Opening with a dusty jangle and determined strums, John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” evokes mid-West imagery of corn fields and calloused hands. One of his most successful heartland hits, it’s a song that sounds full of pride, but a closer listen to the singer’s garbled lyrics will reveal the real meaning behind “Pink Houses.”
A native of rural Indiana, Mellencamp often writes songs about the American Heartland, and sometimes those songs don’t paint the region in the prettiest light. “Pink Houses” is one of them, a tune that lays bare the harsher realities of living in America.
The 1983 song was born from a passing glance. “I was driving through Indianapolis on Interstate 65 and I saw a black man holding either a cat or a dog,” the musician told Rolling Stone of the song. “He was sitting on his front lawn in front of a pink house in one of those shitty, cheap lawn chairs. I thought, ‘Wow, is this what life can lead to? Watching the fuckin’ cars go by on the interstate?’ Then I imagined he wasn’t isolated, but he was happy. So I went with that positive route when I wrote this song.”
Sometimes misinterpreted as patriotic with their anthemic sounds and American imagery, his songs are more often critiques of American life rather than celebrations of it. “Pink Houses,” especially, holds a mirror to the distorted vision of the “American Dream.”
“This one has been misconstrued over the years because of the chorus—it sounds very rah-rah. But it’s really an anti-American song,” Mellencamp continued of “Pink Houses.” “The American dream had pretty much proven itself as not working anymore. It was another way for me to sneak something in.”
Opening with the image that inspired it all, “Pink Houses” depicts a black man with a black cat / Livin’ in a black neighborhood / He’s got an interstate / Runnin’ through his front yard / You know he thinks that he’s got it so good. The man is presumably living below the poverty line, but he is happy with what he has. The song continues, And there’s a woman in the kitchen / Cleanin’ up the evenin’ slop / And he looks at her and says, hey darlin’ / I can remember when you could stop a clock.
The chorus—long-misinterpreted as a rallying cry for America, equivalent to chants of USA! USA!—plays. With his lyrics, Mellencamp delivers a jab at his country, attempting to give an uninhibited look at what it means to survive in America. Oh, but ain’t that America / For you and me, the artist sneers. Ain’t that America / Something to see, baby / Ain’t that America / Home of the free, yeah / Little pink houses / For you and me.
Ain’t that America, the singer taunts. A country that runs on the efforts of the working class, and yet makes sure the “American Dream” is just out of their reach, ain’t that something to see, Mellencamp asks.
The next verse introduces another story, continuing with Well, there’s a young man in a t-shirt / Listenin’ to a rockin’ rollin’ station / He’s got greasy hair, greasy smile / He says, Lord this must be my destination / ‘Cause they told me when I was younger / Said boy, you’re gonna be president / But just like everything else / Those old crazy dreams / Just kinda came and went.
The chorus plays again, heaping on the disdain for a country that promises so much in the way of dreams, but provides so little to those who have less.
Well, there’s people and more people / What do they know, know, know / Go to work in some high rise / And vacation down at the Gulf of Mexico, the last verse plays, rattling off class distinctions and the disparities between the haves and the have-nots. There’s winners and there’s losers, Mellencamp sings, But they ain’t no big deal / ‘Cause the simple man, baby / Pays for thrills / The bills, the pills that kill.
Oh, but ain’t that America.
Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns