May 14, 2009

Voice Of The Small Town

There's a culture war taking place in America. Obama's election exemplified the two sides. I am not talking about black versus white, or the majority against the various minorities and immigrants that populate our country. In the war I am talking about, you have on one side the liberal, the urbane, the well educated. On the other, you have the conservative, the religious and rural, the working class. If you are the former, and in your 20's or 30's, you probably listen to bands like Radiohead and Beck. You listen to Johnny Cash not because he was a great, prolific country star since the 60's, but because he did a chilling version of a Nine Inch Nails song. You do not listen to John Mellencamp, Cougar in his name or otherwise.

You should.

In an unfortunate, though predictable, apotheosis to his remarkably enduring career, Mellencamp will probably be best remembered as the guy singing in that Chevy commercial. A great piece of advertising for Chevy trucks, but an unflattering testimonial for someone that should be remembered not only as one of our generation's greatest songwriters, but also as a cultural pioneer. There is a lot more to John Mellancamp, both lyrically and politically, than "Little Pink Houses."

Mellencamp is most familiar for his heartland rock anthems, songs like "Jack and Diane," "Authority Song," and "Hurts So Good." His smalltown roots--he was born in Seymour, Indiana--and his celebration of lives lived on farms, next to churches, and outside the Tastee Freeze mark him as something of a hick. Many consider him a primary listening choice for white trash, perhaps at best a poor man's Bruce Springstein.

To argue differently, to point out that he is an accomplished singer songwriter in the tradition of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Willie Nelson, to proffer the numerous examples of his later work that eschew commercial hits for a more personal and experimental sound, or to suggest the simple act of surviving the musical graveyard that was the 80's marks him as having at least some measure of worth may all be besides the point. Appreciating music is obviously a personal experience. We like what we like.

But whether or not you like his music, Mellencamp should be celebrated for more than just his songs. Because of the success of "Our Country", and his association with rural America, because of his celebration of the working class, and the rural farmer, it would be easy to dismiss Mellencamp in the same class as, say, Lynard Skynard or Def Leppard. There are some very significant reasons why he should not be.

First, his 1987 music video for Cherry Bomb, off the album "The Lonesome Jubilee," was the first music video to feature an interracial couple on screen together.* Since then, Mellencamp's videos have regularly been an interracial affair, and despite facing criticism from his record company and receiving hate mail and death threats, he has persevered in his commitment to addressing racial issues.

In another vein, ever since the 1985 album "Scarecrow," Mellencamp has been a vocal advocate for the family farmer. Along with Neil Young and Willie Nelson, Mellencamp is a founding member of the FarmAid series of concerts, an annual event to raise money and awareness for small family farms across the country. To date, the organization has raised over 33 million dollars for the cause.

Growing up in Indiana, albeit the somewhat metropolitan Indianapolis, I was predisposed to being a John Mellencamp fan. While attending a tiny college in the South of the state, I went to school with a number of classmates from small towns. My freshman year roommate was from Paris, Indiana, and a huge Mellencamp fan. One of my fraternity brothers was from Seymour, and would have fit perfectly in one of his songs, a fun loving drinker that was more liable to wind up in a bar fight than actually graduating. One of my best friends grew up on a pig farm in Newcastle.

It might seem like my college experience was unrefined, that it was overly colloquial, but I view it differently. It was one of my first opportunities to really experience a different reality, to be immersed in an environment with people from disparate backgrounds and world views. Its a perspective of which I think many urbanites have little practical understanding.

Listening to John Mellencamp reminds me that it is never wise to fall prey to stereotypes, that America, that our whole world in fact, brings together a myriad of viewpoints and experiences. We should celebrate life at its best and most beautiful, and at its worst. Life can be hard and cruel and unfair, but we soldier on the best we can because we are human.

And sometimes its okay to like a song even if it is in a car commercial.

*I am not one hundred percent that it was the first, but I have a strong recollection of that being the case when "Cherry Bomb" came out. I tried to find confirmation online, but could find no information either way

Lyric Of The Day:

Bobby Doll and Big Jim Picato
Call me up every single day
They don't work and they don't want to
Come on down to some damn cafe

Bobby Doll tells me
Live in the moment
Don't get too far ahead-
Don't live in the past
I blink my eyes
And the moment is over
I guess another day
Has passed

But it's just another day
It's just another day
Watching girls on the street
Well, that alright with me
But it's just another day

Bobby Doll and Big Jim Picato
Always there with their free advice
They've got pearl handled pistols
Under their vests
They want me to go out drinking
With them tonight

"Just Another Day"
-John Mellencamp