‘I’m On Fire’ by Bruce Springste

Table of Contents

First recorded in February 1982 and later showcased in 1985, ‘I’m on Fire’ became the fourth single released on Bruce Springsteen’s legendary album ‘Born in the USA.’ Springsteen’s ‘workman’ brand to rock music has solidified ‘The Boss’ as one of the greatest rock artists of all time, and very few of his songs symbolize the ‘class divide’ more poignantly than this one.

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Music

Unlike most of Springsteen’s music, ‘I’m on Fire’ was the first track that introduced synthesizers into the Boss’s usual mix of rock and rockabilly. The result is a trance-like moody number with a recurring beat that drives its subtle tension to the surface. The fact the track mixes rockabilly influences with more contemporary bass beats leads to the consistency of the track, and it also sets the mood for the lyrics to take over and define its emotion.

Perhaps the defining feature of this track is the fact that it doesn’t seem to have a tangible beginning or end; there are no real breaks in the beat or any real perceptible rise or fall. It is almost as if the song is abstract, it starts and fades at the same notes, and that consistency makes it compelling.

Lyrics

The nature of music is such that one could probably analyze the lyrics of any song to exhaustion and not really know what the writer is saying, but with a song like ‘I’m on fire, there are a few clear themes that manage to make it to the forefront. The primary theme is ‘sexual tension,’ it resounds in not just the content and the use of words, but it is perpetuated by the steady beat of the music. The lyrics don’t really focus on a class divide as the video of the song does, but when they are coupled with the video, the impact of the message becomes a lot more forceful.

Hey little girl, is your daddy home

Did he go and leave you all alone

I got a bad desire

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I’m on fire

Perhaps the most forceful theme in the first verse is the use of the word ‘daddy’ because it is unclear what it represents. The ‘little girl and daddy theme is most probably a metaphor for the ‘spoilt little rich girl,’ which could make ‘daddy’ a literal parent or just the man behind the money. The video clarifies this a little more when we realize that the phantom figure is – in fact- married. The second line leads straight into abandonment and how this abandonment could make an opening for the writer to pounce on the object of ‘bad desire.’ If the girl is left ‘all alone,’ then the writer can play up on all the abandonment issues that bring with it. Perhaps this is why he uses ‘bad desire’ rather than just desire to describe his emotions. He already knows it’s bad.

Tell me now, baby is he good to you

Can he do to you the things that I do

I can take you higher

I’m on fire

Quite a lot is clarified in this verse, the primary being the fact that Bruce most likely did mean ‘daddy’ as ‘rich husband’ unless one wants to venture into an entirely different terrain with implied incest. The irony of this verse is the fact that even though the writer has classified his own desire as bad, he is now concerned with whether the woman’s husband is ‘good to her.’ This is either a ploy to make her doubt herself or him deluding himself that his own intentions are nobler. The next line is boastful, in what men can safely boast the most about…’ sexual prowess,’ the first notion is a question and a comparison, and the second is a statement “I can take you higher.”

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Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife baby

Edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley

Through the middle of my soul

This verse is primarily descriptive, which is why it is the only one in the song that doesn’t end with ‘I’m on fire. The latter is like the resounding chorus to the song, highlighting the writer’s passion, but this verse is all about the pain of desire and none of the passion. The fact that he mentions the knife to be both ‘edgy and dull’ shows that the pain is both sporadic and deep; it cuts and scoops at the same time; it is a contradiction and is almost all-encompassing. Also, the mention of the valley being cut through the middle of the soul rather than the heart or something like that symbolizes that the writer’s feelings are really driving him mad.

At night I wake up with the sheet’s soaking wet

And a freight train running through the middle of my head

Only you can cool my desire

I’m on fire

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The last verse of the song probably stands out the most because it is personal. In his live performances, Springsteen had mentioned not being able to sleep at night back when he was younger because his parents were struggling and it was cold. This makes the nightmare quality of this verse actually sum up the entire song as a kind of nightmare. These near wet dreams are haunting him, and the use of the expression ‘freight train running through the middle of my head’ couples nicely with the beat of the music, which is similar if one really focuses on it. The final sentence is almost a plea, ‘only you can cool my desire’, and the ending is an echo of his predicament, the fact that at present he is still ‘on fire’.

