“Small Town” a “Conservative Rock Song”?

Do yourself a favor. Don’t google-alert John Mellencamp.

You’ll save yourself countless daily interruptions, most of which involve links to various versions of the same thing (current example: multiple pick-ups of the “Times They Are A-Changin’” video story, which made news everywhere from Rolling Stone to Undercover.com in Australia).

That said, every now and then something interesting does turn up—like the exploits of an Indiana Hoosier soccer star whose name, incredibly, is also John Mellencamp (his nephew!).

Then last week I get a link to a site called Republican Operative, which, you can be sure, I’ve never before visited or sought. What caught my eye was a feature entitled “Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs.” Turns out one of the site’s “special operatives” had just happened on a 2006 piece from the conservative magazine National Review’s online version and wanted to draw attention to it.

The reason for the Mellencamp alert? His “Small Town” made the Top 50! The No. 31 entry quoted the song’s “No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from/I cannot forget the people who love me” in hailing it as “a Burkean rocker.”

Say what? After a little Internet research we learn that Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an English statesman who was disgusted by the radical nature of the French Revolution and wrote the “classical doctrine of conservatism,” Reflections on the French Revolution. He was all in favor of the American Revolution, however, and emphasized respect for tradition rather than scientific principles in conducting government, hence, apparently, the NR writer’s inclusion of “Small Town.”

But look at Mellencamp’s company: Topping the list was The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the theme song, NR suggested, of all “the disillusioned revolutionaries” that help make up the conservative movement. Okay, but I sure know a lot of liberals who are no less disillusioned.

How about the Beatles’ “Revolution”? True, John Lennon drew the line against those “carrying pictures of Chairman Mao,” but there are few artists of any era more left-of-center than Lennon, who became a target for deportation of the Nixon administration (see the 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon). Same with the Clash, whose “Rock the Casbah” was listed—without explanation—and Credence Clearwater Revival, whose “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” while rightly acknowledged as an anti–Vietnam War song, was cited for its pessimistic take on activism and “dim view of both Communism and liberalism.”

CCR’s outspoken leader John Fogerty, of course, would spark an uproar in 2004 with his anti-Iraq War single “Déjà vu All Over Again”--much as Mellencamp has done regularly with his loud voice against the war (Fogerty, incidentally, performed that song nightly on the 2005 Mellencamp/Fogerty Summer Tour). But that didn’t stop John McCain from using “Our Country” and “Pink Houses” at his campaign rallies (until Mellencamp’s camp protested), not to mention the songs of any number of other artists whose liberalism was somehow missed by McCain conservatives.

Then again, rare is the artist whose attitudes—as expressed in his/her music—is politically black or white, let alone correct. Surely the Sex Pistols (“Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen”) was about the most radical rock band ever, yet NR was still able to list its “searing anti-abortion anthem” “Bodies.” And to salute U2’s “Gloria” for its affirmation of faith—and particularly its Latin chorus—is not at all to equate them with Mel Gibson.

But a pair of seemingly like-themed songs really illustrate the trouble with these kinds of lists--and this concept in particular.

Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” is praised for Hagar’s objection to “the nanny state,” while the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” is commended as “the original law-and-order classic.” Such sentiments, it would seem to me, are mutually exclusive. And you can—and should--take “I Fought the Law” the opposite way, which would be as the anti-authority forerunner for Mellencamp’s own anthem of alienation, “Authority Song.”
- jim bessman