' ' Cinema Romantico: Let's Talk About the Born in the U.S.A. Scene(s) in Air

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Let's Talk About the Born in the U.S.A. Scene(s) in Air

There’s a scene in the 1984-set “Air,” director Ben Affleck’s retelling of how one Michael Jordan came to be the face of Nike, when the shoe company’s VP of marketing Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) explains how he has not so much misconstrued the lyrics to one of Bruce Springsteen’s big pop hits of that summer, “Born in the U.S.A,” but never really listened to them at all, assuming the song to be a message of hope, to borrow the 40th President’s distortion, when, in fact, it’s a blistering critique of the land of the free and the home of the brave. It is not the best “Born in the U.S.A.” scene in movie history. No, that remains Michael Moore’s otherwise mediocre “Canadian Bacon,” in which a few overly gung-ho Americans invading Canada (it’s complicated) begin singing the chorus to “Born in the U.S.A.” in celebration…and then realize they don’t know any of the other words. It’s a better scene because it essentially lives out Strasser’s speech, though as a longtime Springsteen fan who has been driven around the bend for years by so many misinterpretations of the song, I appreciate the monologue, nevertheless. Once, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and fed up with the patriotic correctness coursing through American culture, and in a fit of embarrassing self-righteousness, I told some dee jay at some bar who saw fit to play “Born in the U.S.A.” that he wasn’t hearing the song right. I was surprised my friends were still at the table when I returned.

The dee jay, it should be said, conceded my point vis-a-vis the song’s point only to then explain that given the late 2001 context, he was compelled to play it anyway, which struck me as bizarre, confirming the song’s truth while furthering its misconception. And that’s sort of what “Air” does too, explicitly stating that the song, it’s not about what you think it’s about, and yet, misappropriating the ironic triumphalism by dropping the needle on the song for the triumphant end credits, including one showing how the Jumpman logo, the pinnacle of corporate emblems came to be. In explaining the decision to use the song in that spot, Music Supervisor Andrea von Foerster told Esquire, “Many people do still think of that song as like, ‘Yay, America,’ so it was a nice way to end the story about these underdogs,” which, what? “Everything about the sequence hints at some troubling, unspoken tension between what we’re seeing and what it means,” Adam Nayman summarized for The Ringer, “but not to the point where it actually changes the material’s meaning: It’s irony without teeth, and it wouldn’t know who to bite if it could. The main takeaways from ‘Air’ are that an essentially faceless corporation found a way to humanize itself through a perfectly chosen surrogate superhero, and that the middle-aged dudes who made the pick were visionaries—cool rocking daddies in the U.S.A.” 

Bruce might be the American artist for whom I have the greatest affinity, as I said when my friend Jaime posed that question during her Walt Whitman Bicentennial Shindig a few years ago, but recently, whether he knows (cares) or not, the two of us have been on the outs. He played Wrigley Field not long ago and I didn’t go, didn’t want to go, wasn’t even sad about missing it. The tickets, they were just too much and that exorbitant price pissed me off as it did many other fans. “If there’s any complaints on the way out, you can have your money back,” he said in the aftermath of the uproar, as if that meant anything. I wouldn’t want my money back after having lunch at Le Grand Véfour either, Boss, but the question is, can I afford to have it in the first place? A songwriter who has excelled on putting himself in other people’s shoes, suddenly couldn’t. I know, I know, you can’t fight Ticketmaster. Pearl Jam fought Ticketmaster in the 90s and Ticketmaster won. If they couldn’t win, then what was Bruce supposed to do? I don’t know, at the absolute least, he could have not written all this off to market forces. He could have made some move toward understanding and remedying the fan’s lament, as The Cure’s Robert Smith nobly did. Thinking bigger, if not dreamily outlandish, given that he sets his prices, he could have set his prices as zero, meaning the tickets would have solely been Ticketmaster fees, exerting pressure on the monopoly by starkly putting into perspective its highway robbery. 

It might be unfair to ask an artist, any artist, to charge literally nothing to see them live, but then again, Springsteen sold his entire catalog to Sony in 2021 for what was reported as $500 million. And per a Credit Suisse 2016 wealth report, there are less than 2,500 US citizens with a net worth of $500 million or more. That means Bruce Springsteen, blue collar icon, meets the criteria of the so-called “super-rich.” A super-rich person couldn’t play a few shows for free to say, hey, look at what Ticketmaster is doing to you? In fact, that $500 million deal is why “Born in the U.S.A.” was allowed to appear in “Air” in the first place. When Lee Iacocca came calling in 1986 with an offer of $12 million to recast Springsteen’s protest song as the “Like a Rock” of Chrysler, Bruce could tell the CEO to stuff it because it was his song, literally his recording and his intellectual property. And upon selling his catalog to Sony, he literally gave away his recording and his intellectual property, and if, say, Bank of America wants to license “Born in the U.S.A.,” he has signed away the power to stop them.  

“I guess nobody likes the feeling that they wrote a song and in some way the song is bein’ stolen from them,” Springsteen told Kurt Loder in 1984, “or presented in a fashion they don’t feel they’d want to present it in.” He was talking about bootlegs, but he could have been talking about his music in general, though, of course, once he sold it to Sony, it couldn’t be stolen, just possibly presented in a fashion he might not have wanted it presented in, and part of me hopes when he saw “Born in the U.S.A.” kick in at the end of “Air” that he thought, wait a minute now. I’m being unfairly idealistic, perhaps, especially in a world where streaming has reduced the earnings of musicians to a measly trickle. But Bruce is also one of the few musicians remaining who could absorb that hit, and more than that, one who once opined that the key to adulthood is finding a way to maintain your idealism after your innocence is gone, a sentiment I have carried with me, and that I suppose I had hoped he was still carrying with him too. He frequently puts his music where his mouth is, true, and reliably votes blue, fair enough, but it was gravely disappointing to see that in the one way in which he can make a direct and immediate impact on his own fans, he was content to sit it out, lest his pocketbook take a hit, becoming the very cool rocking daddy he legendarily mocked. It’s funny, in a sad sort of way, that at a time when American unions and workers seem more galvanized than ever, and despite still being in strong enough shape to power his marathon shows, workaday hero Bruce Springsteen has gone soft. 

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