American Fool: In Defense of John Cougar Mellencamp

By Josh Norek

[VP of alt-Latin indie Nacional Records; MC for the Latin/Jewish rap crew Hip Hop Hoodios; co-founder of the Latin Alternative Music Conference; attorney; former publicist; and more importantly, long-time "5"er, Norek contributes to our fair blog a post "about an Indiana artist who was recently inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame [who] deserves your attention and...your money. All he asks is that you put your Williamsburg/Silver Lake/DF hipster-ness aside and give him a fair shake." You've been warned. - KJ]

The first album I ever purchased was a used cassette copy of John Cougar Mellencamp’s American Fool at the Slingerlands Elementary School student sale. It was 1982 and the massive drumbeats and farm boy swagger of “Jack and Diane” were thoroughly rocking my second grade world. An early infatuation with Mr. Cougar began one snowy day several months prior when school was cancelled and I spent the entire afternoon glued to the MTV in our basement. At some point, a scruffy guy in a leather jacket from Indiana appeared on the screen. Sure, the Hell’s Angels he rode motorcycles with looked vaguely menacing, but then the singer flashed a goofy grin, harkened the viewer to “make it hurt so good,”and did a soulful strut across a run-down diner parking lot. My musical DNA was altered forever.
Many groups captivated my MTV-addled mind in the elementary school years. While I was spellbound by the big hair and hook-filled synth-pop of Duran Duran and Kajagoogoo, these highly stylized acts were still too otherworldly and exotic to personally relate to. In early ‘80s upstate NY, the local industrial scene was not so much “Manchester underground” as it was Schenectady General Electric.

My ensuing love affair with heartland rock was a rollercoaster ride marked by various highs and lows. One particularly bleak moment was a failed attempt as an eight year old to enter the MTV “Pink Houses” contest (the prize being an actual pink house in Bloomington, Indiana with Mellencamp performing at the winner’s moving-in party.) My mom quickly dashed those dreams, admonishing that “we’re not moving to Indiana, and you’re not getting a pink house!

also got me in trouble in other ways. Although I came from a comfortably middle class background, at sleep away camp I was “the poor kid” who hailed from a small town outside of Albany, New York that nobody had ever heard of. Rockin’ the boombox with albums like Scarecrow, the 1985 classic about the plight of family farms during the Reagan era, was not exactly the best way to endear oneself to wealthier bunkmates. Some of the brats from Beverly Hills and Westchester would pick on me and call me a hick, but what did they know? Certainly I was keeping it more real with John Cougar than the campers from the 90210 who didn’t see the irony of blasting N.W.A.’s “F*** tha Police” on end. (Early pre-Rodney King childhood observation: “Um, aren’t the police who your parents call when they see a person of color standing in front of their Bel Air gated communities?")

Fast forward a few years. Before I was conscious that ‘Rock en Español’ was an actual genre with a storied history in Latin America, I translated and performed “Pink Houses” as “Casas Rosadas” in 8th grade Spanish class. Encouraged by the newfound attention from classmates and friends--particularly of the female variety--I eagerly added additional anthems from my musical heroes (usually of the Mellencamp/Petty/Springsteen mold) to the bilingual song canon: “Jack & Diane” became “Juanito y Diana,” “Free Falling” was “Libre Cayendo,” etc. A chance experiment with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” as “Hielo Hielo Bebe” led me to the conclusion that rap en español was far easier to perform than rock, since almost every word ended with an “a” or “o” and could be more convincingly rhymed. A decade later this observation would allow me to tour parts of the globe as MC for Hip Hop Hoodios, but still, credit is due to the Indiana knight for inducing these post-ethnic excursions in the first place.

Nearly three decades after scoring the American Fool cassette for twenty five cents, being a John Cougar fan hasn’t gotten any easier. Co-workers chortled when they heard I paid seventy five bucks for tickets to my Mellencamp/[John] Fogerty dream bill. Spoiled camp mates from the Westside of LA who called me a hick have been replaced by a fiancee from East LA who calls me a hick. That’s OK, though. It takes a certain type to appreciate the redneck liberal genius behind rock staples like “Authority Song” and “Pink Houses".

I still remember seeing Mellencamp’s clip for “Small Town” in fourth grade and thinking he made the video just for me. Music video shot in an unremarkable, all-American looking small town? Check. Gratuitous shots of kids playing little league baseball? Check (the video happily coincided with the apex of my short-lived career as a shortstop for the General Electric-sponsored team.) Real life video extras who looked like they visited the bar more often than the gym? Check. The video was shot in Indiana, but it could as well have been any small town in the rust belt economy spanning from the Midwest all the way east to Albany.

This writer has no beefs with the Arcade Fires and Bright Eyes of this world--he’s heard that some people even enjoy listening to them. Let the hipsters mock The Cougar all they want, but he just shuffled his way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is still pissing vinegar into the GOP punch bowl more than thirty years after his debut. To paraphrase another fine Indiana poet, the late Kurt Vonnegut: Here’s to many more years of pissing, Señor Mellencamp. And so it goes.