Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

I am Mellencamp

Tonight John Mellencamp will be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame, and there's a good chance you think this is (1) a crock and/or (2) yet another example of why the Rock 'n' Roll Of Fame is a crock. Either way, it's unlikely Jann Wenner's stamp of historical approval will make Mellencamp any cooler or enjoying his music any more fashionable. And that's okay, because coolness is Cougar Kryptonite, which, sadly, is not the title of the Mellencamp album that came out between 1982's American Fool and 1985's Scarecrow. (That would be 1983's Uh Huh.) Mellencamp's muse has always been the enormous chip on his shoulder over other people not thinking he's cool; it infuses his music, his lyrical stance, his persona, and ultimately forms the core of his appeal. It's why I sort of love the guy, even if I'm only a casual fan of his music.

How my feelings about Mellencamp have evolved over the years shadows how my feelings have changed about being from the Midwest. After spending (too) much of my life desperately wishing I was from somewhere else, I've become something of a Midwest nationalist in the past several years. I've come to realize that after consuming way too much media as a kid, I was brainwashed into believing that "Middle America" was a pejorative term rather than a geographic area. I once believed I lived in Nowheresville, and that I was part of the Nowhere people; just a bunch of anonymous hicks responsible for putting Republicans in the White House and keeping cuss words off the teevee. Raised on the New York films of Martin Scorsese, Brit-pop, and West coast hip-hop and northwest grunge rock, I believed that the Midwest was a cultural wasteland you had to escape from–similar to heroes like Bob Dylan and David Letterman–in order to have an identity. I was one misguided dude, and it caused me to miss a lot of great things situated directly in front of my nose, like the coziness of a supper club on Friday fish fry night; the unbridled joy of a sweltering, all-too-short summer after a long winter; or the dazzling vistas of breathtaking natural beauty that are always just a short drive away. Not only do I appreciate it all now, I've come to believe that there's no place I'd rather be.

Around the time I finally wised up about my Midwest heritage I stopped using the words "John Mellencamp" (or "Cougar" or simply "The Coug") as a cheap punchline when talking about music. Unfortunately, the man is still a joke to a lot of music fans. Truth be told, John Mellencamp is an easy guy to make fun of. His song "Our Country" has recently been featured in roughly 10,839 Chevy truck ads. He often wears vests with no shirt underneath. He's come to symbolize a simplistic view of "average" Americans that's somehow insulting both to coastal folk sick of being denigrated for supposedly not being "genuine," and Midwesterners who bristle at the small town and pick-up truck stereotypes that define us in the national consciousness. Oh, and he also once named himself after a large, killer cat. But Mellencamp, for better or worse, is my Skynyrd–he specializes in expressions of potent, defensive pride in the region I love. (Though, like Ronnie Van Zant, his worldview is grayer than his detractors give him credit for. His signature hit "Pink Houses," for instance, is as misunderstood by irony-deficient listeners as "Born In The U.S.A.") More than anything else, Mellencamp gets put down because he's from Seymour, Ind., and being from a place like Seymour, Ind. is really fucking funny to some people. And his response to that, simply, is "Fuck you." There's a "fuck you" element to a song like "Small Town," where Mellencamp sings sarcastically: "Got nothing against a big town, still enough of a hayseed to say, 'Look who's in the big town,' but my bed is in a small town, oh, and that's good enough for me." I'm as sick of hearing "Small Town" on classic rock radio stations as anybody else, but there's a part of me that says, "Yeah, me, too," when I hear it now.


Like I said before, I'm only a casual Mellencamp fan. I currently own only three of his CDs: the rock-solid two-disc greatest hits collection Words & Music, and the studio albums Whenever We Wanted from 1991 and its 1993 follow-up Human Wheels. And I only just bought the latter two studio albums last month at Half-Price Books for a buck a piece. I don't have much use for Human Wheels beyond the great, ghostly title track and the raging middle-of-the-night rocker "What If I Came Knocking" (both available on Words & Music). But Whenever We Wanted is a good little rock 'n' roll record, and a pretty splendid beer-drinkin' soundtrack. One of my favorite songs off the record is "They're So Tough," anchored by some smokin' cowbell playing by Kenny Aronoff, one of the all-time great session drummers and the backbone of Mellencamp's biggest hits from the '80s. "They're So Tough" is another "fuck you" song, more explicitly so than "Small Town," where Mellencamp rails against some anonymous asshole (or group of assholes) trying to keep him and his people down. "They like to make us feel little/They like to make us feel small/And keep us down/'Til we feel no good at all." At one point Mellencamp hisses that "they" want to make him their "nigger," an astonishing line that still shocks me a little whenever I hear it. I just can't believe he got away with using that word, even if "They're So Tough" is only a deep cut, considering fellow Indiana native Axl Rose got crucified for using that word just two years earlier in Guns N' Roses' infamous "One In A Million." Then again, Mellencamp is clearly not singing about African Americans. He's singing about himself, and flipping the bird at people who treat him like he's from Nowheresville. If "They're So Tough" comes on like a Middle American "Sweet Home Alabama," it's also pretty much a hick "Say It Loud, I'm Black And I'm Proud."

I'm not arguing that Mellencamp necessarily deserves greater stature; I'm not familiar enough his body of work to do that just yet. But I definitely think he deserves more respect. He certainly has plenty of good to really good songs: "Pink Houses," "Crumbling Down", "Rain On The Scarecrow", "Lonely Ol' Night", "Check It Out", "Again Tonight", "Human Wheels", and several more. In the current critical climate, where the frothiest, most superficial pop songs are analyzed and praised by deeply serious music writers, the rules of inclusion somehow don't apply to earnest heartland rockers like Mellencamp. who unfairly remains an acceptable target of derision by the snarktocracy. It's a shame, but Mellencamp has the last word in "They're So Tough": "They must be out of their minds/Can't read between the lines/They can stick it where the sun don't shine." Spoken like a true, hopelessly uncool, endlessly awesome Midwesterner.

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