Wednesday, April 1, 2009

John Mellencamp & American Culture

I like NPR. I've started liking them more the last several years because the content is more real than commercial radio, the latter of which is more concerned with giving listeners the slant they want to hear to drive ad sales than giving listeners honesty in reporting.

Fresh Air is one of those programs that can grab your attention and the 03/31/09 edition was really good. It was an interview with John Mellencamp, a rock & roller that hit the Big Time music scene just as I was graduating high school in 1981. Loved his music. (See Wiki article for bio.)

Throughout the interview I was struck with just how far America has come since
Mellencamp was born. He was born with Spina bifida, a death sentence in 1951, where the babies were simply left alone until they died. No treatment. No attention. Just certain death. Mellencamp said that a young doctor in the hospital where he was born believed that barbaric practice had to change & that medicine had the obligation to try. That young doctor wouldn't accept the prevailing idea of the day & Mellencamp received the attempt to make things better. The surgery worked & society gained an artist, not to mention the advancements that would later give hope to all children born with Spina bifida.

Mellencamp was asked about the song Jack and Diane, a huge rock & roll hit. Amazingly, many of the lines in that song were taken from a previous song Mellencamp had written but had never followed through. In the original song, Jack was black & the song was raw with sex & this bi-racial couple. But in 1981, Mellencamp believed the song was too much, too over-the-top, & too taboo to get air play. So when he wrote Jack & Diane, he used a lot of the old lines but left out the bi-racial part of the story. The result was a hit record and an indictment of American culture.

In 1981, I was 18 & had it together. The world was my oyster & college was just a fun preparation to the job market. My generation was going to change the world. As I look back, I see we had more work to do on our attitudes before we would be able to work on the world.
Mellencamp was right: that song never would have made it had Jack been black. There was too much racism in my generation to have accepted that song --- still is, I'm sad to say.

Then I see my own kids & see that there is hope. Maybe I didn't change the world but I changed the part of it that will be make an impact over the next 50 years --- my kids. I know my kids have biases & prejudices like everyone does, but I also see them as more
tolerant than my peers ever were --- or even myself as a teenager.

Mellencamp's birth, America has changed. Changed a lot. We've done a lot, too. We have walked on the moon. We have made advances in science that in 1951 meant death; today, just a minor inconvenience. In 1951, blacks couldn't even vote in many parts of the nation. Today, America has elected an African-American to the highest office in the land. In 1951, a bi-racial couple might be met with violence. In 1981, it was still frowned upon. Today, people are seen as people & not as a color.

Still, there is much that needs to be done. We still have many that are stuck in that time warp of bigotry. They don't want to change or even try to change. That mindset is just as deadly as
Spina bifida in 1951. And like a courageous doctor that said we had to try, we need to try.

Eleven AM on Sunday mornings shouldn't be the most segregated hour of the week. We need to change that.

The way of politics that seek to divide our nation by race or economics or status or ideology --- we need to change that.

Putting old ideas in new
wine skins only bursts the skins & wastes good ideas. We need to change that.

There is hope. Changing a few words in a song gave
Mellencamp a hit record but that change has given me new hope that some day, some how, some of my attempt to make the world a better place will happen by the change I began in three kids my wife & I raised.

At least today, we've come far enough that we can have an honest conversation about it.

No comments: