I have a soft spot for John Mellencamp.
“Midwestern rock star” may be an oxymoron, but John Mellencamp, born and raised in Indiana, is ACTUALLY a midwestern rock star. According to Google, he still owns a house near Bloomington, Indiana, a gorgeous university town that is often dubbed “the Athens of the Midwest.”
When I was a student in Indiana and was told that Mellencamp lived nearby, I was indifferent. “Oh, really?” I was oblivious of celebrities, and, to be honest, I may not have known who he was. To this day, I fail my husband’s rock music quizzes.
YouTube videos have changed that, to an extent, of course, and now I admire many of Mellencamp’s songs, including his latest, “Wasted Days,” which he performed with Bruce Springsteen, and classics like “Minutes to Memories” and “Rain on the Scarecrow.”
Mellencamp is an intense singer/songwriter, with a passionate love of the midwest; he often treats themes of American injustice that are specific to the midwest. In “Rain on the Scarecrow” he sings about bank foreclosures on small farms and their disappearance from the midwestern landscape; his 1985 hit, “Small Town,” is a sweet, sentimental anthem to those who live their whole lives in small towns (in the video, he films scenes in Seymour, his hometown); and in “Minutes to Memories,” an old man sits next to a young man on a Greyhound bus and tells his story: “I’m old kind of worn out inside/ I worked my whole life in the steel mills of Gary/ and my father before me.”
Watching the YouTube videos gives us a different perspective on his work. Mellencamp’s performances differ in energy, perhaps according to mood, perhaps to intensive touring, perhaps to venue – who knows? Sometimes he is manically, adorably energetic, giving himself to the crowd, other times he holds back a bit, though he is always very present, and during an MTV Unplugged concert he hid behind dark glasses.
But at the Farm Aid benefit concerts, he gives himself wholly; he is invested in the cause, as a co-founder of Farm Aid in the ’80s.
I must say that I approve of his low-key fashion sense at a Farm Aid concert in 1992. Any fan, male or female, could emulate his look: jeans, sneakers, and a white t-shirt under a black shirt. He took off the black shirt (either as a sexy strip-tease, or because he was sweating, who knows?) and danced in his t-shirt and jeans.
Mellencamp was very cute when he was young, with thick, glossy hair and a slim, muscular body, not the toothpick-thin look of what I consider the “average” rocker (whoever that might be). He smoked during interviews, which gave him a daredevil look. Not that I’m endorsing smoking.
Of course Mellencamp, 71, is older now and looks a bit haggard, as though he has lived a hard life, but haven’t we all? Personally, I think haggard is a pretty good look: if you have it, flaunt it! As he says in his poignant song, “Wasted Days”:
How many summers still remain?
How many days are lost in vain?
Who’s counting out these last remaining years?
How many minutes do we have here?
2 thoughts on “John Mellencamp, Midwestern Rock Star”
As a Hoosier, the following may be suspect. Mellancamp has never accepted being a star, he has tried to be an artist, and has been bucking against complacency. His later work is more interesting than his early work, his pop star work, while less played on the radio. He does set a good example for creators of any sort.
Go, Hoosiers! 🙂
I am impressed with Mellencamp’s work – not phoning it in, as they say – and his commitment to his roots. And I do think he is an artist, though there are huge gaps in my own knowledge of his music (as there are in my knowledge of music in general).
And I do like what you say about his not having accepted being a star and trying to be an artist. I believe you!