Jack and Diane Get Pissed Off
In a country where the government buys and stores $275,000 worth of dairy products every hour while 224,000 Chicagoans seek emergency food handouts each month, a country where amateur composer Gordon Getty makes $83 million a year in interest while an unemployed autoworker goes to jail for setting up his family’s kitchen in a supermarket, the appearance of an explicitly populist album like John Cougar Mellencamp’s Uh-Huh was inevitable.
Despite brief Midwestern eruptions, populism, the blind hatred of the little man for Wall Street and the government, has been a primarily Southern phenomenon, fueled by the regional inequality Reconstruction left in its wake. Populism’s musical expressions have usually been Southern too, from Merle Travis’ “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’,” to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to Hank Williams Jr.’s “Tired of Being Johnny B. Good.” But the South finds its mirror image in the hills of southern Indiana, where both John Mellencamp and I grew up. The poverty between Indianapolis and the Ohio River is endemic and widespread, accompanied by strong anti-labor feelings, a history of Klan activity, and a broad strain of holy-roller religion. As in the South, there is local wealth, but the primary polarity is between the homefolks and the distant centers of finance capital. With nothing remotely comparable to the disparity between Park Avenue and Bedford-Stuyvesant, all classes have much the same culture, from an obsession with basketball to a taste for rock and country music. In such an environment, it’s perfectly natural for the son of a small businessman like John Mellencamp to become a spokesman for the masses. Southern Indiana is unlike the South, however, in that it never experienced slavery and even today has a very small black population. The best basketball player ever produced in the area (Larry Bird) and all its well-known musicians (Mellencamp, Lonnie Mack, Bobby Helms, and Janie Fricke) are white. While Southern rockers grew up in a living environment of blues-dominated musical traditions, Mellencamp had only the radio and the record player, which obviously made most sense to him when playing the Rolling Stones.
Twice removed from the source, Mellencamp has developed a decidedly unbluesy generic American rock and roll style and Uh-Huh, held together by a unified musical and conceptual vision, is his first release to make it work from start to finish. The no-frills production highlights the inadequacies of Mellencamp’s voice, yet he makes this set of simple three-chord songs work by never rushing the punch lines, often covering his ass just in time with anthemic choruses. The band, much greater than the sum of its parts, is pushed through a hot mix by Kenny Aronoff, one of the few rock drummers (Charlie Watts and Larry Londin come to mind) who know how to use subtlety to rock out. The lyrics detail a scorched earth policy toward power and pomposity but where Skynyrd and Hank Jr. are products of a distinct region whose identity has been indelibly forged by everything from Sherman’s March to the Dukes of Hazzard, Mellencamp has no such inherent focus and so speaks for every man, as on “Golden Gates:” “Who knows what the masters might do / They got their big deals goin’ on / Got nothin’ to do with me and you.” The same thread weaves through “Authority Song” (an effective update of “I Fought the Law”), “Pink Houses” (“Because the simple man baby pays for the thrills, the bills, the pills that kill”), and “Jackie O,” which invokes the Queen of Nothing in connection with all kinds of moneyed irrelevance, from name-dropping to sucking up for backstage passes. Unlike the Stones, who kept their distance even on great songs like “Salt of the Earth,” Mellencamp seems sincere in trying to stay close to his roots (he still lives and records near his hometown of Seymour). Nor is his political stance an afterthought, as he made clear when he explained the thrust of “Pink Houses” to Creem’s Bill Holdship: “It’s saying the American Dream and all that shit is propaganda. It’s like the Russians shooting down the plane, and we want them to apologize. I’m not condoning what Russia did, but that’s bullshit! There’s so many things we’ve done, and then we expect them to apologize when we had a spy plane beside the plane that got shot down.”
But while that’s as clear as political statement as any musician made in 1983 and stands in stark contrast to the raving jingoism of Dylan’s Infidels, Mellencamp has yet to resolve the central political contradiction of popular music: the extreme isolation of the performer from the very audience whose collective experience gives rise to the sounds and songs. Not only does Un-Huh remain so vague in its anger that anyone from George Wallace to Ron Dellums could claim it as a soundtrack for their political agenda, but on songs like “Crumblin’ Down” and “Play Guitar” Mellencamp appears to revel in the starfucker mentality he pokes fun at. It should be remembered that Dylan’s impact was due not only to his writing and singing but also to his connection, both organic and implied, to the civil rights and antiwar movements. The continuing polarization of wealth and power in the 1980s will provide similar opportunities for John Mellencamp and any other performer who wants to make more than music.
Village Voice / 1984