"Badlands" is a powerful statement of purpose from Bruce Springsteen. Over a martial beat and a majestic rock track paced by striking piano chords and a slashing electric guitar part, Springsteen sings of his determination to succeed in the face of overwhelming opposition. He uses violent images to detail the "trouble in the heartland" he has encountered -- a head-on collision, a crossfire -- and contrasts the dream he is trying to make real with a fear that wakes him in the night. His solution is to redouble his efforts: "You gotta live it every day...We'll keep pushin' till it's understood." When "Badlands" was released as the leadoff track on Springsteen's fourth album, Darkness at the Edge of Town, in 1978, his fans felt they knew exactly what he was talking about. After his commercial breakthrough in 1975, Springsteen had broken with his manager, Mike Appel, and the two had traded lawsuits that prevented Springsteen from entering the recording studio for more than a year. "Badlands," the first song on the first album he released after the debacle, was easy to interpret as referring to his recent career difficulties. But there was a much larger meaning as well. Increasingly in his writing, Springsteen had moved from mythic depictions of street characters to accounts of the ways in which those people's real lives fell short of their dreams. Born to Run, his third album, was filled with songs about overcoming the mundane details of life to live a more heroic, idealized existence. But by the time of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen had turned a corner in this conflict and become unsure that such a triumph was possible. (The key song in his work of the period was "The Promise," which he began performing in concert in 1976, but did not include on Darkness on the Edge of Town, with its devastating conclusion that the promise had been broken.) Set to a pounding, relentless musical pattern, "Badlands" was his clearest recognition yet of the evil in the world, one that left no room for escape: "Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/And a king ain't satisfied/Till he rules everything." This indictment of desire was a blanket condemnation in which even the dreams of Springsteen's beloved outcasts could be viewed as a kind of imperialism. But having seemingly realized that his aspirations were themselves a part of the system he disdained, Springsteen nevertheless maintained his determination to succeed, though he expressed that determination somewhat confusingly, stating tautologically that "I believe in the faith that can save me." He seemed to be basing his perseverance on romantic love and (perhaps) religion, but his description of the opposing forces seemed overwhelming.
As usual, however, the scales were tipped by the music itself, a celebratory, driving force, complete with saxophone solo, that supported the singer's hope-against-hope message. "Badlands" served as an excellent introduction to a group of similar songs on Darkness on the Edge of Town and was intended to be the album's title song until Springsteen found out that fellow New Jerseyan Bill Chinnock had an album called Badlands scheduled for release and changed his own LP's name to avoid a conflict. On tour to support Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen opened his concerts with "Badlands," and the song was released as the album's second single, peaking just below the Top 40. It has been consistently considered one of Springsteen's best songs, and he put a version of it on his 1986 box set Live 1975-1985, as well as including it on his 1995 Greatest Hits album and on the 2001 disc Live in New York City. The song is so closely identified with Springsteen that no one else seems to have attempted to cover it. (Incidentally, Springsteen appears not to have seen the Terrence Malick film Badlands at the time he wrote the song. He did see it afterwards, however, and its depiction of the killing spree of Charlie Starkweather had a major influence on the songs he wrote for his 1982 album Nebraska, including the title song.)