Country musicians aren’t shy about writing America-loving sing-along anthems, but what about rock? There aren’t a lot of offerings that celebrate our country. Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” is coolly neutral on its subject; Neil Diamond’s “America” is a rousing tribute to our immigrant heritage, but it’s not rock. Huey Lewis and the News’s “The Heart of Rock & Roll” name-checks a lot of American cities but doesn’t say why they’re great, and its cousin, John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” is simply a list of great bands that happened to be American.
Ah, but Mellencamp gave us my favorite rah-rah flag-waving American rock standard with 1983’s “Pink Houses.” Nearly 40 years later, that opening chord still hits like a shot of Kentucky bourbon: rousing, inspiring, pride-casting and butt-kicking and joy-giving. The refrain is, typically for Mellencamp, lapidary. What phrase is more likely to bring on a dazed, appreciative smile than “Aw, but ain’t that America”?
The backstory just makes me love it more: Mellencamp set out to write a bitter left-wing diatribe about crushed dreams, bad taste, poverty, racism, and opioid ruination, but things got away from him. What he wound up with was destined to make Americans delirious with pride as we blasted it out of car radios from Manhattan to Malibu.
“Pink Houses” is a successor to the loathsome folk singer Malvina Reynolds’s smarmy 1962 hate-grenade of elite condescension, “Little Boxes,” in which she condemned “little boxes made of ticky-tacky . . . there’s a pink one and a green one and a blue one and a yellow one. . . . and they all look just the same.” Reynolds goes on to dump all over the blessings of college, pretty children, summer camp, doctors, and even (brace yourself) martinis. What kind of joyless scourge attacks martinis? The Communist kind, naturally. (Reynolds was a Party member for two years in her forties. Such people are unhappy and wish for the rest of us to join them in their misery.)
The genesis of “Pink Houses” was exactly what you’d guess from the opening lines: Mellencamp told Rolling Stone he was driving on I-65 in Indianapolis when he spotted a black man in a black neighborhood. “He was sitting on his front lawn in front of a pink house in one of those s***ty, cheap lawn chairs. I thought, ‘Wow, is this what life can lead to? Watching the f***in’ cars go by on the interstate?’ Then I imagined he wasn’t isolated, but he was happy. So I went with that positive route when I wrote this song.”
Mellencamp wanted a hit — hence the twang and the ring and the glorious yawp of the song, four minutes and 43 seconds of fist-pumping cheer — but as a lyricist he was channeling Karl Marx’s disbelieving and frustrated term, false consciousness. Why couldn’t the proletarians grasp how miserable they were and rise up to strike against the system that held them back?
From the intellectual’s revolutionary mindset, it’s only a short step to having contempt for the underclass when the workers fail to do as foretold. Mellencamp’s contempt here for the social inferiors whose champion he fancies himself is evident, and over the years that feeling became a stronger element in the Democratic Party as its brand changed from Fred’s Diner to Martha’s Vineyard.
Mellencamp continued, in his Rolling Stone interview, “This one has been misconstrued over the years because of the chorus — it sounds very rah-rah. But it’s really an anti-American song. The American dream had pretty much proven itself as not working anymore. It was another way for me to sneak something in.”
Yeah, remember those dark days when everything fell apart for America and we all lost hope in a better future? Those horrible times known as . . . the Eighties? Income was, of course, rising steadily at the time. Mellencamp’s optimistic characters were more in touch with what was actually happening in America than the harrumphing progressive singer was on his drive-by.
Much like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” the following year (both Ronald Reagan and George Will considered it a patriotic effort, and to this day people wave flags when it plays), “Pink Houses” became an anthem malgré lui. John McCain would play it at rallies. It stirs the patriotic juices at a roadhouse or a beach barbecue or a NASCAR tailgate. That Mellencamp’s anti-American intentions failed gives the song another layer of greatness: It’s a reminder that no matter how dark a vision of our country the intellectual class may paint, the masses insist on looking at the bright side of what it means to be American.
Mellencamp condemns the underclass for its bad taste (those horrible pink houses), its meals (“evenin’ slop”), its self-delusion (no, you don’t have a chance to be president someday), and then rails against an unequal society where “there’s winners and there’s losers.” People think “that ain’t no big deal.” But why don’t they care? Because they are zonked out of their minds on narcotics, as we learn in the closing words of the last verse: “the pills that kill.” The video shows garbage blowing along a railroad track and an American flag held captive by power lines.
Instead of all that, what Americans hear in the song is . . . love. Those simple but stirring chords in G seem to drink in the entire glorious heartland. “Ain’t that America” and “home of the free” surge with love of country. We even love our pink houses; only an elitist would call them ticky-tacky. The pink means creative expression, pride, individuality, cheekiness, fun. Far from confirming the dark views of grumpy folkies who say our houses “all look just the same,” they stand to remind us that Americans love to think different and let our freak flags fly. We’re proud of our pink houses, our aging spouses, our “evenin’ slop,” our vacations down at the Gulf of Mexico. Let millionaire rock-stars snigger as they drive by: We know what our country is, and we love it anyway.