You could use any number of words to describe John Mellencamp’s new music. But none, it seems, would please him more than “controversial.”
“Positive, negative, it doesn’t matter,” the songwriter says. “At least people are hearing the music and talking about it.”
Some are practically screaming about it. Though Mellencamp’s 21st studio album, “Freedom’s Road,” didn’t come out until this week, it was preceded last fall by a single, “Our Country,” that has become as ubiquitous, and divisive, a presence on television as Donald Trump, all due to its use in a massive ad campaign for the Chevy truck Silverado.
The spot matches Mellencamp’s catchiest song in years to iconic images of both American achievement (the `69 moon walk, the civil rights movement) and disasters (Watergate, Vietnam).
As soon as it appeared, some fans and columnists began carping that Chevy and Mellencamp were exploiting profound moments in American history as a cheap way to hawk a pickup truck. They zeroed in on the singer not only for having turned a legit song of pride into a jingle but for the rare step of doing so before the song could even be heard on his own CD. In an au courant twist, the song even inspired a YouTube satire that set Mellencamp’s music to images of Abu Ghraib prison abuse and burping men with beer bellies.
While Mellencamp says he had long been “steadfast about never selling a song for a commercial,” he felt he had little choice in a market that greatly disfavors middle-aged rockers like him. To wit: His last album sold just 180,000 copies. The Chevy campaign has given “Our Country” more exposure than it would as a No. 1 single.
“In today’s world, with radio the way it is and music television the way it is, if someone like me wants his songs to be heard, you’re going to have to get creative,” Mellencamp explains.
Last summer, when he saw that Tom Petty put out a good single and CD that radio snubbed, Mellencamp realized, “If they’re not going to play (Petty’s) song, they’re not going to play mine.”
The star isn’t fazed by the subsequent cries of “sellout.” “The minute you sign with a record company, you’ve sold out,” he asserts. Moreover, he says that “Chevy has been a much better record company for me than (my last label) Columbia Records ever was.”
Mellencamp feels he “wasted 10 years” at that label. “Am I mad at them?” he asks. “You bet.”
As a result, he would only agree to a one-album deal with his new company, Universal. “This could be my last record - if this is too painful,” he says.
For right now, however, Mellencamp seems fully engaged. “Freedom’s Road,” the singer’s first album of original music in five years, stands among his most political works. Racism, war, corrupt politicians, the misuses of freedom and the American character dominate its 11 tracks.
“I didn’t really think I was addressing the world so much,” Mellencamp insists. “To me, this is a very personal record.”
He says he wanted the lyrics to work on two levels. “A song like `Ghost on the Highway’ would seem to be about the shrinking small towns in America,” the singer explains. “But it’s really about the things individuals leave behind. Each of us has our own ghost town along the highway, the directions we should have gone.”
Some of his new songs court misinterpretation. “The Americans” appears to tout the open-minded character of U.S. citizens. But Mellencamp - who was born in Indiana and still lives near Bloomington - says it’s actually about “how we see ourselves, not how we are. I think that’s an image that should be strived toward. If I had written about how we really are, it would have been negative. If (I was writing about) the Midwest, it would be, `I’m narrow-minded and don’t give a (expletive) about other cultures.’”
While the album certainly has its withering moments, more often it espouses hope and pride. “Our Country” strives to be the “This Land Is Your Land” of this era. The music throughout the CD follows suit, drawing heavily on the warm Americana sounds of late `60s California bands like the Youngbloods and the Byrds. “We stole everything we could,” Mellencamp says with a laugh.
The use of 12-string guitars, old Vox amps, and a transfer in the mastering phase of digital technology to vinyl greatly aided the summery and nostalgic feel.
Mellencamp makes no secret of his nostalgic view of youth culture. He calls current radio “terrible,” feels most modern music “just isn’t any good,” and figures that young audiences aren’t as serious about songs as his generation was. “I hate to sound like an old fart,” he says, “(but) I’m old school, baby.”
Not that it has made him pack up his guitar and go home. Lately, Mellencamp has been batting around the idea of touring the county, either playing for free or organizing a sprawling tour with lots of acts, a la Bob Dylan’s 1975 “Rolling Thunder Revue.” His desire to remain part of the pop conversation has likely done more than anything to immunize him from the controversy he has stirred.
“I’m a songwriter,” he says. “I want my songs heard.”