John Mellencamp is a walking contradiction: a self-identified redneck but politically liberal; a world famous musician who has married or dated models and actresses, but who never had a permanent residence outside southern Indiana. He is one of America’s best and most authentic songwriters, but he began his career with the fake name of Johnny Cougar, singing songs he now admits were “terrible.”
Without fail, every campaign season an ambitious Republican candidate adopts “Small Town,” “Pink Houses,” “Our Country,” or another Mellencamp hit as entrance music. And without fail, John Mellencamp politely requests that the politician stop playing his songs at rallies.
He has performed at rallies for noble causes. Mellencamp is one of the founding board members of Farm Aid—the longest running benefit show in American history, providing assistance to small family farmers—and he has lent his talents to the fundraising campaigns of homeless shelters, children’s hospitals, and even independent bookstores. He is one of the few musicians to perform for the troops and their families at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Although I’d prefer that he not, he has also opened for Democratic politicians at various rallies beginning in 2008, breaking a policy of issue advocacy but electoral neutrality he maintained through the first 25 years of his career. The difference between his performances at Democratic functions and his co-optation at Republican rallies is the obvious one of consent. He chooses to play at the former and rejects participation in the latter. Why, then, do so many members of the GOP continue to play his music at their events? What is the appeal to them, and what are they missing?
Equal parts James Dean and the Marlboro Man in appearance, gravelly voiced, Mellancamp has a rough aesthetic that speaks to American character and myth. The handsome guy in jeans and T-shirt, wavy hair in a Presley pompadour, cigarette hanging from his mouth is as American as cowboys, baseball, and the stars and stripes.
Mellencamp likely comes off as a brute to hip urbanites. He once told a story about ducking into a Los Angeles alley to smoke a cigarette. An employee at a high-priced clothing boutique found him and scolded him, “Your smoke is wafting into our store.” Mellencamp took a look at the thick cloud of smog in the sky and asked, “You live in this filth and you care about me smoking?”
The values and principles that Mellencamp celebrates are heard in the songs for which he is most famous. “Pink Houses,” perhaps his signature anthem, features the instantly memorable chorus—“Ain’t that America / For you and me / Ain’t that America / Something to see, baby / Ain’t that America / Home of the free / Little pink houses for you and me.” The nearest rival to “Pink Houses” is “Small Town,” the song he wrote to pay tribute to Seymour, Indiana, the farm community where he was born, raised, and “taught the fear of Jesus.” “I cannot forget from where it is that I come from / I cannot forget the people who love me,” Mellencamp sings in the catchiest version of localism ever crafted.
“Small Town” represents much of what Mellencamp embraces in his art—micro-patriotism prioritizing love of country with love of community, Christian principles, and the virtues of family bonds, neighborhood ties, and individual freedom. In “Cherry Bomb”—a beautiful blend of folk, beach R&B, and early rock ’n’ roll that deserves admission into the American songbook—Mellencamp looks back on his early twenties with infectious fondness and unapologetic nostalgia, remembering the days when “holding hands meant something.”
The portrait of American life that Mellencamp paints appears traditional. It doesn’t matter how many times he writes and sings muscular rock songs about casual sex and wild nights underneath street lamps, he always returns to the traditions of “love your neighbor,” “do unto others as you would have done unto you,” and “the greatest among you is your servant.”
Mellencamp was raised in the Nazarene Church and left when he was 16 because, as he tells it, “They said, ‘no smoking, no drinking, no dancing, and girls can’t wear make up.’ And I said, ‘That doesn’t sound like much fun’.”
He might have left the church of his childhood, but he never fully left the faith. The image and name of Jesus hovers over Mellencamp’s music. He often performs on stage with a white porcelain statue of Jesus in front of his amplifier. A painting of Jesus hangs over a jukebox on the album jacket for his best record, “The Lonesome Jubilee,” and he invokes Christ’s teachings in many of his songs, from some of his biggest hits to some of his most obscure album cuts. On “Jack and Diane,” his only number one single, he combines both of his belief systems into a visceral prayer: “So let it rock / Let it roll / Let the Bible Belt come and save my soul…”
According to the red-state-versus-blue-state mentality that dominates discourse on cable television, a middle-aged white Christian man who lives in Indiana, proclaims his love for the Bible Belt, and attacks political correctness—in “Peaceful World,” he sings, “We all know this world is a wreck / We’re sick and tired of being politically correct”—is obviously a Tea Party member who subscribes to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, flies a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag in his yard, and believes the Republican Party is too moderate.
