Johnny Cougar Lays it all Down
So old Johnny Cougar has been heard from for about the first time in this century. He wants us to know that he too had to deal with racism, that he too suffered, that he too conquered and overcame.
In a recent interview, middling rock singer John Mellencamp stated for the record that his single “Jack and Diane”, recorded in 1982, was originally about an “interracial couple”. Upon proposing it to the record company, Mellencamp was told, no – they couldn’t handle that; write about something else. Being what he called a “young performer” lacking in clout, Mellencamp complied and transformed the characters into a football player and a debutante.
Well, there’s a few things wrong with that story. (Quite apart from the fact that the video makes it clear that the song is intended as a reflection on Mellencamp’s own life.) First, the claim concerning his youth and callowness – in 1982, Mellencamp had been releasing records for a decade. He had several hits under his belt and was a popular concert attraction. The idea that he was a desperate, struggling neophyte who had to knuckle under to the front office just won’t wash.
The record itself was put it out by WEA, that is, Warners Music. Throughout the late 60s and into the 70s the Warners group was known as the wild-eyed countercultural outfit that would sign anybody and put out anything. Their roster included acts like Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Alice Cooper, and Captain Beefheart, all of whom were considerably more iconoclastic that Johnny at his wildest.
There’s also the fact that Johnny is about a decade and half late for storming the racial inequality ramparts as regards popular culture. The Who’s “Substitute” (“I look all white but my dad was black”) was released in 1966. The hit film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which Sidney Poitier and Katherine Houghton play an interracial couple, came out a year later.
The dam burst completely in November 1968, with the famed lip-lock between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek”. The earth failed to burst into flames, nor were the heavens rended in twain.
Even more to the point was “Society’s Child” by Janis Ian, released in 1966 and slowly building to hit status over the ensuing six months. The song dealt with an interracial relationship which, in light of hostility from classmates, teachers, and her mother, the girl is too frightened to maintain. Ian, just starting out, did have a hard time getting the record released. The original company, Atlantic (ironically one of the leading black-oriented music outfits of the day), refused to release the song. Instead Ian signed with the relatively low-rent Verve Records. The song sold over 600,000 copies anyway.
Now, nobody wants to embarrass an aging onetime star looking for a little attention. But Mellencamp has crossed a few lines here. He’s misappropriating the courage and determination of the actual pioneers. (Janis Ian was all of sixteen when “Society’s Child” was released. Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner deliberately flubbed an alternate shot to force NBC to utilize the kissing scene.)
Even worse, such claims tend to make the country, and Americans at large, look far nastier than is actually the case. By claiming that racism was still deeply entrenched as late as the 80s, Mellencamp is reinforcing the hard leftist doctrine that the United States never changes, that Americans are incorrigible, and that the country’s inherent racism can only be controlled by the left’s rigid, police-state PC ideology.
That Mellencamp didn’t intend this does not excuse him. It’s a disgraceful performance overall. This is what happens when you hang on to sixteen as long as you can.