The 5 Songs in Bruce Springsteen’s Catalog with the Most Iconic Lyrics

Some call him a working-class poet. Others call him a blue-collar storyteller. Pretty much everyone calls him the Boss. 

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However one chooses to describe Bruce Springsteen, his strength as a lyricist can’t be overlooked. Springsteen’s songs are often set in post-industrial cities, filled with characters who dream of the weekend, their glory days as teenagers, and a long-overdue escape out of town. Some of those protagonists do manage to hit the highway, driving toward whatever fate awaits them. Others remain at home, committing themselves to the slow grind of the day-to-day. 

Although Springsteen’s job as a rock ‘n’ roll frontman is a far cry from the factory gigs and assembly-line occupations of his characters, he’s a compassionate storyteller whose songs turn average Joes into heroes. Here, we’ve collected some of the most iconic lyrics in Springsteen’s discography. 

5. “Badlands

I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the faith that could save me
I believe in the hope and I pray that some day
It may raise me above these badlands 

Released in 1978, Darkness on the Edge of Town found Springsteen writing about the hardscrabble lives of people who’d been driven to desperation, searching blindly for an escape from their own suffocating circumstances. “Badlands” was no exception, although the lines above highlight the hard-won optimism of Springsteen’s protagonist. He’s not wallowing; instead, he’s focused, choosing to believe that love and faith will eventually give him the deliverance he deserves. 

4. Growin’ Up

I swear I found the key to the universe
In the engine of an old parked car

Springsteen’s characters may be born to run, but where would they go without a vehicle to take them there? Throughout his catalog, cars are a recurring theme. They’re escape vehicles. They’re places to make love. They’re accomplices in the last-ditch crimes committed by people in songs like “Stage Trooper.” “Growin’ Up” is a fan favorite that first appeared on his 1973 debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J, and it introduces the car as one of Springsteen’s main muses. 

3. “Born in the U.S.A.

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just to cover it up

Many of Springsteen’s characters have skeletons in their closet. They struggle to deal with the trauma of their past, and during songs like “Adam Raised a Cain,” they pass that trauma down the family tree. Born in the U.S.A.‘s title track explores those themes. Here, we’re introduced to a Vietnam vet who leaves the battlefield, returns home, and finds himself isolated from a country that doesn’t give its troops the financial help they need. The song’s anthemic sweep doesn’t exactly match the tone of the lyrics, which infamously resulted in politicians like Ronald Reagan mistaking “Born in the U.S.A.” for a nationalistic heartland anthem. 

[RELATED: 10 Iconic Moments from Bruce Springsteen’s Career]

2. “Thunder Road

The screen door slams
Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision, she dances across the porch
As the radio plays Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey, that’s me, and I want you only

Bruce Springsteen didn’t just channel Roy Orbison’s vocal performance on Born to Run; he name-checked the crooner during the album’s first track, too. “Thunder Road” opens with the vivid details of a novel. We hear the door shut. We see the billowing fabric of Mary’s dress. We feel the drumbeat of Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” as it blasts from the radio speakers. That imagery is matched by the song’s layered arrangement, which is filled with a similar level of detail: the bright chime of Roy Bittan’s glockenspiel; the Western honk of Springsteen’s harmonica; and the elegance of Clarence Clemons’ saxophone, which closes the song like an epilogue. 

1. “The River

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse?

Springsteen wrote “The River” about his sister, Ginny, who became pregnant during her senior year of high school. She married the child’s teenaged father, Mickey, a former rodeo rider who gave up his career in order to support the family with a number of factory jobs. Although “The River” reflects the couple’s attempt to reconcile the dreams of their childhood with the stark realities of early adulthood, Ginny and Mickey wound up staying together and having three children, which gives this melancholic song a happy ending.

For those who don’t know the story behind the song, though, “The River” is starkly dark, full of dashed hopes and battered, bruised resilience. As someone who often wrote about the discrepancy between fantasy and facts, Springsteen rarely sounded as absolutely compelling as he did here.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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