F.N.V. – Growing Up With and Within John Mellencamp Songs

A few years ago, Rob – of My Side Of The Laundry Room – began a series called “F.N.V.,” taking its name and inspiration from NBC’s Friday Night Videos (1983-2002).  Anyway, I liked it so I totally stole it from him.  Kalie liked it and she stole it too, proving far more prolific with her sharing of music videos and stories than I ever am.  Today I’m going to do something I haven’t done before – focus exclusively on one artist.  Why John Mellencamp?  Well, ever since I was a kid, John Mellencamp’s music has led me down surprisingly contemplative roads.  So I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the musings he’s led me to over the years.

Growing up, Mom always had music on.  Some of my earliest memories are of Rod Stewart, Billy Joel, Cher, Aretha Franklin, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Supremes, Poison, Bon Jovi, Madonna, and (naturally, given the topic of this post) John Mellencamp.  I don’t remember exactly when we got cable or when MTV came into my life but I remember Mom always having that on, too.  I was raised with albums spinning, cassette’s blaring, and music videos playing.  So many of my earliest musical loves (loves, I should add, I carry with me to this day) came from Mom’s influence.

I remember listening to John Mellencamp songs and being drawn into a deep contemplation of life and aging, a contemplation which began in high school.  I credit it to Mellencamp’s lyrics and his own awareness of aging.  Anyway, I felt exploring this could make for an interesting F.N.V. post, so here we go!

“Jack & Diane” – American Fool – 1982

I’ve always had a particular affinity for this album, as it came out the year I was born.  But that’s not why it’s on this list.  In the song Mellencamp sings, “Hangin’ on to sixteen, as long as we can / Change is comin’ round real soon make us women and men.”  I vividly remember driving around and listening to this song with Missy, my best friend through my high school years, sitting next to me.  We were kids of sixteen-turning-seventeen, and I remember listening to this line and wondering, What exactly was he holding on to?  Do I recognize it now, as I’m living it?  Will I understand what he means once it’s gone?  Most often though, I’d wonder what exactly that change was he was talking about.  When would it happen?  What would it comprise?  When and how would we become women and men?  I don’t know exactly when it happened, but I remember realizing it did.  Now I listen to this song from the other side, the side Mellencamp was on when he wrote it.  I look back at those carefree days driving around with Missy – heading up to the movie theatre with no specific plans and just waiting hours and hours for a movie we wanted to see to start, or getting cheap pizza from Little Caesar’s on Wednesday, or all our conversations wondering what life would be like after high school – and I can appreciate those days now as Mellencamp was when he wrote this.  Let it rock.  Let it roll.  Let the Bible Belt come and save our souls…

“Rain on the Scarecrow” – Scarecrow – 1985

Growing up, Dad and Grandpa (both my material and paternal grandfathers) and so many of my uncles and great uncles were the type of labors – brick layers, construction workers, truck drivers, etc. – you’d hear about in Bruce Springsteen songs, not the farmers Mellencamp so often sang about (I swear, I’ve seen Dad do just about every job Springsteen sings about in “Jack Of All Trades” (and I remember being surprised, as a kid, to learn everyone didn’t live in a house built from the ground up by their family)).  But this song is on this list for two particular reasons.  First, it reminds of me of those moments in high school when my social conscience first began to grow.  Long before I could understand John Lennon’s “Imagine” or Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’,” I was moved by “Rain On The Scarecrow.”  This song opened my eyes to a perspective and a struggle not my own.  I could see – and feel – the plight of the farmers across this country.  It was one of the first songs that not only taught me how to begin to look outside my own vantage point but the importance of doing so.

Second, it reminds me of a very particular date :).  I was seventeen and out with this cute, intelligent hippie girl – short pixie haircut, big glasses, tank tops over long/flowing bohemian skirts, and lots of bracelets up her arms.  We were sitting at a table at Eat ‘n’ Park, talking about justice and the world with all the passion and certainty two seventeen-year-olds generate.  This song came on and we were both moved.  I, by the plight of the farmers he was singing about who couldn’t “work their fields and cows.”  She, by the “poor animals” treated so unfairly.  I said I didn’t think he meant the big, factory-run farms.  She said to eat any meat was brutal.  In that moment, this song became responsible for a second enlarging of my own limited perspective.  While she would not be the compassionate, intelligent, and beautiful woman whose challenge would ultimately lead me to become a vegetarian myself, I still think of her whenever I hear this song.  I wonder how her life turned out…and I wonder whether or not she eats any meat now.

