Socrates meets ‘The Boss’

By Richard Lee

Since I spent part of my career covering rock’n’roll and another part covering – and working in –politics and government, I often explore areas where music and public policy intersect.

So when we launched our Media Studies Across Disciplines project, I decided to search for a song to help illustrate each of the research essays we are posting this summer.

The first essay, Barry L. Gan’s “True Falsehoods,” presented a bit of challenge since Barry is a philosopher professor, and his essay suggested that journalists take a Socratic approach to reporting. Although Socrates was a brilliant philosopher whose work has had a tremendous impact on western civilization, he is not a popular subject for rock’n’roll songs.

Socrates, as Barry explained in his essay, was concerned that people not pretend to know things that they do not know and that they not draw conclusions that go further than the evidence allows.

That gave me an idea. Instead of Socrates, perhaps a song about being misunderstood could underscore the theme of the article. I thought immediately of an old song by the Animals and its refrain, which is sung with great emotion by Eric Burdon: I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

The Animals version of the song (which originally was written for and recorded by Nina Simone) includes a familiar riff that Bruce Springsteen readily admits he used years later when he wrote “Badlands.”

That bit of music trivia led me to Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” a song that provides an effective musical example of the points Barry made in his essay about Socrates and journalism.

The song is perhaps Springsteen’s most misunderstood composition. It was the title track of a 1984 album that featured Springsteen and images of an American flag on its cover. The “Born in the U.S.A” line, backed by a strong and steady drumbeat, is repeated over and over throughout the four-minute-thirty-eight-second recording.

Years after Ronald Reagan mistook “Born to Run” as a flag-waiving anthem during his 1984 presidential campaign, the song continues to accompany patriotic Fourth of July fireworks displays.

Too many people fell into a trap that Socrates had warned about centuries earlier. From the red, white and blue album cover and the powerful “Born in the U.S.A.” refrain, they drew a conclusion about the song that simply was not true.

The verses between the choruses in “Born in the U.S.A” paint a much different picture of America. The words tell the story of the struggles American soldiers confronted when they returned home after the Vietnam War. On a larger scale, they tell the story of the struggles of working class Americans.

Springsteen was so troubled by the misinterpretations of the song that he stopped performing the rousing album version and switched to an acoustic rendition that left little doubt about the message he was delivering.

Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, is a former music journalist who often writes about the intersection of music and current events.

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