So I see we’re doing that thing again where we pedantically school conservatives on their inability to grasp the finer points of popular culture.
Over the weekend, NBC News correspondent Kelly O'Donnell reported that Trump supporters were blasting Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” outside Walter Reed to… um, I guess somehow boost their ailing hero’s spirits, or at least give him something nice to watch on TV. (Though honestly the scene reminds me more of the U.S. troops surrounding Manuel Noriega and blasting Guns ‘n’ Roses at him till he emerged from the Vatican embassy.)
On cue, thoughtful liberals dutifully slid glasses up noses and, once more, offered an introductory seminar in Bruce 101. “Born in the U.S.A.” [exasperated sigh] is the story of a guy with no future forced to choose between jail and Vietnam who comes home after the war to no job or even less of a future. Hardly flag-waving stuff. The downbeat verses make the mood of the chorus increasingly opaque. Is he expressing pride despite betrayal? Is this a nativist claim to his birthright? Is he just stuck like a needle in a groove repeating what he once believed? Our connection to our homes is a complicated tangle of emotions, and few songs dramatize that so effectively.
Still, claiming “Born in the U.S.A.” as a jingoist meathead chant is a long, stupid, much-ridiculed tradition. Ronald Reagan was the first Republican to unsuccessfully ask for Springsteen’s permission to use it as a campaign song, but he wasn’t the last. The party line is that Republicans are “dumb” because they don’t get it. But also, the tension that makes the song so profound wouldn’t exist if the chorus couldn’t be misheard in isolation as a stirring, straightforward bark of patriotism.
Anyway, we all “get songs wrong” all the time. That’s the nature of pop. We wrench our favorite songs out of context and willfully mishear lyrics, caring less about what they mean than what they mean to us. That’s why couples slowdance at proms and weddings to songs whose lyrics, when listened to a little more closely, indicate a future of messily dysfunctional attachment rather than true romance. There’s something wistfully democratic about an insistence that pop music gains meaning through how it’s experienced, regardless of authorial intent. How dare you lecture me and my 8th grade crush about what “Every Breath You Take” “really means,” Sting!
And it’s why sampling felt like such a jolt of liberation—this music doesn’t own us, rappers seemed to say, we own this music. (Or, at least, we’ll salvage the good parts and trash the rest.) In later lawsuits, though, copyright prevailed over sweat equity, and the ability to redefine a song rested instead with corporations who secured the rights to use them in ads. Power seeks to control meaning. And capital has the power.
So when some yahoos bellow “Born in the U.S.A.” in the streets, or Trump blasts “YMCA” or “Rocking in the Free World” at a rally, it’s beside the point to say they don’t “get” what the songs “really” mean. The goal is to harness the emotional effect of the music for their own ends without most listeners caring about literal meaning, to yoke pop into the orbit of a demagogue as the ultimate form of entitlement.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reclaim these songs for ourselves, push back against their appropriation, and create even more radical art in response. But there’s something more at work here than “lol dummies.” These folks know they're not going to lose points on the final exam for misreading the text. We should acknowledge that whatever ironies we hear in Trump’s rally soundtracks are irrelevant to the spectacle of power accumulating cultural artifacts for its own ends.
Never assume you understand mass culture better than fascists do.