John Cougar – Jack and Diane

First Hit #1: October 2, 1982

Once, there was a young man named John, who was fairly indecisive about his name but was credited as John Cougar at this time. He had a song about young lovers in a small town that he wanted to record, but had no idea what he exactly wanted to do. As a result, the song is a very odd mishmash of ideas, with some electric guitars and handclaps showing up between verses, where the song goes acoustic, before a section where we get thick drums and vocal harmonies. Part of me wishes the entire thing was acoustic, since it has the bones of a pretty decent folk-country song if it wanted to be, but as I listen to it, I like the mishmash. There are a lot of ideas here, and while it doesn’t really have any thematic reasons to feature the collision of ideas it does give the song a certain unpredictability that I found myself enjoying after a while. Perhaps that’s why it was a hit, if you don’t like the song keep listening, it’ll change into something else eventually.

As a sidenote, the quality of John Mellencamp’s own video for this song on Youtube is deplorable, which is why I didn’t link to it.

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One Response to John Cougar – Jack and Diane

  1. Robert Berman says:

    The “Cougar” part was apparently his manager’s idea, and he changed back to “Mellencamp” soon after. Applying the maxim to “write what you know,” the song smells highly biographical in at least theme if not also in details, not only for its small town setting (in which the popular teen hangout is the “Tastee Freeze”), but also, as I somehow never put together until just now, “Jack” is a nickname for “John.”

    Concerning ideas: The first verse sets up the couple and their adorably myopic dreams; the second establishes John, er Jack, as a horndog. In the third verse, the couple debates the merits of leaving the small town to pursue bigger things, which of course John actually did. But the chorus and bridge show the older Jack looking back, deciding that it’s better to “hold on to 16 as long as you can” because, with all the worldweariness that a now-21 year old man can muster, he has decided that, “the thrill of living is gone.” In other words, he’s transitioned out of adolescence physically but not mentally or emotionally. Jack’s dream has never evolved beyond “football star.” Diane had her backseat debut, so what now?

    Adolescence in America, stereotypically, is the time when the ratio of opportunities to responsibilities reaches its apex. You can have a car, and enough money for gas and a slurpee, and a girl or three, but not a job or kids. Rock music spends most of its time singing about the first thing that matters: the ups and downs of finding a mate. But as I alluded in the discussion of Sheena Easton’s “Morning Train,” rock rarely moves to discuss the next thing that matters: raising a family to repeat the cycle. It would overstate the case to say that rock music hates kids, but it surely glamorizes a degree of freedom which is incompatible with the terra incognita (to a traveling musician) topic of childrearing. So I see this song’s hagiography of teendom as not only internally consistent thematically, but also highly typical of the genre in general.

    Musically, Mellencamp has always walked the country/rock line. As you note, it would take very little to make this into a straight country song (mainly excising the power chords, maybe adding a little pedal steel); the same is true of other Mellencamp hits like “Pink Houses” and “Small Town.” His song “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” contains a laundry list of 60s R&B singers, but he surely could have given a different kind of list that included Buck Owens and Faron Young, had he felt like it.

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