Music Video

The ‘I’m on Fire’ music video was shot in Los Angeles in March 1985 and was directed by filmmaker John Sayles. The video began airing in mid-April, received extensive MTV airplay, and later in the year won the MTV Video Music Award for Best Male Video.

The video portrays a dramatic storyline with a very elusive emotional undertone that makes it quite hard to make out completely. Springsteen is cast as a working-class, automobile mechanic and the other character is an attractive, married, cosmopolitan female, who’s face remains unseen throughout the video, magnifying the fact that this song is really all about the inner turmoil of the singer and not about anyone else. The woman is a regular customer who brings in her vintage Ford Thunderbird for servicing and always requests his services, almost marking him out for seduction…

The opening sequence of the video sets the mood for the song to follow, because at this point there is only dialogue. The key element of this sequence, as Springsteen slides out from under the hood of a car, all covered in grime is ‘un-attainability’. The contrast is crystal clear, in both their social standing, their appearance and their desires. He wants her because she is ‘near royalty’ and she marks him out because he isn’t. It is unclear throughout the video if the attraction is mutual or perceived on his part, but there is a definite aura of a spider luring an unsuspecting fly to its web.

The predicament is defined from the get go, as the woman wearing white, without a seam out of place walks in and calmly asks him to have the car back tonight, she doesn’t offer anything and we see him clearly observe her wedding ring. He in turn eagerly offers to drive the car up to her house, but she calmly states that her house is ‘way out in the hills’ and she can collect the car in the morning. This said, she hands him a set of keys, not just to the car but to everything and without saying anything manages to plant an idea in his brain.

The special thing about this entire video is that even though it is laced with sexual tension and innuendo, there is no overt sexuality to any of it. This is highlighted by the fact that we never really see the woman’s face or her presence after the opening sequence. The moment the song begins, she – the real person- is gone, and the version of her in his head takes precedence for the rest of the proceedings.

The song follows him into his room, dreaming about her and later sitting in her car driving up to her house, despite her telling him not to. One can clearly see in these sequences that this is all about his own demons and little else. Once he reaches her door and looks up to her house and the lit window, there is a twinge of conflict, where he hesitates at ringing the doorbell. After a moment’s hesitation and a whimsical smile, he puts the keys in a box near the door and walks away.

It is the ‘walking away’ that really defines both this video and perhaps the song itself, the entire course of the song, the music, the video and the lyric is leading up to something, the consistent beat, and his portrayal of the tortured man are all waiting for an absolution.

That absolution, when it comes, is rather anti-climactic. Alternately one might say that it is very powerful. The name of the song and its chorus is ‘I’m on fire and that state of burning from within has been built up throughout the course of the lyric, what then happens when he walks away? Is he no longer on fire, or is he choosing to stay that way? Or is it something just as simple as the fact that confronting his demon helped him identify it and she somehow did ‘cool his desire’. The act of letting go, doesn’t just make this an original video without a happy ending, but it adds a layer of practicality and ‘real life’ that is absent throughout the song, making it all the more surprising to meet now. The class divide, and an attraction built on purely the premise of ‘un-attainability’ can’t really mean much, once it is ‘attained’.

Perhaps this is why he realises that if he actually ‘cooled his desire’ he would lose it. The manner in which ‘the real life’ equation ends this turmoil is compelling because it strives not to create a ‘pretty’ conclusion to the dilemma that, for example, a video like ‘Uptown Girl by Billy Joel does.

Bibliography

Wikipedia. 2008. ‘I’m on Fire’ by Bruce Springsteen. Web.

Brucebase Recording Sessions History. 2008. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, August 28). ‘I’m On Fire’ by Bruce Springste. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/im-on-fire-by-bruce-springste/

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