How Bruce Springsteen created a not so “insightful” break-up anthem

In the story of 20th-century rock music, Bruce Springsteen stands out as a true all-rounder. His impressively consistent back-catalogue is enriched by lyrics of varying lyrical and emotional depth, ensuring that stage shows are packed with poignance and electrifying energy. Springsteen can get tears rolling and hips shaking, sometimes within the same song.

Although Springsteen’s catalogue is relatively consistent in terms of critical acclaim, his first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, were commercially disappointing. Fortunately, he struck the right formula in 1975 with his last-ditch effort at commercial success, Born to Run. The album was buoyed by the punchy accessibility of its singles and affecting lyricism throughout.

Springsteen stuck more or less to this formula through several similarly praised albums throughout the late 1970s as he became one of America’s most admired performers. His sharp songwriting grew from strength to strength, reaching a peak of personal perfection in 1982’s Nebraska. “If I had to pick out one album and say, ‘This is going to represent you 50 years from now’, I’d pick Nebraska,” Springsteen told CBS in 2023.

Many fans, however, Springsteen reached his zenith in 1984 with Born in the USA. Undoubtedly the Boss’ most catchy album and a great starting point for newcomers, the album took heed of the decade’s pop tendencies, bringing a danceable jig to the hit singles, which included ‘I’m on Fire’, ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and the ultimate break-up anthem, ‘I’m Goin’ Down’.

Something Springsteen has nailed consistently throughout his career, and especially in Born in the USA, is an artful juxtaposition between his lyrical themes and instrumental compositions. ‘I’m Goin’ Down’, for example, is an uptempo bar floor stomper propelled by major key piano stabs and explosive drum rhythm with ornate saxophone sporadically decorating proceedings; however, the lyrics paint a comparatively dismal picture.

Springsteen’s unambiguous lyrics detail the closing moments of a spiralling relationship. The narrator becomes increasingly frustrated as his partner parries his romantic gestures. We sit in the car outside your house / I can feel the heat coming ’round / I go to put my arm around you / And you give me a look like I’m way out of bounds / Well, you let out one of your bored sighs,” Springsteen sings in the opening verse.

Later, the narrator becomes “sick and tired” of his partner setting him up just to “knock-a knock-a knock-a me down,” leading into the tell-all verse, “I’m goin’ down, down, down, down”.

While Springsteen has never admitted to any specific personal experience behind the song, it arrived during a period in his lyrical diary rich in sexual and romantic frustration. Whether or not it strikes a personal chord, Springsteen has rarely performed ‘I’m Goin’ Down’ since the Born in the USA Tour, once introducing it flippantly as “one of my more insightful songs about men and women.”

Springsteen’s unenthusiastic attitude towards ‘I’m Goin’ Down’ extends to its parent album as a whole. Born in the USA certainly lined the star’s pockets and suited his dynamic showmanship, but he felt it lacked artistic integrity. Apart from the title track, Springsteen felt the album contained “a group of songs about which I’ve always had some ambivalence.”

Although he appreciates the album as one of his fan favourites, it was a wake-up call for his artistic outlook. “Born in the USA changed my life and gave me my largest audience,” Springsteen added. “It forced me to question the way I presented my music and made me think harder about what I was doing.”

Watch Bruce Springsteen perform ‘I’m Goin’ Down’ with his E Street Band live in 2013 below.

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