We continue to explore the career of “The Boss”-Bruce Springsteen.
1984–1991: Commercial and popular phenomenon
Springsteen probably is best known for his album Born in the U.S.A. (1984), which sold 15 million copies in the U.S. and became one of the best-selling albums of all time, with seven singles hitting the Top 10. The title track was a bitter commentary on the treatment of Vietnam veterans, some of whom were Springsteen’s friends and bandmates. The lyrics in the verses were entirely unambiguous when listened to, but the anthemic music and the title of the song made it hard for many, from politicians to the common person, to get the lyrics—except those in the chorus, which could be read many ways. The song was widely misinterpreted as jingoistic, and in connection with the 1984 presidential campaign became the subject of considerable folklore. Springsteen also turned down several million dollars offered by the Chrysler Corporation to use the song in a car commercial. In later years, to eliminate the bombast and make the song’s original meaning more explicitly clear, Springsteen performed the song accompanied only by acoustic guitar, thus returning to how the song was originally conceived. The original acoustic version of the song, recorded in 1982 during the Nebraska sessions appeared on the 1998 archival release Tracks. “Dancing in the Dark” was the biggest of seven hit singles from Born in the U.S.A., peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard music charts. The music video for the song featured a young Courteney Cox dancing on stage with Springsteen, an appearance which helped kickstart the actress’s career. The song “Cover Me” was written by Springsteen for Donna Summer, but his record company persuaded him to keep it for the new album. A big fan of Summer’s work, Springsteen wrote another song for her, “Protection”. Videos for the album were made by noted film directors Brian De Palma and John Sayles. Springsteen was featured on the “We Are the World” song and album in 1985. His live single “Trapped” from that album received moderate airplay on U.S. Top 40 stations as well as reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Top Rock Tracks chart.
The Born in the U.S.A. period represented the height of Springsteen’s visibility in popular culture and the broadest audience demographic he would ever reach (aided by the release of Arthur Baker’s dance mixes of three of the singles). Live/1975–85, a five-record box set (also on three cassettes or three CDs), was released near the end of 1986 and became the first box set to debut at No. 1 on the U.S. album charts. It is one of the most commercially successful live albums of all time, ultimately selling 13 million units in the U.S. Live/1975–85 summed up Springsteen’s career to that point and displayed some of the elements that made his shows so powerful to his fans: the switching from mournful dirges to party rockers and back; the communal sense of purpose between artist and audience; the long, intense spoken passages before songs, including those describing Springsteen’s difficult relationship with his father; and the instrumental prowess of the E Street Band, such as in the long coda to “Racing in the Street”. Despite its popularity, some fans and critics felt the album’s song selection could have been better. Springsteen concerts are the subjects of frequent bootleg recording and trading among fans.
During the 1980s, several Springsteen fanzines were launched, including Backstreets magazine, which started in Seattle and continues today as a glossy publication, now in communication with Springsteen’s management and official website.
After this commercial peak, Springsteen released the much more sedate and contemplative Tunnel of Love album (1987), a mature reflection on the many faces of love found, lost and squandered, which only selectively used the E Street Band. It presaged the breakup of his marriage to Julianne Phillips and described some of his unhappinesses in the relationship. Reflecting the challenges of love in “Brilliant Disguise”, Springsteen sang:
“ I heard somebody call your name from underneath our willow/I saw something tucked in shame underneath your pillow/ Well I’ve tried so hard baby, but I just can’t see/ What a woman like you is doing with me. ”
The subsequent Tunnel of Love Express Tour shook up fans with changes to the stage layout, favorites dropped from the set list, and horn-based arrangements. During the European leg in 1988, Springsteen’s relationship with backup singer Patti Scialfa became public and Phillips and Springsteen filed for divorce in 1988. Later in 1988, Springsteen headlined the worldwide Human Rights Now! tour for Amnesty International. In late 1989 he dissolved the E Street Band, and he and Scialfa relocated to California, marrying in 1991.