Lately I’ve been thinking about a performance of John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” that occurred 16 years ago, at The Concert for New York City, in the wake of Sept. 11. This isn’t on my mind merely because we just recognized another 9/11 anniversary this week — or, rather, it’s not only that. My primary interest in this largely forgotten moment relates to my view that it represents a crossroads for two of the most important Midwestern rock stars ever, and a turning point for how the so-called “heartland” has come to define itself.
A top 10 hit in 1984, “Pink Houses” is Mellencamp’s signature song, and it embodies the attributes that made him a multi-platinum star during the ’80s — the guitars are strummy and jangly, the chorus is catchy and robust, and the lyrics state in plainspoken language relatable truths about lower middle-class life for millions of Americans. It is the very epitome of heartland rock, a strain of roots-conscious music derived from folk, country, blues, and ’50s and ’60s rock, and modernized with topical lyrics about the economy, ineffectual politicians, and small-town life. Thirty years ago, as unlikely as it might seem today, this kind of music actually fit under the pop umbrella.
That Mellencamp would play “Pink Houses” at The Concert for New York City was a predictable but nonetheless necessary balm for the thousands of traumatized police officers and firefighters packed into Madison Square Garden that night. The crowd shots of beefy middle-aged guys singing along to “Pink Houses” while locked arm-in-arm attests to the song’s staying power. This was the music — unapologetically blue-collar classic rock — that had soundtracked better times in their lives.
Like another defining heartland rock song of 1984, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA,” the uplifting sound and anthemic “ain’t that America?” chorus of “Pink Houses” predisposed it to misinterpretation. A pointed rebuke of the “American Dream” fantasy, “Pink Houses” would be twisted in subsequent decades — by guileless fans and cynical political candidates — into a simplistic expression of patriotism. For more than 30 years, Mellencamp has been asking Republican politicians to stop playing “Pink Houses” at campaign rallies. It’s practically an election-year tradition.
For anyone doubting Mellencamp’s intentions with “Pink Houses,” the final verse should’ve made things crystal clear. It’s the bitterest part of the song, in which the class tensions that bristle throughout the first two-thirds of “Pink Houses” finally bubble over into full-on fury at the rich. Mellencamp calls out fat cats who “go to work in some high rise / and vacation down in the gulf of Mexico.” In Mellencamp’s view, “there’s winners and there’s losers” in America, and he’s not coy about who’s coming up short. “The simple man pays for the thrills, the bills, the pills that kill,” he rasps.
At this point in “Pink Houses” — which sounds more prescient than ever in 2017, given the opioid epidemic that’s ravaging already destitute middle-American communities throughout this country — Mellencamp introduced a special guest at the 9/11 show. Decked out in a red, white, and blue button-down and looking like he just rolled in from some Times Square gutter, Kid Rock spat out Mellencamp’s recriminations with more passion than tunefulness. It was hardly a great performance, but Kid Rock’s mere presence was incredible enough.
In 2001, the rap-rocker formerly known as Bob Ritchie seemed utterly out of place on a bill with Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and so many other classic-rock luminaries. Kid Rock hadn’t yet crossed over from his rowdy, nu-metal image from the late ’90s — he was, for lack of a better term, a bit of a buffoon, the doltish “Bawitdaba” guy. But when Mellencamp put his arm around Kid Rock as they hollered “Pink Houses” to a rousing close, some of the gravitas of the former rubbed off on the latter. Like that, Kid Rock was christened as a heartland rocker.
Looking back, pairing Mellencamp with Kid Rock had a kind of logic. As younger men, they were both brash, outspoken rabble-rousers who foregrounded a “regular guy” regional identity into their personas. Whereas so many stars from the midwest have tried to escape the ordinariness of flyover country — from Michael Jackson to Prince to Madonna to Axl Rose — Mellencamp and Kid Rock stuck close to home (Indiana for Mellencamp, Michigan for Kid Rock) and stuck up for their beleaguered neighbors.
In nearly every other respect, however, Mellencamp and Kid Rock signify opposing political archetypes — or, perhaps, the evolution of the same populist archetype from the ’80s to the present day, which over time has shifted from the “we’re all in this together” model of Woody Guthrie to the “screw you Obummer” example of Ted Nugent.
On Saturday, Mellencamp will co-headline Farm Aid, the annual benefit concert that he founded with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in 1985. While an offhand comment by Bob Dylan at Live Aid about supporting American farmers is credited with sparking the idea for Farm Aid, Mellencamp already had the dissolution of the heartland on his mind. He recorded a quasi-concept album about the plight of American farmers, Scarecrow, and released it around the time of the first-ever Farm Aid that September.
“The reason we made that record was because we were noticing that the landscape of Indiana is changing,” Mellencamp recalled in a 2017 interview with CBS This Morning. “All the small towns were going out of business. Why? Why are all these small towns going out of business? Because everybody went to live in the city? No. It was because corporate farming had moved in and run the small-family farmer out of business. Which is why we started Farm Aid.”
In that same interview, Mellencamp calls himself a socialist, another echo of the pronounced Woody Guthrie influence on his latter-day work, which has drifted from rock to full-on folk music. “I don’t trust the government,” he says. “I don’t trust the Democrats. I don’t trust the Republicans. I’m a little bit more Democratic than I am Republican, but really I’m a socialist. And that’s where it’s at.”
In the ’80s and ’90s, a heartland star of Mellencamp’s magnitude calling himself the S-word would’ve been a major story. But in 2017, Kid Rock’s distrustful antigovernment rants have garnered far more publicity. The circus-like atmosphere around Rock’s supposed Senate campaign, which still hasn’t been officially confirmed, reached a new low this week as protests erupted Tuesday outside of a hometown concert in Detroit at the newly minted Little Caesars Arena. Rock’s provocations over Colin Kaepernick and Donald Trump — as well as his troubling history of displaying the Confederate flag on-stage, which began the year after that 9/11 show with Mellencamp and ceased in 2011 after the Detroit chapter of the NAACP honored Rock for his philanthropy — has made a previously apolitical artist a lightning rod in his own backyard.
Unlike Mellencamp, whose activism sprang organically from his songs, Kid Rock’s flirtation with politics doesn’t really have a precedent in his art. Until recently, his most overtly political statement was “Care,” a duet with Angaleena Presley and T.I. from 2010’s Born Free, Rock’s last platinum album, in which he decries “screaming on the left, yelling on the right” while “I’m sitting in the middle, trying to live my life.” In “Care,” Rock claims that he “can’t stop the war / shelter homeless, feed the poor,” which hardly sounds like a person interested in running for office and, you know, doing stuff.
But in 2017, Rock no longer claims to be straddling the middle. At his concert on Tuesday, he stood behind a podium and railed against income redistribution with the same fervor he once reserved for “the crackheads, the critics, the cynics, and all my heroes at the methadone clinics.” By any measure, this is a long way from “Pink Houses.” Rock is no longer against the guy in the high-rise; instead, he supports a man whose name is emblazoned on hotels down in the Gulf Of Mexico.
An early supporter of President Trump, Rock spoke in favor of the candidate in a February 2016 Rolling Stone interview. “My feeling: Let the motherfucking business guy run it like a fucking business,” he said. “And his campaign has been entertaining as shit.”
There’s an impulse to dismiss Rock’s recent antics as a publicity stunt, a way to put butts in the seats for an artist whose commercial power has slipped considerably in the ’10s. (When asked by Rolling Stone in that 2016 interview about his contemporary relevance as a musician, Rock admitted that he was “entering the Bob Seger/Tom Petty/John Mellencamp phase” of his career, implying that he’s now a heritage act.) But in the age of Trump, in which conservatism is now defined as “anything that will piss off liberals,” Rock’s pandering for easy applause by knocking a protesting football player and PC-spouting killjoys suddenly passes for mainstream political (and possibly electable) rhetoric.
At heart, Mellencamp and Kid Rock are both firebrands with a disdain for the political system. But that disdain took them to radically different places, and this shift has greater significance beyond just their respective careers. From the ’80s to the ’10s, heartland rock has gone from Farm Aid to “fuck you.” How in the hell did that happen?
When music critics use the term “heartland rock” now, they apply it to a band like The War On Drugs that is generally reminiscent of heart-on-its-sleeve, big-sounding, Reagan-era arena rock. But when the genre was its peak in the ’80s, heartland rock meant something more specifically American, traditional, and reactionary.
The most complete and insightful exploration of heartland rock comes courtesy of long-time New York Times music critic Jon Pareles in an article published almost exactly 30 years ago, in August 1987. “The music is basic — three chords an a back beat,” Pareles writes. “The tone is earnest, plain-spoken, just folks. The verses are short stories, terse sketches of characters trying to get by. And the choruses, ready-made for sing-alongs, are about ‘hard times.”’
