The Real Meaning Behind John Mellencamp's Song Pink Houses

John Mellencamp initially burst onto the scene as Johnny Cougar, then later John Cougar Mellencamp, before he once and for all decided to perform under his birth name. In keeping with his desire to do things his way, he hasn't shied away from touching on social and political issues in his lyrics. For example, his 1985 song "Rain on the Scarecrow" is, according to American Songwriter, a no-holds-barred look at the plight of the American farmer, driven to financial ruin by the changing agricultural economy of the day and the demise of the American family farm.

Another Mellencamp hit dripping with political symbolism is his 1983 song "Pink Houses." Despite the rousing instrumentation, the song is actually a grim look at the state of the American Dream in those days. Further, the song was inspired by a scene that Mellencamp witnessed in his own native Indiana, infusing the song with a particularly Midwestern take on its subject matter.

Mellencamp saw the song's subject matter with his own eyes

The opening lines of "Pink Houses" set the scene: "There's a Black man with a black cat / Living in a black neighborhood / He's got an interstate runnin' through his front yard," the song goes, via American Songwriter. Mellencamp actually saw that very thing with his own eyes: one day he was driving along Interstate 65 through Indianapolis when he spotted a Black man and his black cat sitting on a lawn chair in front of a pink house. 

The juxtaposition of a man's home being within feet of 70-mph traffic and his apparent acceptance of his fate struck Mellencamp. "I thought, 'Wow, is this what life can lead to? Watching the f***in' cars go by on the interstate?," he said. As he fleshed out the lyrics, the song took on a deeper meaning: a look at the demise of the American Dream. "The American dream had pretty much proven itself as not working anymore," he said. Or to put it another way, as explained via Indianapolis Monthly, the hook, "Ain't that America," is actually code for "Ain't that some bull***t."

Some politicians missed the point

As is often the case with popular songs, politicians began using "Pink Houses" at their campaign rallies. As Indianapolis Monthly explains, most listeners — including the campaign teams of politicians both Republican and Democrat — heard the word "America" and decided it was an ersatz anthem. The problem, as Mellencamp explained via American Songwriter, is that the song is actually "anti-American," a fact that was apparently lost on Ronald Reagan, John McCain, and others. 

This was problematic for the songwriter, who has never shied away from calling himself a "liberal," and so he called his management team. Eventually, the decision was made to explain to McCain's team what the song was actually about, and that the songwriter was and is a liberal, and to maybe rethink including it in his campaign, which McCain promptly did. Mellencamp was clear that he didn't necessarily forbid McCain from using the song, only that his team made it clear to the Arizona politician that he might be missing the point.