Musician and Indiana native John Mellencamp spoke about his life and career on March 3 in Franklin Hall during a symposium discussing the social and cultural impact of his music.
After the interview between IU alumnus and Rolling Stone journalist, Anthony DeCurtis and Mellencamp, IU President Pamela Whitten announced that Mellencamp would be donating archived collections of his work to Indiana University.
Mellencamp discussed a wide range of topics about his music, art and life. Mellencamp’s music frequently tackles the idea of the American dream, something Mellencamp said he himself believed to be purely fantasy.
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“I have — since I was a kid — reexamined the American dream and decided it looks a lot different on paper than it does in reality,” Mellencamp said. “The American dream is just that, but you have to be asleep to believe it.”
While his poignant lyrics have been praised for reflecting everyday life and struggles, Mellencamp spoke about his own uncertainty over embodying values of perseverance and strength properly in song when starting out in the music industry.
“I didn’t see my ideas of anything worthy of writing down and making into a song,” Mellencamp said. “I felt anything I could say could be said better or has been said better by someone else.”
Mellencamp said there was no singular way to go about nurturing the songwriting process, believing the best way write a song was to step out of the way entirely.
“You have to let the song create itself,” Mellencamp said. “True art is when the artist is surprised. If the artist is surprised, you can imagine how surprised the listener is going to be.”
Mellencamp stressed his love of music in its purest form. Talking with DeCurtis about how he never entered the music industry with the intention of making it big and being rich, but rather Mellencamp said that he was in it for the power of songs and the way they make people feel.
“Songs are the only thing I know that can transform all of us in this room right back to where we were when we were 16 years old, 25 years old or to an important part of your life,” Mellencamp said. “You can hear a song and go ‘I remember what I was doing the first time I heard this song., I remember who I was with, whose hand I was holding;’ music does that.”
This impactful music is something Mellencamp achieved by getting out of his own way, acknowledging how less important he was in comparison to the song, which could do so much more than he could.
“I had a song called ‘Hurt so Good,’ and when I sang it live for the first time, I looked at the audience and I knew that I had connected with everybody,” Mellencamp said. “I saw that look on the audiences faces, and they were back to when they were 25 — when they were kids.”
Throughout his career, Mellencamp said he has written songs that reflect his mentality at a certain point in his life, citing the famous verse in “Jack and Diane”: “life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” Mellencamp compared that to his song “Longest Days,” which was inspired by a conversation with his grandmother that opened his eyes to the beauty of a moment.
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“My grandmother said to me, ‘Buddy you’re going to find out real soon that life is short even in its longest days,’” Mellencamp said. “That was coming from a hundred-year-old woman who has learned something that I don’t know.”
Closing out the interview, Mellencamp reflected on his life overall and the experiences he has had, still surprised by how far he has come and who he has met along the way. Mellencamp looked at his origins as a self-labeled “bar -room singer” and where he is know: genuinely seeing his success as a matter of incredible luck.
“You’re looking at the luckiest guy in the world, and my luck can rub off on you because all you have to do is believe you have angels,” Mellencamp said. “If you believe you have angels, you have them, whether you really do or you don’t. I know I’ve got angels, and they’re around me. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.”