Mellencamp, John (1951—)

views updated

Mellencamp, John (1951—)

Viewed through the majority of his career as a "poor man's Springsteen," John Mellencamp has been haunted by his record company imposed moniker Johnny Cougar, and all the shallow pop boy-toy imagery associated with it. Since the release of his first album in 1976, this Indiana-born rock artist has made the transformation from Johnny Cougar, the tight jeans wearing pretty boy, to John Mellencamp, a serious artist who still doesn't always get respect. Acknowledging this fact, Mellencamp once said during a VH1 documentary on his life, "It's never been cool to like John Cougar Mellencamp." Nonetheless, since the release of 1985's Scarecrow, Mellencamp has carved out a niche for himself as one of America's great, unpretentious songwriters that can accurately reflect the social moods of the time, though he would be the last to recognize that title. If music critics have been harsh, then Mellencamp is even harder on himself—once going so far as countering an interviewer's claim that he was a great songwriter by saying, "But don't forget, I'm the f—ker who wrote 'Hurts So Good,"' one of his early 1980s hits.

John Mellencamp started his musical life at the age of fourteen playing around his Indiana hometown of Seymour, as well as other Midwestern towns (in such wretchedly named bands as Snakepit, Banana Barn, and Crepe Soul). After getting his girlfriend pregnant as a teenager, Mellencamp married Priscilla Esterline and worked a number of blue collar jobs to support his new family before making the big move to New York City at the age of 24. This led to a recording contract with MCA, which—to his dismay—dubbed him Johnny Cougar for his first album, Chestnut Street Incident. After his debut album and his follow-up, 1977's Kid Inside, sold poorly, Mellencamp was dropped from the label and went on to record three insignificant albums for the Riva, though he did score a hit in 1979 with the single "I Need a Lover." Picked up by Mercury records, he recorded the uneven commercial flop Nothin' Matters & What If It Did before releasing his breakthrough album, 1982's American Fool. Containing two of his biggest hits, "Hurts So Good" and "Jack and Diane," it still only hinted at the more artistically credible material he would produce by the end of the 1980s.

Mellencamp finally hit his artistic stride, while never losing his commercial clout, with 1985's Scarecrow, which dealt with the plight of the American farmer, the decay of American social institutions and government neglect of its poorest citizens. The political messages that were implicit in his music were made more explicit when he shunned the more trendy Live Aid concert, which he was invited to play, and helped organize the long-running Farm Aid concerts with Neil Young and Willie Nelson, concerts that helped raise money for noncorporate, family farmers. The Lonesome Jubilee (1987) and Big Daddy (1989) expanded his sound and explored darker lyrical territories that reflected the gloominess Mellencamp felt when his marriage failed and he lost faith in his songwriting ability. This loss of faith resulted in Mellencamp not being heard from for nearly two years after the release of Big Daddy as he spent time at home painting and feeling bad about himself. An explicit indication of the self-doubt that has plagued Mellencamp throughout his career is the title of his 1997 greatest hits collection, The Best That I Could Do 1978-1988.

The 1990s found Mellencamp dropping the "Cougar" moniker for good and trying on a variety of musical styles that never strayed far from his straight ahead roots rock-influenced sound. His albums sold respectably, some better than others, and Mellencamp still enjoyed the occasional hit single. In 1998, Mellencamp severed his longstanding ties with Mercury, releasing a well-received self-titled album on Columbia in 1998.

—Kembrew McLeod

Further Reading:

Harshfield, David. Manchild for Real: The Life and Lyrics of John Cougar Mellencamp. New York, Vantage Press, 1986.

Holmes, Tim. John Cougar Mellencamp. New York, Ballantine Books, 1986.