John Mellencamp is not a Republican. He is a self-avowed liberal—but his is a community-based leftism that distrusts bureaucracy and hates paternalism, yet believes in social assistance for the poor, sick, and hungry, the widows and orphans that the Bible identifies. Mellencamp inhabits common ground with libertarians on social issues, and he is a consistent opponent of war and foreign intervention, but he does not believe that an unfettered free market will solve every social problem.
He has watched the corporate conquest of family farms and sings about it on the angry lament, “Rain on the Scarecrow.” He has witnessed how after decades of politicians relegating poverty relief to an inefficient welfare state or indifferent corporate state, poor men, women, and children have become collateral damage, and he sings about it on the heartbreaking “Jackie Brown,” the story of a desperately impoverished man who commits suicide.
He has seen the wreckage that a market-driven, money-obsessed, and materially measured culture has piled up in place of the small communities he cherishes, and he measures the damage in “Ghost Towns Along the Highway.” The mode of American life that prioritizes mobility above all and instructs the young to conduct themselves in a constant search for the next big thing has created generations whose “love keeps on moving to the nearest faraway place.” In “The West End,” he sings of a dying neighborhood and in a powerful turn of phrase manages to capture and condemn decades of destructive policies from big government and big business: “It sure has changed here since I was a kid / It’s worse now / Look what progress did.”
One of the problems of movement conservatism is a resistance to—and often flat out rejection of—complexity. Too much of the American right is dominated by a mentality that views its country with childlike simplicity and awe. Any invocation of American iconography must be worshipful, and for those who combine Christianity with nationalism to create a civil religion, any sign of the cross must be celebratory of everything American.
When Mellencamp sings about his country in “Pink Houses,” he does so with a sense of joy and celebration, but the ecstasy is tempered with agony. The verses tell the stories of poor black neighborhoods, young people who watch the steady erosion of their dreams, and the “simple man” who “pays for the bills, the thrills, and the pills that kill.” His more recent anthem of patriotism “Our Country” is optimistic but prays that one day “poverty can be just another ugly thing” and “bigotry can be seen only as obscene.” He searches for peace in the culture wars, proclaiming that “there’s room enough here for science to live” and “room enough here for religion to forgive.”
Most of Mellencamp’s spiritual lyrics are personal pleas for the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. (The song “Ride Back Home” is particularly beautiful in this respect.) But in a political context, Jesus’ role as the “prince of peace” seems especially important to Mellencamp. In “To Washington,” he sings about the sins of war and asks, “What is the thought process to take a human’s life / What would be the reason to think that this is right / From Jesus Christ to Washington.”
John Mellencamp’s America is a conflicted country full of beauty and brutality, mercy and cruelty, life and death, and sin and redemption. Republican politicians and right-wing commentators often miss the conflict as they seek opportunities for static categorization. They proceed down this path at their own peril. Ignoring the problems that plague America will only lead to their exacerbation, and that certainly doesn’t seem wise—much less patriotic.
In 1987, Mellencamp added a violin, an accordion, a banjo, a dobro, and gospel backup singers to his already powerful rock band. He called the hybridization of traditional Americana with rock ‘n’ roll, “gypsy rock.” It was an innovation that in large part catalyzed the “no depression” and “alternative country” movements of the 1990s, and which still influences popular music in the sounds of Mumford and Sons, the Avett Brothers, and several other rock and country bands.
Mellencamp never receives the acclaim he deserves for such a groundbreaking venture. He combined some of the best elements of American music’s past—black gospel, Appalachian folk, Delta blues—with some of the best elements of anthemic rock and melodic R&B.
He created a sound of conflict: the jubilation of the gospel struggling against the anger of the blues and the sadness of the folk fiddle, sublimated into the aggression of rock ‘n’ roll. It is an aural map for an intelligent traditionalism that holds the values and treasures of the past sacred but takes into account the gifts of modern times.
Mellencamp’s “gypsy rock” was no small achievement, but it might be easier accomplished in art than in politics. The singer has often said most of his fans are Republicans, and judging by the politicians who most often play his music and the audiences at his shows across the Midwest, he is probably right. Free-market fundamentalists, big-government Republicans, and war hawks enjoy Mellencamp’s music. Maybe eventually they will start to listen.
The quality that colors most of Mellencamp’s work is hopeful nostalgia. That might seem like a contradiction, but in a country that has a progressive movement dedicated to wiping out the past and a conservative movement too often committed to killing the future, it might be exactly what the culture needs. It is frustrating, infuriating, and also, against all odds, inspiring. But ain’t that America?
David Masciotra is a columnist with the Indianapolis Star. He is the author of All That We Learned About Livin’: The Art and Legacy of John Mellencamp (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky).