50 Music and Memory: Shaping Our Understanding of the World

Morgan Milhollen

To Grandma Bette Jean, Grandma Judy, Mom, and Dad for the love and support throughout the years and for their influence on my love of music, communication, history, and learning, and for the professors who introduced me to concepts of memory and fostered my interest in the concept.

To Dr. Von Burg and to all of those who have helped me on my academic journey.

Keywords: Collective Memory, Identity, Music, Narrative, Interpretation

“Cause every time I hear that song, I go back, I go back…(Chesney).” This chorus to Kenny Chesney’s song “I Go Back,” a song about how music brings up memories by taking us to a different time in our lives. Many songs remind us of a particular event whenever we hear them, either because the song was playing at the time or we connect with the lyrics. They remind us of birthdays, weddings, high-school sports games, the loss of loved ones, and our best friends. I cannot listen to the song “Big Green Tractor” without instantly being transported back to the world of sparkly headbands and middle school, or “I Love It” without going back to driving around with my sister as she belts the lyrics (Aldean; Icona Pop and Charli XCX). Scores of songs like Chesney’s exist, linking music to old memories.[1] Our relationship with music and countless song centering around music and nostalgia link music to memory as a form of recall. However, this leaves one with the question, can music be used to shape how we remember things not only as individuals but as a society?


Music will often transcend the confines to the year, decade, or century in which it was written and performed. This music can refer to specific songs or styles. Elaborate clothing, architecture, and music often define the Baroque period. Protest defines the 1960s, and much of its music reflects that.[2] Thus, music serves as a manufacturer of collective memory and often will provide a subversive or alternative narrative to the popular narrative.[3] Over time, this alternative narrative that music provides can become the dominant narrative that shapes people’s understanding of the events, otherwise known as their collective memory. In this case, the term popular narrative refers to the ideas or perceptions held by the dominant political party and narrative. The term alternative narrative describes the ideas of those who were not in power when they wrote and performed the song. However, the longevity of music also makes it subject to a reinterpretation or the distortion of the artist’s original intent and message. “Born in the USA,” performed by Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, serves as an example of the connection between music and collective memory that can be analyzed through the lyrics, changes in the performance of the song, and the debate over its meaning.


How and what a group or society “remembers” or does not remember about a particular event or period is its collective memory. Members do not have to have experienced the event to “remember” or have an understanding of it. Meaning what actually happened becomes less important than the group’s understanding of it. Appeals to that memory can serve as calls to action and shape how members of the groups see the world and govern their lives. These groups could be small units like family structures or larger structures such as countries. The thing to remember about collective memory is that groups manufacture and edit it. Most of the time, decisions about what should be remembered are made consciously and deliberately though this is not always the case (Dmitri Nikulin 320–24).


In studying how society reproduces itself, Althusser identified ISAs or Ideological State Apparatuses as the structures through which the dominant groups within society reproduce their culture and economic systems. ISAs include religion, education, and family. Each of these structures plays a role in influencing how we understand events and reproducing that understanding among the next generation; they are a part of our identity. However, Althusser believed that the ideology produced was fixed and unchanging (Louis Althusser 105–13). Analysis of music, particularly protest music, pushes back against this idea as it can play a subversive role in the creation of collective memory, and in some cases, change the popular narrative and, therefore, the memory.


Protest music exists outside of the popular narrative, outside of the traditional structures or ISAs thought to influence memory, outside of the “hegemonical culture of memory” (Dmitri Nikulin 322).[4] Protest songs about war exist outside of what are considered public places of war memory, including “museums, military cemeteries, preservation sites, or monuments” (Blair). The songs allow one to engage in a dialogue with history (George Lipsitz 100). This is in part because many people find representations of themselves within music with which they identify with or find something in the lyrics that they connect with.[5] This representation or “identity” is a Burkean trope of rhetoric that helps music persuade and shape society’s memories (Burke). Music allows ideas and events that others would rather forget to be heard by generations. Yet music exists in the public sphere and is able to push back against this sanitization.[6] Vivid lyrics create connections between audiences and worlds they have never seen. Once an artist produces a song, it is the audience that interprets that song. New generations may interpret the lyrics differently, and current world views can result in the reshaping of how the public understands the song and the events it is trying to create.


Springsteen’s song “Born in the USA” lends itself to this study of music and collective memory for several reasons. “Born in the USA” is hardly one of his most political songs and was written when Springsteen was beginning to use his music to venture into politics (Collinson). In many ways, the song is also less political than other famous protest songs. One example of this is that while the song makes its criticisms clear, they are still implicit. It is also not a song that was sung at marches. Yet, it is still controversial. People on both sides of the aisle have used the song to appeal to their supporters. This controversy stems from the debate over its meaning, as well as attempts to claim the song. Former President Ronald Reagan and former President Donald Trump played the song at their rallies. This adds a level of irony as Reagan and Trump positioned themselves as highly patriotic Americans, yet they have used a song that criticizes the American government to help do so. In effect, they redefined the song to their supporters, some of whom would have previously labeled it as un-American. Springsteen himself is a vocal Democrat who changed the way he performed the song to deemphasize the chorus “born in the USA” to preserve his intended meaning, following Reagan’s use of the song, in his attempt to redefine it and use this new definition as a political weapon (Collinson). It has also been used by teachers when teaching about protest songs. This spectrum of uses and interpretations shows not only the importance of collective memory, but also illuminates a weakness in music’s subversive role as the artist can lose control of the song once it is in the care of the general public.


Many aspects of “Born in the USA” sound like a protest song; the lyrics seem to criticize the American government and the war in Vietnam. These include lyrics such as “Got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand, sent me off to a foreign land, to go and kill the yellow man” (Springsteen). As well as “Had a brother at Khe Sahn, Fighting off the Viet Cong, They’re still there, he’s all gone” (Springsteen). Coupled with current understandings of the American public’s perspective on the Vietnam War and a theme similar to that of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,”[7] these are indications that Springsteen is protesting not only US Cold War actions but, more specifically, the treatment of the working-class American Veterans, and American imperialism. Perhaps it is this identification with working-class Americans, as well as Springsteen’s star power, that wealthy, highly educated politicians like Regan and Trump were trying to capitalize on when they played it at campaign rallies (Collinson). However, if you consider Springsteen’s later works and vocal support of the Democratic Party, it seems that “Born in the USA” is a protest song working to shape American memory of a war that had ended ten years prior.


Unlike many songs protesting US involvement in Vietnam, Springsteen’s song was written in 1984, almost ten years after the end of the war. Making the descriptions of the song a product of collective memory from the time Springsteen first performed it. This time-lapse may also account for the reflective note on America after the war. Lyrics such as “Come back home to the refinery, Hiring man says, “Son, if it was up to me,” I go down to see the VA man, He said, “Son, don’t you understand?” and “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary, Out by the gas fires of the refinery, I’m ten years burning down the road, I’ve got nowhere to run and nowhere to go” (Springsteen), illustrate the economic hardship that many Veterans faced when they came back. This can be interpreted to mean that men were suffering because of the culture of forgetting or “collective amnesia” that America had been engaged in following the end of the war (Longley 4–7). Harkening back to protest music during the war, the beginning of the song reflects on men being sent to Vietnam, while the end of the song reflects on what life was like in the “present.”


Focusing on the chorus could give one the impression that “Born in the USA” is a patriotic song. However, the verses paint a very different picture, one that is similar to the idea of the forgotten generation and American discontent with US actions in Vietnam that we learn about today. It illuminates the effects of collective memory and under that collective amnesia, illustrating the hardships faced by working-class Americans and Veterans during and after the War, thus pushing back against efforts to forget involvement through a lack of education in traditional structures, like the government and the education systems (Longley 6–7).


Springsteen’s song seems a prime example of how music can be used to redefine an era. In this case, it would seem that this and other protest songs were able to successfully establish the subversive narrative as collective memory, making it the popular narrative that people remembered. However, attempts to redefine the song show the weaknesses of using music to shape memory because new authors of memory can work to redefine them to fit the hegemonic narrative. Songs such as “Born in the USA” also show that society reproduces and manufactures its ideas through structures that go beyond the traditional family, school, and religious structures, allowing for more narratives to exist and jockey for the role of the dominant narrative.

Works Cited


Aldean, Jason. Big Green Tractor. Broken Bow, 2009.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apperatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation).” Ideological State Apperatueses, Verso, 1984.

Blair, Carole. Mood of the Material: War Memory and Imagining Otherwise – Carole Blair, V. William Balthrop, Neil Michel, 2013. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1532708612464632. Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.

Brewer, Warrick J., et al. Olfaction and the Brain. Cambridge University Press, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wfu/detail.action?docID=321096

Burke, Kenneth. “Four Master Tropes.” The Kenyon Review, vol. 3, no. 4, Autumn 1941, pp. 421–38.

Chesney, Kenny. I Go Back. 2004.

Collinson, Ian. “A Land of Hope and Dreams? Bruce Springsteen & America’s Political

Landscape from The Rising to Wrecking Ball.” Social Alternatives, vol. 33, no. 1, Social Alternatives, 2014, pp. 67–72.

Creedence Clearwater Revival. Fortunate Son. American Records, 1969.

Friedman, Jonathan C. The Routledge History of Social Protest in Popular Music. Taylor &

Francis Group, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wfu/detail.action?docID=1251037.

Lipsitz, George. Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wfu/detail.action?docID=310811.

Icona Pop and Charli XCX. I Love It. Ten, 2016.

Longley, Kyle. “Between Sorrow and Pride: The Morenci Nine, the Vietnam War, and Memory in Small-Town America.” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 82, no. 1, University of California

Press, 2013, pp. 1–32. JSTOR, doi:10.1525/phr.2013.82.1.1.

Moore, Allan. “Conclusion: A Hermeneutics of Protest Music.” The Routledge History of Social Protest in Popular Music, edited by Jonathan C. Friedman, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wfu/reader.action?docID=1251037.

Springsteen, Bruce. Born in the USA. Columbia Records, 1984.

Nikulin, Dmitri, editor. Memory a History. Oxford University Press, 205AD.

[1] A similar link exists between olfaction or smell and memory, as like songs, smells can prompt a person to recall a place or an event (Brewer et al. x).

[2] Other movements that show a similar connection to music and protest include: the labor movement in the United States, the antislavery movement, the Civil Rights movement, the struggle against Apartheid, modern feminist movements, and many others (Friedman).

[3] Music can also be used to stabilize culture and emphasize cultural norms. Examples of these include national anthems, and football chants (Moore 387).

[4] More fun info on protest music.

[5] This representation does not have to be obvious. Someone could see a reflection of themselves in a love song or a break-up song, having never been in love or having experienced a breakup.

[6] This process of forgetting or sanitization for both justification of the war and keeps future generations open to war (Blair).

[7] “Fortunate Son” is another song with a prominent role in pop culture, as it is often used in movies about Vietnam, and despite being a song written to protest the wealthy buying their way out of military service was played by former President Trump at one of his rallies (Creedence Clearwater Revival).


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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Morgan Milhollen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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