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.