Susan Compo, author of Warren Oates: a Wild Life, credits David Masciotra with creating “almost a new genre” in Mellencamp: American Troubadour, new in April from University Press of Kentucky. Compo describes the book as “Part biography, part cultural and sociological commentary—with a touch of hagiography/fan nonfiction thrown in.” The author’s bent toward “hagiography” is where I had the most problems while reading this provocative work.
I first encountered the word part “hagia” in Dan Brown’s intrigue novel, Inferno, where code breaker protagonist Robert Langdon must track down a bioterrorist using lines from Dante’s Inferno as clues. The word root “hagia” is from Greek, meaning “saint.” As revelation goes, I next ran into this word part in a poem by Thomas Merton called “Hagia Sophia,” or Saint Sophia. When researching the word “hagiography,” I found that it refers to any writings about the saints which might document and highlight their miracles. I also found that to use the word about someone’s writing might be pejorative, as it implies a kind of fan worship or uncritical stance.
While Masciotra organizes his book in semi-chronological order, beginning with John Mellencamp’s early years as a major label invention, John Cougar, and progressing toward offering glimpses of a mature artist who paints and writes songs of social import, the author often circles back to discuss song lyrics and musical elements as they apply to American culture. Masciotra makes fair comparisons between Bob Seger’s earlier songs and Mellencamp’s, quoting lyrics from “Jack and Diane” and “Night Moves” to exemplify the sexual posturing of inexperienced youth. But when he attempts to disclaim Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics as “inauthentic” by comparison, he loses me. To me, the differences between these two songwriters is largely point of view and style, with Mellencamp espousing a first person viewpoint and stripped down rock presentation for many of his songs, and Springsteen creating street characters who seem mythic against a wall of sound reminiscent of every Phil Spector production value known to man.
I was surprised at Masciotra’s criticisms of Springsteen given his previous writing, Working on a Dream: the Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen. But it seems that Masciotra takes the sociological and cultural aspects of his writing very seriously. He often does pieces for The Washington Post, the Atlantic, Salon, and alter.net that regularly receive harsh reader blowback. For example, he recently wrote a piece for Salon accusing Americans of blind hero worship for our police and military. This drew some colorful reactions from police blogs and members of the armed forces that I cannot share with polite company over the radio. Suffice it to say, they were not pleased or even in agreement.
The strongest passages in this study of Mellencamp as a Midwestern artist with some heft, grit, and insight are the chapters where Masicotra examines the themes in Mellencamp’s lyrics and praises his contributions to what we now call Americana. He attributes Mellencamp’s invention of using many folk instruments in his gypsy rock albums as a precursor to Americana. He also compares Mellencamp’s midwestern vision to artists like Grant Wood, Theodore Dreiser, Jim Harrison, John Prine, and even Kurt Vonnegut. That vision seems to embrace “insistence on viewing the ebb and flow of experience as a holistic force carrying with it many contradictions.”
There are also a few wonderful quotes from Mellencamp about songwriting that I have taken to my songwriter’s heart and recently brought into my songwriter’s circle for discussion. “The whole point is writing simple melodies people can sing along to,” says Mellencamp. He goes on to say, “people respond strongest to vague songs with ‘open ended’ stories or scenes.” He adds, “in order for a complicated song with specific detail and imagery to work, the melody must be beautiful.” Masciotra discusses how many Mellencamp tunes fulfill these standards while illuminating many issues in American culture like poverty, race, and lack of community. I especially enjoyed his take on “Little Pink Houses.”
I expected Mellencamp: American Troubadour to follow the pattern of many music bios I have read in the past few years. I was looking for biographical highlights, middle of the book pictures and a discography. Instead, I found an—at first—troublesome chronicle of an artist’s growth over his career set against the cultural background of his time. David Masciotra provides thoughtful analysis of musical and lyrical elements that have made John Mellencamp way more than a footnote in the history of the rock song.
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