I have a love/hate kind of thing with John Mellencamp.
When he was young, and I was too, he struck me as a cocky punk of the particular sort who could always (and honestly, still can) send me into an irrational fury with nothing but an oily smirk. The kind who love to push people’s buttons just to see what happens, and who always seem to get away with things that other people — people like me — inevitably get busted for. Now, maybe all of that was just part of the manufactured “John Cougar” persona that was forced on him by his early managers, the ones who tried to sell him as a pretty-boy rebel in the James Dean/young Brando “what do you got” mold. But maybe it wasn’t. Either way, the guy bugged me.
Later, when we both grew up, he expunged the “Cougar” part of his identity and rebranded himself as a midwestern Springsteen and defender of the struggling small-farm owner. And I found I still didn’t like him much, because now he came across as a humorless and sanctimonious scold. (See also Henley, Don.) And that’s more or less where my opinion of him has remained for something like 25 years.
Ah, but that’s Mellencamp the person.
Mellencamp’s music, on the other hand… I’ve dearly loved and related to a lot of his music over the years. The four albums that comprised the peak of his popularity in the 1980s — American Fool, Uh-Huh, Scarecrow, and The Lonesome Jubilee — still enjoy frequent play on my iPod, while familiar singles like “Pink Houses,” “Small Town,” and “Cherry Bomb” have only grown more meaningful to me as I’ve gotten older. Even “Jack and Diane,” Mellencamp’s lone number-one hit to date and a song that I got very sick of hearing back in the day, has gained a somewhat unexpected poignancy since I hit middle age. (The line about “hold onto sixteen as long as you can” speaks volumes to me personally, especially when I’m feeling overwhelmed by life and ancient as the proverbial hills; as always, your mileage may vary.)
This week’s video selection isn’t as bittersweet as those other songs, but like much of Mellencamp’s oeuvre, it delineates and celebrates something that’s distinctly American, nothing less than rock and roll itself… specifically the rock and roll of the 1960s, which Mellencamp and I both grew up on, even though our childhoods were separated by a good 20 years. It’s a song that sounds like summer to me, that makes me want to drop the top (and the hammer) on my car and crank the volume on the radio, a song I always sing along with and just makes me feel good. The dramatic urgency of the bridge (“Voices from nowhere, voices from the larger towns…”) fires me up like few other recordings; that is rock and roll in my book:
“R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” was the third single from Mellencamp’s eighth album, Scarecrow, and it almost didn’t make it onto the album because Mellencamp thought it was too upbeat compared to the rest of the tracks on that fairly dour collection. Fortunately, though, John’s manager talked him into including it. It appears as the final track on the original LP — remember, this came out in the ’80s, kids! — and I’ve always viewed it as a sort of necessary palate cleanser in that context. (On the cassette and CD versions, it was followed by another upbeat tune, “The Kind of Fella I Am.”) Released in February 1986, “R.O.C.K.” became one of John Mellencamp’s biggest hits, finally peaking at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, bested by Falco’s “Rock Me, Amadeus” (a song whose popularity I’ve never understood, frankly)
I remember doing a lip synch of this tune in my senior-year drama class and having a lot of fun with it. I’ll bet I was the only one in the room (besides my teacher) who knew who the artists mentioned in the bridge section actually were. If you want to educate yourself on the classics, “R.O.C.K.” provides you with a pretty decent beginning syllabus…