Pink Houses, Black Lives, And John Mellencamp’s Misunderstood Legacy

It’s taken 38 years, but White America has finally returned to the interstate running through the Black man’s front yard in John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses.” You remember—the one where “he thinks he’s got it so good.” Turns out he doesn’t, at least according to another Hoosier—former presidential candidate and now U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

Last week, Buttigieg said that the U.S. highway system is inherently racist. President Joe Biden has proposed $1.9 trillion in infrastructure spending, including $20 billion for an initiative that would “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments.” In an interview with The Grio, Buttigieg explained “there is racism physically built into some of our highways,” citing examples of roadway construction that was intentionally routed through existing Black and brown neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s.

Predictably, Buttigieg was mocked by conservative politicians and groups, including Young America’s Foundation, which shared a photo of the former South Bend mayor with the money quote from the Grio interview on social media. “This is not a parody,” @YAF tweeted. Sadly, neither was the Young American Foundation account, which didn’t seem to comprehend basic American history—or at least was happy to ignore it.

Even during the rah-rah Reagan era, Mellencamp didn’t. In the 1980s, the singer-songwriter from small-town Seymour, Indiana, visited a stretch of I-65 on Indianapolis’ northwest side and came away with the inspiration for “Pink Houses,” a lunch-pail critique of the American dream. The song was an unlikely MTV staple during the cable cultural giant’s glitzy pubescence, but it was far less flamboyant than the standard video fare. In 2013, he told Rolling Stone:

“I was just a reporter. A black guy was sitting in front of a pink house, and that’s all there was to it. It was at a highway interchange in Indianapolis. We were on an overpass. I looked down and saw this old man, early in the morning, sitting on the porch of his pink shack with a cat in his arms. He waved, and I waved back. That’s how the song started.”

Mellencamp released Uh-Huh, his seventh studio album and the first in which he had dropped the ill-advised, manager-imposed “Cougar” from his name, in the fall of 1983. Three of its nine songs went on to become Top 20 hits. “Pink Houses,” its best-performing single, peaked at No. 8 in 1984. Rolling Stone considers “Pink Houses” to be one of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, listing it at 447 where it falls between 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” (448) and Salt ‘n Peppa’s “Push It” (446). “My best songs,” Mellencamp told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in 2009, “are just given to me from someplace outside myself.”

The number is easily among Mellencamp’s best, and remains an FM standard four decades after its release. It’s also one of his most misunderstood. What the artist intended as a folk-pop lesson about class, race, and surviving in America on a steady diet of shit sandwiches, audiences received as a red-white-and-blue, agit-pop anthem. “Ain’t that America,” the chorus’ kumbaya line, aimed to register the cynical disappointment of “ain’t that some bullshit.” Most people simply heard “America,” tuned out the sarcasm, and unfurled the flag.

It wasn’t long before conservative politicians hijacked the liberal rocker’s poetry, making “Pink Houses” a microcosm of Mellencamp’s career — and, ironically, the creative equivalent of building a pretty pink house only to have someone come along and jam a highway in its front yard. (Read David Graham’s great piece about the phenomenon of political campaigns appropriating the work of popular musicians.) 

The song “was always anti-Reaganomics,” Mellencamp told Gross, but that didn’t stop Reagan from using it during his 1984 re-election campaign, or John McCain from attempting to do the same in 2008. Mellencamp told Gross that when he heard of McCain’s intentions, he instructed his “publicity guy” to reach out to the senator from Arizona:

“I said well, he can use it if he wants to, but you probably ought to write him a letter and say, you know, not only, you know, that you guys are using it, but so is Barack Obama, so is John Edwards, so is Hillary Clinton, and you should understand that Mellencamp is very liberal, and do you really think that it’s pushing your agenda in the right direction?”

Politicians weren’t the only ones compromising the song’s integrity. Mellencamp participated in a gonzo MTV promotional contest called “Paint the Mutha Pink” where one lucky viewer won a “party house” in Bloomington that contained a garage full of Hawaiian Punch. The winner got the deed to the house, painted its exterior “MTV pink” with 25 friends, and was treated to an in-home concert given by the rocker himself. (Prayers that there was no white carpet.)

In perhaps the least surprising twist ever, the house MTV purchased was somewhat problematic itself. It turns out the structure was near a toxic waste dump, according to the oral history I Want My MTV. The network ended up buying a second home for the winner, a woman from Seattle, and a third house to film the actual commercial.

Ain’t that America.

Over time, the forces of pop culture have flattened the meaning of “Pink Houses,” but political activism is still in the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s repertoire. The theme of racial inequality is threaded throughout his catalog, and during a 2018 appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Mellencamp punctuated a musical performance of “Easy Target” by taking a knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter activists.

Meanwhile I-65, the interstate that inspired perhaps his greatest hit, still runs through front yards from Gary to Mobile. Mellencamp has stated his unhappiness with the song’s final verse many times, including in a 2014 interview with the Orlando Sentinel:

“A long time ago, I wrote a song called ‘Pink Houses.’ Now when I hear that song, all I can think is: Why didn’t I do a better job on the last verse? If I had written it today, the last verse would’ve had more meaning.”

With Buttigieg’s comments last week, and his focus as Transportation Secretary on structural racism, another young Hoosier in the national spotlight is now saying in no uncertain words what Americans chose to tune out when it came from Mellencamp in the eighties.