Friday, May 3, 2024

Book Review: There Was Nothing You Could Do

On June 4, 1984, Columbia Records issued what would become one of the best-selling and most impactful rock albums of all time. An instant classic, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. would prove itself to be a landmark not only for the man who made it, but rock music in general and even the larger American culture over the next 40 years.

In There Was Nothing You Could Do, veteran rock critic Steven Hyden shows exactly how this record became such a pivotal part of the American tapestry. Alternating between insightful criticism, meticulous journalism, and personal anecdotes, Hyden delves into the songs that made—and didn’t make—the final cut, including the tracks that wound up on its sister album, 1982’s Nebraska. He also investigates the myriad reasons why Springsteen ran from and then embraced the success of his most popular (and most misunderstood) LP, as he carefully toed the line between balancing his commercial ambitions and being co-opted by the machine.

But the book doesn’t stop there. Beyond Springsteen’s own career, Hyden explores the role the album played in a greater historical context, documenting not just where the country was in the tumultuous aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, but offering a dream of what it might become—and a perceptive forecast of what it turned into decades later. As Springsteen himself reluctantly conceded, many of the working-class middle American progressives Springsteen wrote about in 1984 had turned into resentful and scorned Trump voters by the 2010s. And though it wasn’t the future he dreamed of, the cautionary warnings tucked within Springsteen’s heartfelt lyrics prove that the chaotic turmoil of our current moment has been a long time coming.

This book will be published on May 28, 2024. Hachette Books provided an early galley for review.

By the time I started classes for my sophomore year of college in the Fall of 1984, I most certainly had added the cassette of this album to collection. "Dancing In the Dark" and "Cover Me" had both already rocketed up the charts, with five more hit singles yet to come. While I was familiar with Springsteen's earlier albums, thanks to my older brother, this really was the first of the New Jersey rocker's records I had got into from the ground floor. It was a perfect starting point for me. And, based on the Preface chapter, this is also was true for Hyden.

I enjoyed the deep-dive into Springsteen's music before, through and after this album, as well as the context Hyden provides in relation to other artists, other albums, and the then-current events. It helps to add perspective and layers to twelve tracks from the album itself. After reading Springsteen's autobiography, I found this a nice counterpoint from an outside rock music journalist. Music fans of the 80's decade will certainly glean much from the study presented.

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