball was the most straightforward symbol of the American spirit to put in a music video in the mid-’80s. The game was still popular, but it also felt like a romantic remnant of the nation’s past. And that suited “Glory Days,” and not only because of the lyrical allusion to the sport. Like baseball, rock ’n’ roll was still a big deal in the mid-’80s mainstream, but it looked backward. And amid all the displays of technological know-how on the rest of Born in the U.S.A., “Glory Days” is a throwback to the garage-rock formalism of The River. The band sounds loose and jocular, Bittan’s synthesizer has been supplanted by Danny Federici’s organ, and the portending of personal/political doom that permeated the preceding singles is replaced by a feel-good party vibe. Even Bruce’s sidekick, Little Steven, is back in the fold again during the video’s bar-band sequences.

And at the center of it all was what we will call “the Bruce Springsteen Character,” a perfect leading man for MTV. In the videos for “I’m on Fire” and “Glory Days,” Bruce Springsteen is portrayed as soft-spoken, a little shy, hardworking, slightly dim, and fundamentally decent. If you were to make a list of “average working-class person” clichés and turn that list into a person, it would be the Bruce Springsteen Character from these videos.

This person was not the “real” Bruce Springsteen. And I don’t just mean that in the most obvious sense, which is that Bruce was a millionaire rock star and not a blue-collar laborer with a family. The real Bruce Springsteen liked old movies, books about American history, and above all his own company. He was a pensive loner with depressive tendencies. He was complicated.

You don’t get any of that from the simpleton you see in his videos. But the Bruce Springsteen Character overwhelmed reality. And that was helpful to the real Bruce Springsteen’s career—until it suddenly wasn’t.

The impact of MTV imprinting images permanently on an artist’s career would be more apparent after the ’80s, but at least one expert could recognize it in the moment. In 1985, a New York University professor named Neil Postman published a best-selling work of cultural criticism called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, a screed against the influence of television on contemporary life. The central argument of Amusing Ourselves to Death is that the transition from a print-based form of public conversation (which Postman argues reached its epoch during the mid-19th century, when Americans happily sat through seven-hour debates between presidential candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas) to a televisual one has made it impossible to properly convey substantive facts and thoughts.

A lasting concept from Amusing Ourselves to Death is the information-action ratio. The concept expresses the connection between what people hear and what it compels them to do. To put it in extremely simple terms: When people learn that fire will burn them, they will know not to touch it. Postman argues that modern media in the mid-’80s created so much unnecessary information that it amounted to disinformation, ultimately paralyzing and confusing consumers and taking them farther away from the truth, while ostensibly making them better informed.

Postman’s work has obvious resonance in the social media era, when the information-action ratio seems even more relevant than it did for television. But what Postman writes can also be applied to how MTV fixed musicians in fleeting images that gave false (or incomplete) impressions of their overall work, even while flooding the airwaves with that artist’s music.

The example people always give of this phenomenon is Cyndi Lauper, a talented singer-songwriter whose 1983 debut album, She’s So Unusual, moved 16 million units worldwide on the strength of a colorful NYC punk persona forwarded in videos like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Time After Time.” The common wisdom is that Lauper became so connected to her She’s So Unusual image—red hair, pawnshop clothes, a proclivity for hanging out with the wrestler Lou Albano—that it hampered her overall career.

An element of this argument rings true. When most people picture Cyndi Lauper, they conjure images almost exclusively from the videos she put out in 1983 and ’84. But the suggestion that those videos hurt her in the long run isn’t really accurate. One of the biggest songs of her career, “True Colors,” is the title track from her second record, released in 1986. Her third album, A Night to Remember, spawned another top-10 hit, “I Drove All Night,” in 1989. It’s true that none of her albums after that produced a hit song, but almost every pop star starts to fade by the fourth record. There’s no evidence that the ubiquity of She’s So Unusual hurt her overall. On the contrary, her career arc feels pretty typical.

In the case of Bruce Springsteen, however, the distorting effect of the Bruce Springsteen Character from those mid-’80s music videos truly has had far-reaching consequences. The most common criticism of Bruce Springsteen by people who don’t like Bruce Springsteen’s music is that he is not the person that he sings about in his songs. Springsteen’s critics find the fact that he is a rich man who sings about poor people to be inauthentic. Anytime these people want to criticize Bruce Springsteen about anything—the price of his concert tickets, his political stances, the preponderance of the word “factory” in his lyrics—this is what they go back to: He is a phony because he is not really the Bruce Springsteen Character.

Now, this also happens to be the laziest criticism of Bruce Springsteen. It’s like condemning Robert Downey Jr. for being a witty millionaire who is not actually Iron Man in real life. But it’s also understandable why the disconnect exists.

If Bruce had made a video for “Nebraska” in which he portrayed the song’s convicted-murderer narrator, nobody would think he was an actual murderer. (Though this would have been no more fanciful than presenting Bruce as a crane operator like the “Glory Days” video does.) But his public persona would have been darker and more disturbing. He would have come across as a less menacing Lou Reed. And he would have been expected to live up to that image. Any story about him being kind to children or a good tipper for waitresses would be commercially precarious.

This is the opposite scenario in which Bruce found himself during Born in the U.S.A. How do I know this is true? From Bruce Springsteen’s own actions. The way he reacted to his own fame shows that he has been locked in a decades-long fight against the Bruce Springsteen Character. On the cover of the follow-up to Born in the U.S.A., 1987’s Tunnel of Love, Bruce wears a dark suit, a white shirt, and a bolo tie, and leans against a white Cadillac, a deliberate departure from the blue-collar wardrobe of the previous album cycle. In the song “Better Days” from 1992’s Lucky Town, he sings derisively about being “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.” Many years later, in his career-spanning one-man show, Springsteen on Broadway, he opens with a confession: “I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life!” he says. “I’ve never done any hard labor. I’ve never worked 9-to-5. I’ve never worked five days a week. Until right now.”

It took a full workweek to fight against the Bruce Springsteen Character. And yet that character persists.

Excerpted from THERE WAS NOTHING YOU COULD DO: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and the End of the Heartland by Steven Hyden. Copyright © 2024. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.




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