Pareles cites Guthrie, The Rolling Stones, the photographer Walker Evans, and the writer Raymond Carver as primary influences; he also credits Springsteen’s blockbuster LP Born In The USA with inspiring a wave of copycats, though in retrospect, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” should probably be credited as the “Big Bang” of heartland rock, with Bob Seger acting as an important torch-bearer until Springsteen started writing explicitly about working-class concerns on 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town. By the time Mellencamp became the defining figure of heartland rock with Scarecrow, a critical and commercial smash that peaked at No. 2 on the album chart and produced three top 10 singles, heartland rock was pitched in opposition to the synth-pop and metal bands that dominated MTV, an “authentic” and idealistic salve for an age of greed and artifice.
“Heartland rock isn’t traditional, it’s neo-traditional, self-conscious about seeking roots,” Pareles notes. “It’s not a local, homegrown style but one that wishes it were. While its storytelling lyrics stem from folk and country music and its back beat from rock and rhythm-and-blues, its sound and its attitude are strictly from the 1980’s — scruffy but respectable.”
The album that inspired Pareles’ heartland-rock thinkpiece was Mellencamp’s The Lonesome Jubilee, one of the best and most successful albums of his career. For all of the landmark albums that came out in 1987, The Lonesome Jubilee doesn’t really get its due as an important or lasting work, perhaps because its “gypsy rock” sound — in which Mellencamp’s usual Stones-y swagger is accented with Appalachian-style fiddle and accordion swirls — scarcely resembles modern pop music. And then there’s the album’s lyrical and thematic concerns, which dwell on the anxieties of rural Americans locked in a downward economic spiral. In “Down In And Out In Paradise,” Mellencamp sings from the perspective of several middle-aged characters who have either been laid off or quit dead-end jobs and now wonder if they can reboot their lives. The protagonist of “Empty Hands” faces a similar predicament — he’s lost his job at the local mill, and now he’s working “a part-time job at a drive-in stand.”
This is unabashedly adult music that is utterly anathema to the youth-obsessed pop music of today. And yet, in the late ’80s, The Lonesome Jubilee went triple platinum and spawned two top 10 hits, “Paper In Fire” and “Cherry Bomb.” The album’s best song, “Check It Out,” hit the Top 20, peaking at No. 14, even with its thoroughly deflating chorus: “Check it out / got a brand new house in escrow / check it out / sleepin’ with your back to your loved one / this is all that we learned about happiness.”
At its best, heartland rock gave voice to millions of voiceless people suffering from political, economic, and cultural neglect. The people that Mellencamp wrote about were not normally seen on television or in movies, or rhapsodized in mainstream pop songs. As a lifelong resident of the upper midwest, I know what it’s like to turn to pop culture and be told, time and again, that you live in an inconsequential, backward place where nothing notable or exciting ever happens. It instills a feeling of worthlessness that is internalized, curdling the soul and creating massive reservoirs of resentment. Heartland rock was a counterbalance.
People who live in major cities on the coasts bristle whenever the midwest and south is described as “real” America, and deservedly so — it’s an unfair, and obnoxious, classification. But the “real” America talk tends to be compensatory, a bluff for those who feel as though the world sees them as ignorant and inferior. Mellencamp, naturally, understood this better than most mass-media stars. Another of his signature songs, “Small Town,” was inspired by “conversations that I heard in the music business,” Mellencamp related to Rolling Stone in 2013. “I had a stuttering problem, and my accent, and people would say, ‘You talk funny.’ I would think, ‘You’re the one with the New York accent.’
“I wanted to write a song that said, ‘You don’t have to live in New York or Los Angeles to live a full life or enjoy your life,'” Mellencamp added. “I was never one of those guys that grew up and thought, ‘I need to get out of here.’ It never dawned on me. I just valued having a family and staying close to friends.”
The most trenchant point in Pareles’ article concerns the political motivations of heartland rock. While Mellencamp, like Springsteen and Seger, was known for topical songs, “heartland rock songs rarely point fingers or suggest action,” Pareles argues. “Factory closings and farm foreclosures are treated with fatalism, like natural disasters; although the stories in the songs often reflect large-scale economic changes, most lyrics are about battles for individual dignity rather than for economic realignment. They are songs about powerlessness and bewilderment in an America that’s supposed to be the land of opportunity.”
A counter to the helplessness and apathy that Pareles heard in heartland rock is, of course, Farm Aid, which Mellencamp co-founded for the precise purpose of rectifying the problems he wrote about in his songs. Like the similarly idealistic Live Aid, the hope with Farm Aid was that the power of music and celebrity could be harnessed for the good of an ignored, disadvantaged, and rapidly growing segment of Americans. But by the end of the ’80s, Mellencamp became dispirited by the inexorable decline of America’s working class, and Farm Aid went on hiatus in 1988. (Mellencamp returned to Farm Aid in 1990, and it’s taken place nearly every year ever since.)
“When Scarecrow came out, it was pretty simple. I fell back into that idealism of the sixties for a while,” Mellencamp said in 1989. “I liked being there — but it was false. I do think that music can change things. But not now. Not with the way it’s going now.”
In another interview from the same period, Mellencamp bemoans the futility of a concert that raises millions of dollars when billions are required to turn the tide in favor of farmers and small-town workers. “Corporate America is taking over,” he says. “They are the power.”
Mellencamp’s disenchantment with politics carried over to his career. For 1989’s bitter song cycle, Big Daddy, he declined to tour and issued the sour anti-music industry broadside “Pop Singer” as the first single. The bulk of the record, however, has less to do with Mellencamp’s bad attitude about his own stardom than his pessimism about the state of the country. In the album’s darkest and most heartbreaking song, “Jackie Brown,” Mellencamp pays tribute to a working stiff who is driven to suicide by the shame of failing to provide for his family.
The tragedy of “Jackie Brown” and the rest of Big Daddy is how topical the album remains 28 years after it was released. The crumbling and outright disappearance of countless middle-American towns, which troubled Mellencamp enough to write Scarecrow and start up Farm Aid, has carried on virtually unabated ever since.
Mellencamp continued to put out quality albums in the ’90s — the garage-rocking Whenever We Wanted from 1991 and the sonically adventurous Human Wheels in 1993 belong in his “classic” period with his best ’80s records. Mellencamp also kept on selling well for longer than you might think, with every LP through 1996’s Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky going platinum. But the decade, as Mellencamp said later, was something of a lost period for him.
“In the 1990s, I was trying to do as little as I could. My records were paint-by-numbers,” he said in 2013. “Then all this grunge music started happening, and I thought, ‘This is what the next generation is doing. Let these fucking guys do it.'”
Mellencamp’s legacy further suffered when his kind of music fell out of favor with critics. In 2006, Slate’s Jody Rosen noted that at the annual conference EMP — an academic-leaning consortium of “poptimist” critics who pride themselves on being inclusive toward frequently maligned artists and genres — it was acceptable to take potshots at roots rock. “It’s not cool to pick on Kanye or Shania, but those rockist avatars, the earnest heartland rockers, are fair game,” Rosen writes. “Where does that leave poor Johnny Mellencamp?”
After the fall of heartland rock in the early ’90s, artists and bands that might’ve once been grouped under the term were either rolled into alt-country (if they were rock-oriented and attracted cult-sized audiences) or mainstream country (if they actually sold records). You can hear traces of John Mellencamp in both Wilco’s “Passenger Side” and Garth Brooks’ “Friends In Low Places.”
Today, Mellencamp’s classic records don’t really conform to the modern definition of rock music — they’re not “indie,” they’re not “metal,” and they’re certainly not “punk.” These days, Mellencamp has been retconned as a quasi-country artist, both as an influence on artists like Eric Church, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Justin Moore, and as a nostalgic reference point in songs by Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban.
Was Mellencamp a country guy all along, or are those country guys actually rockers? In a way, it doesn’t matter, though it does shed some light on the endless “is rock dead?” debate. Genre classifications were made to be outmoded. But even when certain terms fall out of favor — be it heartland rock, or disco, or EDM — the music itself often lives on in slightly different form.
“I was doing this long before they were doing it – Scarecrow, Big Daddy, Lonesome Jubilee,” Mellencamp declared in 2017. So I didn’t go to country. They caught up with me.”
If anything put the final nail in the coffin of heartland rock, it was probably nu-metal, which in every way was the aesthetic opposite of albums like Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee. Nu-metal was proudly adolescent, unrepentantly frivolous, and utterly divorced from American roots music. The only link between the two genres is Kid Rock, who ultimately transcended both.
In the popular narrative of Kid Rock’s career, it’s theorized that he pivoted from nu-metal right at the moment when the genre had reached critical mass in the early ’00s, cannily remaking himself as an ersatz southern rocker as people like Fred Durst saw their careers crater. But to hear Rock himself tell it, nu-metal was the pose, not his heartland rock makeover.
In a 2015 Rolling Stone interview, Rock relates the story about how his son, Robert Jr., was “pretty much dropped at my door at six months old” in the late ’90s. “I was like, ‘This has gotta work.’ So what’s popular? Korn. I knew I can do that shit in my sleep. But let me throw in ‘Only God Knows Why’ and ‘Cowboy’ so I can have a career.”
