Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
John Cougar Mellencamp – “Small Town”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #6 in December 1985
Springsteen, I thought for years, with the grim finality of Eric Church in his classic 2012 eponymous hit. I didn’t know John Cougar Melonhead, to quote The Harvard Lampoon, sang it until consulting Whitburn in the early nineties. An easy mistake. 1985-1986 was peak Bossmania, peak heartland, peak Reagan. Obviously no conservative, Springsteen nevertheless became an unofficial avatar for Chevrolet visions of America, a Trojan Horse in which dozens of George Wills in jeans spilled forth armed with maladroitly polysyllabic columns praising the beautiful prose of Robert Bork.
A hit on momentum and thanks to trends, “Small Town” is the most vacant of Mellencamp’s excellent, under-discussed streak that went from 1980’s “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” through 1994’s surprise smash “Wild Nights.” The snap and tug-and-pull of Kenny Aronoff’s drums and Larry Crane’s rangy guitar riff hold it together when Mellencamp’s gruffness can’t; he reverts to the tuff gnarl of his Johnny Cougar days as if afraid people still disrespect him. He was born in a small town. He’ll die in a small town. All his friends were born in a small town. His parents too! Maybe his ferret. That’s it. Tat’s the song. Missing is context, irony, sincerity. Does he regret being born in a small town? Does he have regrets but understands what it taught him? Should small towns be nuked?
Often direct to the point of madness but never confusing, Mellencamp answers no questions. “Small Town” is a sop to the audience. It should’ve been the Reagan commercial that “Born in the U.S.A.” wasn’t. Although I don’t much like the next single “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” it at least nods toward the kind of record collection that illuminated what Coog missed in rural Indiana. Frankie Lyman, Bobby Fuller, Mitch Ryder pointed out; the rangy, well-played “Small Town” ended up defending provincialism, like a well-written campaign speech.
Unfortunate, for I can hear a case that Scarecrow is The Mature Mellencamp’s best album: tough, spare, as no bullshit in its words as it is in its arrangements. He got flak for interpolating his granny talking, but that’s the kind of indulgence I expect from a man deep in his imperial phase, able to force the public to accept him on his terms. Scarecrow should’ve been the #1 for weeks that 1982’s American Fool was when he was merely John Cougar; he had to settle for a stranglehold on radio and MTV for a full calendar year. Even minor singles like “Rumbleseat” and “Minutes to Memories” took, and I would make a strong case that “Rain on the Scarecrow” is the toughest, sparest, and gnarliest single the Hoosier ever released, especially so because unlike the Blasters (a band to whom he donated an ace single) he sneaked “Rain” into the top thirty in summer ’86.
As I’ve suggested, Coug would recover. Considered his triumph by everyone not me, 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee added Lisa Germano’s fiddle to add a sour-sweet tang to a less interesting Scarecrow running order. Other than a moronic single complaining about being a pop star that proved he was a pop singer all along (it’s as if he recorded it as an initiation ritual), he stayed consistent and got hits through 1996’s bizarre top twenty “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First),” which didn’t capitalize on hiring Junior Vazquez to program your beats; Coog wasn’t Tom Petty enough to cover Beck. He even got a huge payday when Chevrolet used “Our Country” to hawk Silverados. It’s what a guy who lived, go an education, and died in a small town would have done.