“Cherry Bomb” – The Lonesome Jubilee – 1987

This whole song is about John Mellencamp looking back on his youth but it makes this list for a particular line.  He sings, “Seventeen has turned thirty-five / I’m surprised that we’re still livin’ / If we’ve done any wrong / I hope that we’re forgiven.”  I’m thirty-seven now.  I’ll be thirty-eight this summer.  So I’ve lived through both sides of this lyric.  I was listening to this song when I was seventeen and I was listening to it when I turned thirty-five.  I remember listening to it at seventeen and thinking how distant thirty-five seemed.  I couldn’t even conceive of being that old or that “adult.”  I couldn’t imagine what life could possibly look like at that age.  But I would think about it all the time when I’d hear this song, even if I couldn’t fathom a realistic answer.  Then I found it!  All of a sudden, one day without even realizing it had arrived, I was listening to this song and I was thirty-five.  I’m not surprised that I’m still livin’ :).  But I do hope I’m forgiven for the wrongs I’ve done.  My life at thirty-five (and now at thirty-seven!) is so beautiful and so full and such a blessing.  My life at seventeen was pretty great, too.  Listening to this song now makes me think of allllll that happened between those two points in my life.  It’s crazy!  So much life!  I love this song for that, for being a part of my life when I was seventeen and for still being with me when I turned thirty-five, and for always calling me to this unique trip back through all those memories.

“Women Seem” – Cuttin’ Heads – 2001

Okay, so there’s no video for this song but I still had to include it.  Mellencamp writes and sings this as a breezy salute to the women he’s known and it’s so sweet…ly antagonistic XD.  It’s cute and playful buuuuut he’s clearly working through some stuff.  (One of my favorite lines is, “Women seem to be so clever / I love all the jokes that they tell / Like my last boyfriend really hurt me in bed, hey but you seem to fit so well.”  Or there’s “Women sure can hurt your feelings / They can burn you down and not make a sound / And then they call me up and say, ‘Hey come over, my husband has just left town.’”)  I remember falling in love with the song when I first heard him play it live the summer before his Cutting Heads album came out.  As my “F.N.V. – Songs and Love Stories” post chronicled, my twenties had some rough romantic exploits.  While I don’t carry the heartache grudge/chip on my shoulder he seems to have here, it still resonated.  BONUS – I’ve experienced everything he cites in this song at one point or another in my own romantic exploits save three things.  But I won’t say which.  It’s more fun for you to listen and imagine the stories yourself.

“I’m Not Running Anymore” – John Mellencamp – 1998

This song has perhaps the line that started the reflections which would ultimately yield this post.  I don’t remember the exact date, of course but I VIVIDLY remember the day, several years ago, when I looked in the mirror and smiled as this line ran through my head – “Well I look in the mirror, what the hell happened to me? / Whatever I had, has gone away / I’m not that young kid that I used to be, so I push the hair back out my face / That’s okay, I knew this would happen / But I was hopin’ not today / Hey baby, I’m not runnin’ anymore / But I’m on my way.”  All of a sudden, as if overnight, I had ­all these years in my eyes – all this life lived.  I could see it, see the life, the memories, the soul in my own eyes.  Of course it didn’t happen overnight but it felt like it did.  Just like that, it was there.  I’m not the young kid I used to be :).  I think of this line often when I’m looking in the mirror.  It doesn’t bother me, age rarely does.  It feels more like a crossing a threshold than arriving at a somber event.  I’m proud of all I saw in my eyes then, all I see now.  Like Mellencamp, I’m not runnin’ and I’m on my way.  However, when I look at my approach to aging, I am more inclined to quote Bon Jovi’s “Just Older” than any other song – “I’ve kept my faith, I still believe I’m just…I’m still pretty, too.”

“Longest Days” – Life, Death, Love, and Freedom – 2008

There’s no video for this one either but it serves as a perfect postscript for this post.  I remember when this album came out.  We saw him on the tour for it, too.  But the album never really resonated with me.  This song, like much of the album, is beautiful…but it’s sad.  There was a darkness, I felt, in these songs – a focus on death and mortality, increasing loneliness and isolation I wasn’t ready for.  With time I came to realize Mellencamp was processing his own mortality here, as he dealt with the loss of family and friends which I’m sure prompted these reflections.  It’s a natural part of life…but one I haven’t come to in this way yet and one I struggled to appreciate when the album came out.  “So you pretend not to notice / That everything has changed / The way that you look / And the friends you once had / So you keep on actin’ the same…All I got here / Is a rearview mirror / Reflections of where I’ve been” – this didn’t speak to me then and it doesn’t speak to me now.  But I know, just like lookin’ in the mirror and wonderin’ what they hell happened to me as I push the hair out of my face came for me, these days are coming for me too.  There will come the time where I’ll listen to this album and realize I’ve finally lived my way into understanding these lyrics.


That doesn’t bother or scare me though, just as realizing “I’m not that young kid that I used to be” didn’t prompt any sort of existential crisis.  When I got to the thirty-five end of “Seventeen has turned thirty-five” I had found so much beauty around me – a life filled with relationships and meaning I couldn’t’ve ever imagined when I was just a kid of seventeen.  I know there’s more of that ahead.  More pain and heartache, to be sure.  But there’s more beauty and meaning to be found as well.  Even though I’m happy I’m not there yet nor can I accurately imagine what life will be like, just as I couldn’t picture thirty-five at seventeen, I’m sure there will be a unique sort of beauty when the time comes for me to travel my “longest days.”

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