Like Mellencamp during his pre-fame “Cougar” period in the ’70s, Kid Rock languished for years in obscurity, releasing a series of little-heard albums that consigned him to D-level rapper status. But with 1998’s Devil Without A Cause, Rock hit upon a winning formula, with songs like “Bawitdaba” and “Cowboy” melding License To Ill-era Beastie Boys with rural Michigan insouciance, a sort of far-north redneck rebelliousness. “I make southern rock / and I mix it with hip-hop,” Rock boasted on his next album, 2001’s Cocky, summing up his aesthetic as well as any critic.
By 2003’s Kid Rock, however, he was largely ditching the hip-hop and making straight-forward Bob Seger homages, underling his conversion by including “rock ‘n roll” in the titles of two different tracks. Rock also started dabbling in statements of midwestern pride and cultural commentary. With “I Am,” he wrote a self-centered version for “This Land Is Your Land,” using himself as a metaphor for American diversity. “I am Southern rock ‘n’ roll, country and hip-hop and soul / And you’ll never put your finger on me.” On “Amen,” a bombastic ballad from 2007’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Jesus that Rock has declared the greatest song he’s ever written, he attempts a “State Of The Union”-style summation of national ills, calling out “habitual offenders, scumbag lawyers with agendas,” unscrupulous ministers, and people “living off handouts and favors.” It’s also surprisingly (given Rock’s present rhetoric) self-lacerating in regard to systemic racism: “And how can we seek salvation when our nations race relations / Got me feeling guilty of being white.”
If you plumb “Amen” for an ideological perspective, it could be described as libertarian. But you can also hear a little Mellencamp in these songs, in their sense of bottom-up discontentment with the powers that be and the measure of empathy for all kinds of people, but especially his core audience. Like Mellencamp, Rock has never been ashamed of his lower-income fans. In that 2015 Rolling Stone interview, he described as fanbase as “45-50-year-old girls wearing extra-large T-shirts — they’re my bread and butter.” This is hardly a demographic that most pop stars would brag about. But Rock sees those people, acknowledging them in a way that virtually nobody else does. That instills the kind of loyalty that fickle pop audiences typically don’t have, even if it’s also limiting — as the scope of his music has narrowed, so has Rock’s message.
Mellencamp also engendered audience loyalty, even from fans who didn’t share his political beliefs. In a perceptive 2013 piece for The American Conservative, David Masciotra argues that Mellencamp’s liberalism “is a community-based leftism that distrusts bureaucracy and hates paternalism,” which puts him in the same ballpark as Kid Rock. Also, like Rock, Mellencamp “likely comes off as a brute to hip urbanites,” writes Masciotra, who relates a story about Mellencamp smoking in a fancy LA clothing boutique. “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 “truth-telling brute” routine, of course, has had dire consequences for this country lately, particularly when it’s divorced from moral and ethical principles. There will always be idiots online who are “inclined to vote for anyone who says ‘they can protest deez nuts’,” but those people now take that bluster into the voting booth, which has made Kid Rock’s political career plausible.
It doesn’t matter if your actual message is unreasonable, uneducated, or flat-out untrue — so long as your delivery is unrefined and vulgar, it will read as authentic. So, when Rock tells one of his buddies at the end of that 2015 Rolling Stone profile that unions are no good, because “you go into work every day and work your ass off and see the motherfuckers who take advantage of it,” the message isn’t, “Wow, Kid Rock is an out of touch rich guy!” but rather, “Hey, he talks like me!” The reality of what undermining unions means for American workers is lost.
I don’t have any investment in Kid Rock’s soul or his music. To me, he’s always been a clown — sometimes entertaining, more often detestable. But his recent antics depress me because of what it says about the entrenched despair of his audience, some of whom are my neighbors out here in the middle of the country. When you’ve been sold false promises your entire life, as your parents and grandparents were before you, a degraded form of “real talk” seems like the best you can expect. At least it sounds true.
The fact is all Americans want the same thing, which is to have our innate humanity recognized and respected. This is the spirit of Farm Aid and records like Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee. But the fatalism that once distinguished heartland rock — the sense that economic inequality is a disease that can’t be cured, and the only escape from a bleak future is nostalgia for an imaginary past — has taken root, and the road back from that seems impossibly far.
Performers are commonly regarded as leaders or influencers, but they’re really mirrors. As fans and listeners, we’re drawn most to those in whom we can see ourselves. In the ’80s, John Mellencamp reflected the desperate hope that things might turn around for working people. But things have not turned around. Pleas to help the downtrodden — on hit records, at Farm Aid — have gone largely unanswered. So what’s left? “Fuck you, don’t take what’s mine!” is what’s left, a cry of defiance that’s ultimately an act of self-sabotage. Ain’t that America.