In the summer of 1982, a “little ditty” about growing up “in the Heartland” became the most unexpected of anthems for a group of young people in the US later known as Generation X. At a time of emerging New Wave and the early rise of synthpop, John Mellencamp‘s breakthrough and most enduring song opens with an innovative guitar hook merging a raucous anthem rock chord that’s quickly tempered with an innocent and oddly appropriate twangy clip. The contrast between the two sounds almost sweetly reflects the contrasting themes of the ditty – the loud brash promise of youth with a melancholy realization of the fading days of passion and innocence.
For an unassuming pop song posing as a little ditty, it leaped onto radio playlists and the music charts with an addictive sound nearly impossible to ignore. Far beyond a simple song, “Jack and Diane” became the song of the summer, playing out on car radios and at swimming pools, topping the charts at number one by October.
Now, 37 years after it became a summer anthem, Mellencamp’s signature breakthrough song resonates as a tale of a simpler time mythologizing small town rural life and making peace with the hard reality that “life goes on, long after the thrill of living is done.” As members of Generation X settle comfortably into middle age, the nostalgia and reality of the song offer a time machine back to carefree youth before we became “women and men”.
I can vaguely remember the first time it came across the boom-box playing in the lifeguard’s shack of River-Aire Pool where I grew up and spent my summers. That memory sticks with me because the song simply sounded different and demanded attention of the teens in the neighborhood. It was infectious and engaging because it sounded like us — like our lives. In the same summer that gave us Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf”, John Cougar (before he reclaimed his name Mellencamp) gave American kids a song about themselves. As he explained in a video interview, “Jack and Diane can be about any of millions of kids in the US” because it is true Americana, reflecting culture and identity and ethos. “It has the spirit of people who think that the sun rises and sets with them, and the world is here for them, which it actually is.” For a generation of young people coming of age after of decade of empty promises and fading institutions, the idea that individual lives mattered became an identity and a persona.
Generation X is America’s middle child latch-key kid who was, in Tom Petty’s words a few years later, “raised on promises” but always in the back of his mind pretty sure there was “a little more to life”. For the small disaffected generation of people born between the early ’60s and 1980, the story of America is a wistful one of hopes and dreams tempered by a reality of economic swings, institutional failings, and lying politicians. So many images of authenticity are set against that acoustic strumming that the song feels like the early days of rock and country music. From the shuffle to the chords to the imagery, Mellencamp captures the tempo of everyday American life. Drawing a lineage from Woody Guthrie to Hank Williams to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, the stories of growing up in America and the mythologizing of the everyday experience bring an existential heroism to the characters in the song, making the most of their lives as “two American kids doing the best they can”. It’s honoring average lives as worthwhile and meaningful and deserving of recognition.
There are two components to the beautiful, brilliant authenticity of “Jack and Diane”, one being the narrative and the other the musical structure. Is it a rock, pop, or country song? Is it hopeful and carefree, or is it a melancholic warning of the fading of innocence? Is it honoring and validating the everyday existence of average people living average lives, or is it lamenting the sorrow and emptiness of nameless faces and faceless futures?
Musically, the shift into the melodic strumming of the acoustic guitar as the singer begins to tell the story of “two kids” captures the innocence and naïvety of kids growing up pre-internet and tech revolution. When Jackie “had his hands between her knees”, it was a little bit dirty and felt illicit to hear but also raw and honest. Of course, Prince would come along and destroy the pretext of that not-so-scandalous moment “outside the Tastee-Freez”. Gen Xers might be the last generation to grow up with any sense of modesty about sex in art and music.
What does the song say about Generation X when they were in adolescence? Certainly, Jackon’s “Thriller” was also released that year, and Mellencamp’s storybook song is anything but that pop music extravaganza. In the early ’80s it felt like the Heartland still had heart. American Fool from which the song came — and almost never made it onto — was Mellencamp’s fifth album, though it was his third of significance. “John Cougar” hit his highest point of success at a time when the American economy was just emerging from hardship, and he wondered whether the economy was strong enough to support a tour.
