October 7, 1951 in Seymour, Indiana
If John Mellencamp didn't invent heartland rock
, he most certainly helped to perfect it and cement its importance among the American record-buying public during the '80s. His style of singer-songwriter introspection mixed with a rebellious rockers' personality met with tremendous success among a broad and eager audience. Even Mellencamp's forays into social commentary and attempts at serious art were never alienating to his adoring and loyal mainstream fans.
Mellencamp took on his persona as Midwestern blue collar rebel honestly, growing up with spina bifida and leading a somewhat troubled, hardscrabble life as a teen. At 17 he left home with his pregnant girlfriend and eventually made his way to New York City, where he hoped to break into the music business. In the mid-'70s his desire for success threatened to smear away his Midwestern roots, but Mellencamp's heartland identity would prove to be a resilient one.
Forced Name Change & Prevailing Struggle:
Famously, after being signed to a record contract by producer Tony DeFries, Mellencamp was horrified to learn that his name had been changed to Johnny Cougar for his debut album. Of course, that was the least of his worries, as a poor showing of that record got him dropped from his deal. But Mellencamp pressed on, releasing a few more albums in the late '70s that garnered small but increasing attention. As the MTV
age arrived in the early '80s, Mellencamp was poised for a breakthrough.
An American Fool Becomes a Superstar:
Mellencamp's wryly titled 1982 album, American Fool
broke him through to the masses, presenting the singer as a tough, sometimes bawdy, but ultimately sensitive chronicler of coming-of-age struggles. "Hurts So Good"
and "Jack & Diane"
became huge hits, along with their often-played videos, and Mellencamp, as Cougar, had finally reached a level of success he'd always dreamed about. Even so, critics weren't too impressed with his blend of hard rock and introspective folk rock
A Bid for Respect & A Lasting Legacy:
With 1985's Scarecrow
, Mellencamp had cultivated enough clout to drop "Cougar" pretty much entirely from his name. In addition, he delivered an album that successfully featured social consciousness but also exhibited a tunefulness that continued to increase his popularity. It was probably the zenith of his career, but with the independence and breathing room the album earned him, Mellencamp used the rest of the '80s to explore disparate folk and pop styles. He had thus become a bona fide artist.
Farm Aid Rebel With a Cause:
In 1985 Mellencamp organized the inaugural Farm Aid benefit concert with Willie Nelson
, an annual event that continues to this day and has sought to benefit the struggling American family farmer. But beyond his direct activism, Mellencamp was one of the few artists who made heartland concerns into consistent, central themes of his music. Artistically, he gave a thorough and genuinely sympathetic voice to blue collar and farm belt Americans who were finding the '80s to be increasingly hostile.
Since the '80s:
After releasing the less hit-oriented albums The Lonesome Jubilee
and Big Daddy
to close out the '80s, Mellencamp remained a consistent presence on rock radio and the pop charts, even though his initial star had faded somewhat. He also experienced personal ups and downs, marrying supermodel Elaine Irwin in 1992 but then suffering a mild heart attack in 1994. During the next dozen years he began to put more time and effort into his other passion, painting, while focusing on liberal political causes.
- American Fool (1982)
- Uh-Huh (1983)
- Scarecrow (1985)