Magazine article The American Conservative

Rock for Republicans?: How the GOP Misunderstands John Mellancamp's Heartland Ethic

Magazine article The American Conservative

Rock for Republicans?: How the GOP Misunderstands John Mellancamp's Heartland Ethic

Article excerpt

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 of 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 crated.

"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. …

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