Monday, October 8, 2007

Why I like John Mellencamp

I almost never see music videos anymore. Honestly, I am not even sure where to look for videos . I don’t believe they show them much on MTV, I am sure they show them someplace, but I guess I am not really that interested. Recently, I happened upon John Mellencamp’s “Our Country” video on YouTube and viewed it and thought it was a very nice video. It also reminded me of how much I like John Mellencamp.

I had the good fortune to attend Indiana University during the late 1980s and early 1990s, during Mellencamp’s heyday as a popular rock and roll singer. Living in Bloomington was always quite exciting because of Mellencamp, he gave many free concerts, would occasionally jam at local pubs with his good friend Lou Reed, and could be seen from time to time around town. I had the luck to meet his drummer and guitar player, Kenny Aronoff and Mike Wanchic, a couple of times, which was exciting for a young aspiring musician. And my greatest moment was during a gig (I was in an acoustic duo) Larry Crane, JCM’s lead guitarist, got up on stage and sat-in with us—we played “Midnight Rider” and “Independence Day” (one of Crane’s solo songs)—it was great.

Being someone with a developing social conscience and lefty political views, I found Mellencamp to be quite pleasing to my political sensibilities in addition to simply liking his music. Although rural Indiana has a reputation for being a bastion of reactionary politics, JCM has consciously tried to change that image. As my family is from rural Indiana, I am well versed in the good and the bad of Hoosier social views, and I always felt that Mellencamp’s songs always stayed true to his rural roots, while at the same time representing the best of rural populism. Classics like “Scarecrow” could have been very easily written about my family, “Little Pink Houses” is a brilliant, yet subtle critique of the American Dream, and “Jackie Brown” is a beautifully tragic comment on rural poverty. His work with progressive populist Willie Nelson on the Farm Aid concerts cemented his place as one of the great politically minded musicians of our era.

When Mellencamp released “Our Country,” I was slightly dismayed because it was immediately sold to Chevrolet for use on their commercial. Although it was clear that the song was a patriotic protest song in the vein of “This Land is our Land,” that JCM had apparently “sold out” was frustrating. I saw him interviewed on the subject and his explanation was understandable—that in today’s music industry, where radio/cable/digital music is all so programmed, it can be difficult for even established artists to get their music out to new audiences, hence the sale of the song to a commercial enterprise. Sadly, JCM’s analysis is correct. As a self-aware music consumer, I often have trouble finding music that I like and am still stumbling upon artists that have been around for years but somehow have been off my radar because there are so few avenues for them to tap new audiences. The fortunate position of Mellencamp is that he can use the commercial nature of our society to promote a song which reflects values that are at odds with that very same commercialism. I suppose it is the luxury of being famous. Having recently watched the video for the first time, it only reaffirmed my appreciation for the song, in spite of its “commercialism.”

More recently, Mellencamp has released “Jena,” a lament about racism in American society. The song reminds us that racism is still very much a part of American society, but only because we let it be. As with many of Mellencamp’s political songs, the subject is sad, but moral is one of hope. Not surprisingly, the Mayor of Jena has criticized the song as being “inflammatory”—as if trumped up charges and racial double standards aren’t inflammatory. I was glad to see Mellencamp still willing to mix-it-up and keep it relevant—and it might make him some money in the process.

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