This year marks the 40th anniversary of Born in the U.S.A. as well as Bruce Springsteen’s 75th birthday. Both milestones feel historic. Born in the U.S.A. ranks among the most popular rock albums ever made, with an estimated 30 million copies sold worldwide and seven Top 10 singles, including “Dancing in the Dark,” “Glory Days,” “I’m on Fire,” and, of course, the title track.

But as I was writing my book There Was Nothing You Could Do: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and the End of the Heartland, I realized that Springsteen at his zenith was something slightly more than a rock star and something slightly less than a political leader. He was—more than ever—the Boss. And, ultimately, he profoundly shaped how I, and millions of others, think about America.

As it currently stands, Springsteen is the most beloved living American rock musician. Last year, he commenced his first world tour in six years with the E Street Band, playing in sold-out arenas and stadiums throughout the United States and Europe. Every night, he performed several numbers from Born in the U.S.A., often in the encore portion of the set reserved for the warhorses guaranteed to bring the house down.

More than 50 years into his career, there is no question about Springsteen’s contemporary relevance or the enduring appeal of his most famous album. Whereas most of his peers have been hampered by the physical toll of aging, he still resembles the fit and muscular guitar slinger of the mammoth, globe-trotting Born in the U.S.A. tour.

Members of the E Street Band have passed away over the years—Danny Federici in 2008, Clarence Clemons in 2011—but this has not stopped Springsteen from forwarding the optimistic populism that enchanted audiences in 1984 and 1985. Even in an era in which rock is well past its prime as a form of mainstream pop music, it’s still possible to believe in the power of a commanding, charismatic rock star to bring people together during the three hours that Springsteen is onstage.

My own journey with Springsteen began in the summer of 1984, when as a six-year-old I discovered a Born in the U.S.A. cassette in my father’s car. I can still remember experiencing the power of that music for the first time. The sound was perfect in the manner of all 80s pop, with shiny keyboard tones and metronomically precise beats. And yet the singer was raw and authentic, like he was the kind of guy you weren’t supposed to hear on the radio.

Springsteen was more akin to a truck driver or a construction worker than an unknowable superstar such as Prince or Michael Jackson. Except this ordinary man seemed to also have extraordinary strength. He was a “normal” superhero, part man and part parable. A walking contradiction, very approachable and yet totally special.

That tape profoundly shaped what I would come to want from rock ’n’ roll. As a music critic, it was my personal “big bang” moment. All these years later, I am still chasing the rush of hearing that titanic boom! at the start of the song “Born in the U.S.A.” And I seek the version of America that Springsteen was singing about—the place where hard-as-granite individuals with kind, melancholy hearts work on the highway and pal around with guys named Wayne. A mythical heartland where people can set aside their differences and always have each other’s backs. The real, and also imaginary, America.

What I couldn’t have known at the time is that rock albums like Born in the U.S.A. don’t come along often. A big-tent record that appeals to music critics, radio programmers, political columnists, teenage girls, and six-year-old boys is an anomaly.

And what about that mythical American heartland that Born in the U.S.A. planted in my imagination? In the present moment, where political polarization reigns, a meeting place in the middle for “everyone” doesn’t seem like a dream that people want anymore. The middle is gone, which means the space for an album like Born in the U.S.A. is also gone.

That tape sounded like the beginning of something when I first heard it. But it wasn’t. It was a harbinger of the end. And the end may very well be where we are now.

Steven Hyden is a Minneapolis-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. He’s also the author of several books including Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock and Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation