Hot Dogs and Hamburgers

“The secret of the man who is universally interesting is that he is universally interested.”
– William Dean Howells

I love John Mellencamp. In the mid 1980’s, after he had shaken the God awful Johnny Cougar moniker, he proved himself to be a brilliant, socially conscious American singer/songwriter on par with Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

To me, he was the definitive songwriter, more than Springsteen and Dylan. I worshiped the guy. During my senior year of high school, as I was facing an out of school suspension for a retaliatory orange throwing incident, I quoted Mellencamp’s “You’ve Got To Stand For Something” off Scarecrow. My father and I were negotiating some sort of equitable punishment for returning fire with said comestible and I was becoming more and more irritated with Vice Principal Durnbaugh’s firm footing that I admit complete guilt. I said “Fine, give me the out of school suspension. I didn’t DO anything and you’ve got to stand for something or you’re going to fall for anything.” In my head, it made complete sense and was pure genius. How could I possibly be punished after throwing that bit of genius down on the table? The two adults in the room just stared vacantly at me.*

While my musical tastes have certainly changed over the years, from an early 90’s dalliance in Brit Pop to a heavy grunge addiction to a deep exploration of the Americana movement of the mid to late 1990’s, I have always found Mellencamp a reliable home base when I needed to reconnect with what matters most to me, honesty. While he is not an overtly personal songwriter, Mellencamp writes extraordinarily well crafted honest social commentary, disguised as songs, about the trials and tribulations of what it is to be a working American.

Over the weekend, I read that on June 4th Ghost Brothers of Darkland County will be released. His first foray into musical theater, written with Stephen King and music production by T-Bone Burnett. I streamed a few songs and found them to be exceptional with an audio aesthetic on par with the more recent T-Bone Burnett productions. Now, while I suspect the content of the musical is probably too dark to ever make it to the Disneyfied Great White Way of Broadway, one can hope. In any event, in honor of the upcoming release, I’ve spent the past few days re-visiting my Mellencamp home base. While there, I noticed something. Something I knew all along but this time it clicked differently.

John Mellencamp has been in the “Serious Business” of music for well over 30 years now and it wasn’t until “Pink Houses” that people began to notice there was a more political side to him. He wasn’t just an ill tempered artist from Indiana, he was actually an insightful and intelligent wordsmith. With the release of  Scarecrow in 1985, he captured to tone of America and he got pissed. With Scarecrow John Mellencamp all but stood in the center of a mid-western wheat field and screamed “SHIT IS FUCKED UP!”

For most of my adult life through today, he continues to chronicle the plight of the average American. Mellencamp is still active in Farm Aid, an annual benefit for American farmers (to date they’ve raised over 40 million dollars used to pay the farmer’s expenses and provide food, legal and financial help, and psychological assistance). And he is still singing about how you and I are getting screwed. All these years on and he’s still standing in the wheat field screaming “SHIT IS STILL FUCKED UP!

Oh sure, he’s a rock star and probably has a fair amount of money. Although with three divorces and five children, I’m not entirely sure how that’s possible. Invariably, cynics and critics will grouse and grumble saying “Oh, he’s just another rich lefty rock singer”. Fuck ’em, let ’em bitch and moan.

He’s an artist and like any good artist he’s done what he’s supposed to do; hold a mirror up to society and provide social commentary. John Mellencamp just happens to be talented enough that he can place his observations into well crafted songs that people like. He worked hard to achieve his success, he continues to work hard. He’s extraordinarily gifted and undeniably in tune with what it is to be American and some of the inherent struggles that entails.

You’d think that over the course of his career that things would have changed, that they would have gotten better. You’d think that maybe John Mellencamp could stop doing Farm Aid, maybe write some ridiculously happy songs about harmony and equality and finally come in from the wheat field after screaming “SHIT’S OK NOW!“.

Well, you’d be wrong to think that.

All you need to do is look at the facts:

  • The Gini Index, or Gini Coefficient, used by economists to measure inequality within nations designates a score of zero as perfect economic equality and a score of one (1.0) being perfect economic inequality. The most recent Gini calculation (2005-2010) has the United States with a Gini index of .47, a 20% rise in income disparity over the past 40 years. A .47 Gini index is on par with both Mexico and the Philippines.(1)
  • The total business revenue of the top 200 corporations in the Unites States has risen from 21% in 1950 to 32% in 2009.
  • The six largest bank holding companies (JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley – some of which had different names) had assets equal to 64% of the U.S. gross domestic product (as of third quarter 2010).(1)
  • A confidential 2006 Citigroup memo claimed America had become a modern-day plutonomy where “economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few”.(1)
  • In 2011, Advertising Age concluded “Mass affluence is over” and the top 10% of Americans account for nearly half of all consumer spending.(1)
  • Economist Timothy Smeeding states “Americans have the highest income inequality in the rich world and over the past 20–30 years Americans have also experienced the greatest increase in income inequality among rich nations.”(2)
  • Data from tax returns show that the top 1 percent of households received 8.9 percent of all pre-tax income in 1976. In 2008, the top 1 percent share had more than doubled to 21.0 percent.(3)
  • Between 1947 and 1972, the average hourly wage, adjusted for inflation, rose 76 percent. Since 1972, by contrast, the average hourly wage has risen only 4 percent.(3)
  • Economist Jeffery Sachs developed a commercialism index to judge the advanced nations on how commercialized their media and cultures were and then compared that to overall public well-being and the common good. The United States topped the list as the most commercialized and most socially backward. (1)

If you are anything like me, you are acutely aware of how fucked up things are. Continuing to list facts about inequality becomes an exercise in futility. And it’s not just here in the states, you can see this growing influence around the world.

I’d like to believe that no one is naive enough to think that John Mellencamp, or any artist, has all or even some of, the answers. Hell, even Mellencamp admits as much “I’m using my art to comment on what I see. You don’t have to agree with it.”

For the majority of his career, he has been showing us time and time again how screwed up America is while still maintaining his pride in being an American. He’s been able to infiltrate our ears, our minds and our hearts with his observations. John Mellencamp is doing what artists do best, getting us to think.

For the majority of his career I’ve just enjoyed the music and agreed with the observations. But this week something changed, something clicked and the question I’m left thinking is, what are we prepared to do to change the course?

If you believe
Won’t you please raise your hands
Let’s hear your voices
Let us know where you stand
Don’t shout from the shadows
Cause it won’t mean a damn
“Now More Than Ever”

– John Mellencamp

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* – I acquiesced to long term Saturday school punishment after my fathers argument that an out of school suspension would have damaged my college eligibility. With a 1.9 GPA, I’m not sure how much more damaging it could have been.