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Friday, October 24, 2003
The more I listen to John Mellencamp's greatest hits, the more certain conclusions are inescapable.

Conclusions like: "Pink Houses" is, simply, one of the best rock songs of all time.

First off, there's the music. There's the hook, which, goddamn, is just mind-blowing. It's a simple little pattern, but it's great because there's no reason for that to be new. No reason. It's so simple and so good. And there's the restraint: the way everything holds off for the first verse/chorus but still sounds really driving, really exciting. The arrangement is great. The instrumentation is great: that slide guitar, that electric, that percussion. The singing is great. It just sounds great, timeless: there's country in there, and rock, but blues too, and soul--I hear not a little Van Morrison in John's singing (see "know know know" in this one) and songs. It sounds classic rock, but it mostly just sounds classic. Oh yeah, and the fucking handclaps. Holy shit. Holy shit.

Then there's the lyrics. All three verses of this song are wonderful little images, starting specific in the first (black man's house), going more archetypical in the second (rock 'n' roll yoot) and then going totally general/theoretical at the end ("the simple man"). And what they do well is what John Mellencamp does so well: act in two opposing ways.[1] The chorus has "America" in it and the song's kind of cheery, so it seems pro-America, but I don't want to seem superficial about this. There really is a valid patriotic interpretation to the song. There's the gauzy nostalgia of the first verse, the simple rock-is-greatism of the second, and the championing of the common man in the third. It's very populist.

But: it's also very, very sad. The third verse speaks of common people[2] thusly: "What do they know know know / Go to work in some high rise / And vacation down at the Gulf of Mexico." The common man "pays for the thrills, the bills and the pills that kill." You can take that "bills" thing and say it's anti-capitalist, and it kinda is, but it's more in that traditional country vein of portraying the lives of most people as being crushed, not ennobled, by suffering; as something that happens, and that is OK, but something that shouldn't. Sure, it's opposed to the views of some of your more elitist liberal types, but it's also diametrically opposed to big-business Republicanism.

Verse two, a fucking mind-blowing little compact bomb of meaning, starts with rock 'n' roll, but sees it as a good thing only because the speaker's political aspirations have been crushed. He recognizes music as a compromise, as a second-best thing, as something that is good but far from the best. And I really like that. Rock 'n' roll is not salvation: it's just a comfort.

The third verse has a cute quality to it, the comforting teasing of a happily married couple, but at the same time, this house they proudly own has "an interstate runnin' through [its] front yard" but "he think that he's got it so good." And that house, the "little pink house" of the chorus, is all cute and Americana, but it's crushing, too, in its own way. The house is little, and it's just like all the rest. Ain't that America: a bunch of mass-produced shit that all looks the same and isn't very good. But I'm sure you know that I'd hate any song that had this as its only meaning. However, Mellencamp puts it alongside a strong acknowledgement of how wonderful little houses and rock 'n' roll and cheesy vacations can be, how they do provide comfort in a harsh world. And I like that. A lot. Would that some of our more "intellectual" lyricists could pull off tricks like that effectively.

But the best thing about this song is that it has two spectacular choruses.

Of course, they are smushed together, and that could fool people. But realize that you could easily refer to this song as "Ain't That America" just as much as "Little Pink Houses." And Mellencamp could have simply stopped after "home of the free..." Ending on that unresolved chord would have added a nice admission of uncertainty to the wink-wink jingoism being employed. But he goes on to a lyric that also ends on an unresolved chord and so the great little hold happens twice. Thus: home of the free to do what? Little pink houses, for you and me. That freedom is clearly being expressed with a bitter edge to it.

But ultimately, it's not even about the meaning, about the words, about all of that. It's about the fact that the first part is a great melody and rhythm and arrangement, and then he adds more. You can't help but sing along, can't help but have both parts stuck in your head for days and days. Goddamn fucking right. That's a fucking song for you.

[1] You get kind of a Toby Keith vibe from him, but the man hates Republicans; he's a Democrat in that old-school way.
[2] I would argue that the critique made explicit in the Pulp song of that name is implicitly contained between the lines of "Pink Houses," but I could be wrong.

UPDATE: Right, since he semi-famously covered a Van Morrison song with that bassist lady whose name I don't care to copy and paste from allmusic right now, that's not the most cutting of insights. Bad rock critic.