It’s a song with an incredible amount of staying power in pop culture, and the story of Jack and Diane is the story of Generation X, which “is two American kids doing best they can.” The song captured a community spirit integral to the Midwestern towns like the one it portrays, and the use of hand claps invites the listener into the song — a Midwestern neighborliness if not a Gospel revival.
The song’s images and philosophical riffing adroitly captured the existential pining of kids coming of age at the dawn of the Reagan era. When Mellencamp reminded us that we go on living “long after the thrill of living is gone”, he was framing life beyond adolescence for people still caught up in it. As Gen Xers hear the song now, they probably can’t help but reflect on what those words meant 37 years ago with their futures before them. For a group of people coming out of the depressed ’70s, that advice was as much a warning as it was a reflection.
Now, in many ways Gen X is still in the most challenging financial and sociological situation of all current demographics. In 2019, as the world focuses its attention on aging Boomers exiting the scene while anxious Millennials lament the world they’ve inherited, Generation X wryly carries on bemused as always by drama of it all. The generally stoic attitude of society’s future slackers was reflected in the image of Jack, scratching his head and giving his “best James Dean” – the allusion capturing the epitome of cool that many Gen Xers first saw taped to the inside of Fonzie’s closet in ABC’s sitcom, Happy Days.
Generation X was expected to casually, if begrudgingly, adapt to a world that largely dismissed it. In the lines “Don’t let it rock, let it roll”, Mellencamp spotlights the free-wheelin’ easy-going nature of ’80s youth who often sought to sidestep and avoid the conflict around them and instead bury themselves in music. There’s a clear sense of identity and geography in those words, and Mellencamp’s call for “The Bible Belt to come and save my soul” is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the values of the Heartland that kids like Jack and Diane could only reluctantly adhere to.
Indeed, Generation X has always had a complicated relationship with religion, distancing themselves from the devout faith of their parents in the Silent Generation, though probably remaining spiritual if not religious. When there’s not much to believe in, you have to believe in something, even if it’s just yourself and a simple little ditty. At that point, the shuffle of the snare and cymbals evoke an angsty sense of responsibility as the guitar shifts into rich, deep chords of pastoral freedom while Jack and Diane do “the best they can”. The subsequent power rock chords screaming out from the electric guitar imply a sense of empowerment that would carry Gen X through its decades-long quest for authenticity like that it found in the music of the early ’80s.
The video for the song evokes the early days of MTV, stripped down in its simplicity, featuring those familiar black and white Polaroids and scenes from around Bloomington, Indiana, where John grew up. The late shots in the video of Mellencamp throwing a punch to the final cymbal crash reflects the innocent angst of the frustrated kids in going-nowhere towns. Ultimately, the carefree days of youth fade, as “changes come around real soon [to] make us women and men” – a sentiment Mellencamp captured years later in his song “Cherry Bomb” (The Lonesome Jubilee, 1987) undoubtedly a grown up John, or perhaps Jack. In sync with the lyrical images, the structure accents the message as the guitar and rhythm variations matching the tempo of the times hold it all together.
“Jack and Diane” began as a socially conscious song regarding the growing number of interracial couples, with Jack being an African-American male and Diane a white female. The record company balked at releasing a song with such a serious topic, and John switched the description of Jack to “a football star”. Ultimately, “Jack and Diane” became an ode to the timeless issue of average people growing up in lives of insignificance, and finding meaning in that.
As Generation X came of age in a time period spanning post-Punk, New Wave, Power Pop, and Grunge, there are many ideas about what song encapsulates Gen X. Certainly, Modern English’s “Melt with You” (After the Snow, 1982) or the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” (Violente Femmes, 1983) come to mind, as do Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nevermind, 1991) and Beck’s “Loser” (single, 1993) in the role of generational anthems. But in terms of coming into consciousness and reflecting the spirit of a forgotten generation that recently woke up to find itself in that strange world of middle age, I’d make a strong argument for the little ditty that advised us to “hold on to sixteen” as long as we can.