The 1980s were a prime time for heartland rockers who didn’t exactly align with most of the heartland’s politics. Most famous of all was Bruce Springsteen and his denouncement of the United States’ treatment of Vietnam veterans at the heart of ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ — but he wasn’t the only example.
Tom Petty scored a blow against feverish capitalism when he threatened to rename his Hard Promises album Eight Ninety-Eight in order to get his record company to sell the album at that amount and not a dollar more. Bob Seger joined the anti-war movement early on with one of his very first singles, ‘2+2=?’. And one of the most seemingly patriotic songs of the mid-1980s turned out to be nothing more than another indictment against the country that celebrated it so lovingly.
John Mellencamp was still Johnny Cougar when he broke into the mainstream with the 1978 effort ‘I Need a Lover’. The singer leaned into his Yankee appeal by naming his next album American Fool and producing a single about “two American kids growing up in the heartland” in the shape of ‘Jack & Diane’. By 1983, Mellencamp had earned enough success to reinstate his birth name and write about whatever he wanted. He kept his focus on small town America, and for those that weren’t paying terribly close attention, it seemed as though he was a champion for traditional conservative true-believers scattered across the midwest.
But that wasn’t exactly true. Look no further than Mellencamp’s top ten hit ‘Pink Houses’. On the surface, the song is a celebration of small town America, with Mellencamp even taking inspiration from his own hometown of Seymour, Indiana. The singer saw an old black man “sitting on the porch of his pink shack,” Mellencamp recalled to Rolling Stone in 2004. “He waved, and I waved back. That’s where the song started.” With a chorus that seemed to celebrate America as the “home of the free”, how could ‘Pink Houses’ be anything but an ode to the best of the US?
According to Mellencamp, there was a key message that most listeners had missed. “It’s really an anti-American song,” Mellencamp told Rolling Stone in an earlier interview. “The American dream had pretty much proven itself as not working anymore. It was another way for me to sneak something in”.
That’s where lines like “boy, you’re gonna be president / But just like everything else those old crazy dreams / Just kinda came and went” take on a slightly different resonance. In fact, President Ronald Reagan had wanted to use the song during his 1984 presidential campaign, the same trek where he attempted to sing the virtues of ‘Born in the U.S.A’. Like Springsteen, Mellencamp was a staunch Democrat and refused, citing the song’s message as being more complex than what the president had interpreted it as.
Pick up your own interpretation of the song down below.