Another Born in the USA?!

An excellent article from
News Updated January 19, 2012

The ultra-anthemic “We Take Care of Our Own” marches in with one of Springsteen’s most martial rhythms — a kickdrum on every downbeat — since “Badlands.” And you better believe it has some of the same “trouble in the heartland” concerns, too. But then there’s that chorus: rousing, uplifting, and positioning “We Take Care of Our Own” to not only be Springsteen’s most misinterpreted song since “Born in the U.S.A.,” but misinterpreted in precisely the same way. With its imagery of flying flags, it’s practically begging for it.

And there are takers. The L.A. Times‘ Randall Roberts describes the song as “an affirmation of national glory,” with a chorus that reveals the song to be “about the country and hardship, but also about community and pride.” The Atlantic Wire cheerily reports, “it’s really, really good. This is to be expected, because it’s Springsteen, and also because the song involves flags, loyalty oaths, and going through life with a heart-as-big-as-all-outdoors.”

Of course, perhaps even more than with “Born in the U.S.A.,” even half-listening to the verses brings the awareness that the chorus is not as rah-rah as it sounds. This is a song of searching, and not finding — searching for mercy, for love, for work, for spirit, for the American promise, and, recalling “Long Walk Home” from 2007′s Magic, for “the map that leads me home.” The few concrete nouns point to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy as Bruce’s prime example to put the chorus in perspective, “from the shotgun shack to the Superdome.” Following the line “There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home,” the “We take care of our own” chorus can be heard as cuttingly ironic: we don’t.

In the New York Daily News, under a headline calling the song “a tale of American self-reliance,” Jim Farber writes: “The interesting part is, you could view its title line in one of two ways. When Bruce sings, with steady determination, ‘Wherever this flag is flown/we take care of our own,’ it could read as either a sober reminder to those in power of what we owe each other. Or it could be seen as a simple statement of fact — an assertion of self-reliance, a key quality of the national character.”

I’d argue that there are more than two ways to view the title. Aside from the ironic interpretation, it can also be heard as an accusation: we don’t take care of everyone in this country; we take care of our own. With a subdivided America suffering from paralyzing partisanship as well as racism, homophobia, xenophobia… who exactly consitutes “our own” has become a far narrower subset than everyone who lives under that flying flag. As Bruce sang in “American Land,” “The hands that built the country we’re all trying to keep down.” In that sense the phrase “we take care of our own” suggests bailed-out banks giving management bonuses, the wealthy giving tax breaks to the wealthy, “Marriage Protection,” and a Federal Emergency Management Agency that shockingly appeared to view an American city as “other” in its response to Katrina.

Which leads to a darker connotation of “We take care of our own,” a phrase often invoked by groups wanting to keep outsiders out, to justify violent, illegal, or immoral acts. Chew on this, from a 2009 article in The Nation called “Katrina’s Hidden Race War,” about a white “militia” shooting at least 11 African-American men “in the days after the storm, when the city fractured along racial fault lines as its government collapsed”:

Surrounded by a crowd of sunburned white Algiers Point locals at a barbeque held not long after the hurricane, [militia member Wayne Janak] smiles and tells the camera, “It was great! It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it.” A native of Chicago, Janak also boasts of becoming a true Southerner, saying, “I am no longer a Yankee. I earned my wings.” A white woman standing next to him adds, “He understands the N-word now.” In this neighborhood, she continues, “we take care of our own.”

From Chicago to New Orleans, that’s trouble in the heartland.

As with “Born in the U.S.A.,” it’s Springsteen’s powerful employment of ambiguity that allows this song to mean all these things at once: it’s an anthemic call for compassion, and a scathing look at how we’ve fallen short; it’s despairing yet inspiring; it damns while it praises. A song “about community and pride?” Hard to see that from where I stand. Maybe about the search for community and pride. But however you hear the chorus, it’s clear that “We Take Care of Our Own” is another entry in Springsteen’s documentation of the miles marked between the American promise and the American reality.
– January 19, 2012 – Christopher Phillips reporting

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