UK's Sunday Times: John Mellencamp On Politics And Music

With the election looming, are American singers prepared to nail their colours to the mast
By Dan Cairns

As a reminder of the potential perils faced by musicians who are perceived to be heading down an overtly political path, the case of the new Fall Out Boy album is instructive. Originally due for release on November 4, the day of the US presidential election, Folie à Deux has now been put back to December. The record had been trailed by the band as “social commentary”, but they apparently now feel that the resulting press coverage has “skewed us into a partisan band. We never intended to be the band that shoved our ideas down people’s throats”.

One man who has no problem being seen as someone who shoves ideas down people’s throats is John Mellencamp. For more than 20 years, the Indiana singer has been dismantling the name, image and sound his early managers pushed on him, burying Johnny Cougar the hick heart-throb and establishing in his place a songwriter and campaigner who, like his contemporary Bruce Springsteen, belongs in the front rank of politicised American music-making. Like Springsteen, too, he has seen a steady decline in his record sales: his new album, Life Death Love and Freedom, is unlikely to garner the platinum discs of old. Yet, as with the Boss, Mellencamp still performs to sell-out audiences.

And jumping onto a soapbox doesn’t automatically mean that an artist tanks commercially. The Dixie Chicks famously dissed President Bush in 2003, leading to hate mail and the public destruction of their CDs, but the band’s subsequent release, 2006’s Taking the Long Way, entered the Billboard chart at No 1. It can help, too, if your music-buying fan base is on a smaller scale than, say, Fall Out Boy’s, and has every expectation that you’re going to be singing about something more profound than girls, clothes and teenage angst. Nobody is going to blanch when Neil Young makes an antiwar record. Nor were fans of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, the Nebraskan who has campaigned for John Kerry and Barack Obama, surprised by the more political direction his songwriting took on last year’s Cassadaga album.

Mellencamp has suffered for his stance. When he released the unambiguously anti-Bush song To Washington in 2003, things got nasty in the small town in Indiana where he lives with his third wife and their two sons.

“People turned on me,” the singer says. “The police had to show up at my kids’ school and stand guard when they were outside, because the school had gotten threats. I don’t think they’d do that today, but back then it wasn’t long after 9/11, and people were bloodthirsty.” His new record, a haunting 14-song set, produced by T-Bone Burnett, that looks unblinkingly at the concepts and realities listed in its title, could not, with the world’s financial system going to the brink, have been better timed — and Mellencamp, unlike Fall Out Boy, is happy for it to be seen that way. This doesn’t mean that his standpoint is not still being questioned or misunderstood. “I did an interview with someone recently,” he chuckles, “who said, ‘Don’t you think at times like this that people just want to sing and dance?’ And I said, ‘You know, when all else fails, when it’s Sodom and Gomorrah, singing and dancing’s fine. If you really think these are the final days, well, f*** it, then, let’s just sing and dance and screw. But I don’t think that’s where we’re at.’ ”

When John McCain’s campaign began using his songs Our Country and Pink Houses at rallies, Mellencamp hit back hard. “If [McCain is] such a true conservative,” asked the singer’s publicist, “why [is he] playing songs that have a very populist pro-labour message written by a guy who would find no argument if you characterised him as left of centre?” The practice ceased. Mellencamp says he was surprised his political views weren’t known to the McCain team. “I am never writing to my base,” he argues. “I live in a red state. Indiana has not voted for a liberal president since Kennedy. There are houses that aren’t as big as this room, and are falling down, and there’ll be Bush-Cheney signs in the window. If I was going to vote for my interests, hell, I’d be a conservative.”

His contention that his new album “was written in the American-songbook tradition; all of those songs from the 1930s, 1940s, were telling these sad stories” is surely accurate, though it is significant that most of the great heartland songs of the period come from a socially aware viewpoint. That isn’t to say that there weren’t writers then, or now, with a different political perspective. The Killers’ Brandon Flowers, for one, has written songs imbued with an innately conservative sense of nostalgia. Yet, like Dylan, Young and Springsteen, Mellencamp immerses himself in those songbooks in part because he knows what he will find there: a set of values, a purpose, that reflect and have inspired his own.

“Wall Street didn’t get drunk,” he concludes, referring to Bush’s recent comment on the economic meltdown. “Those guys allowed these things to happen, and now they’re bringing us all down. You can’t have the Wild West running the world.” So, here comes the cavalry? The singer knows it’s not that easy, try though he and kindred musical spirits might. In the meantime, sing and dance to his music if you want to, but Mellencamp wants you to remember this: he’s partisan, and proud of it.

Life Death Love and Freedom is out now on Universal

Click HERE to read this article online.