Politicians are in the habit of misinterpreting this song. It seems they key into the snappy chorus and neglect the damning details of the verses. Senator John McCain played the song at political events for his 2008 presidential run. It was also used at events opposing same-sex marriage by the National Organization for Marriage in 2010. Both were politely told to find music from a source more in harmony with their own views. More appropriately, John Mellencamp performed the song at Obama’s inaugural in 2009.
If you listen to all of the words, it is clear that Pink Houses is a reevaluation of the American Dream. “It’s really an anti-American song,” Mellencamp told Rolling Stone. “The American dream had pretty much proven itself as not working anymore. It was another way for me to sneak something in.”
“There’s a black man with a black cat
Living in a black neighborhood
He’s got an interstate runnin’ through his front yard
You know, he thinks, he’s got it so good”
“Oh but ain’t that America, for you and me
Ain’t that America, we’re something to see baby
Ain’t that America, home of the free, yeah
Little pink houses for you and me”
Little houses like those referred to in this song were built in the late 40s and early 50s as low-cost housing for military personnel returning from the war. In the Midwest, many of these houses were pink. Not a bright shocking pink, or a Barbie pink, but just pink.
Around the time when the song was released, MTV held a contest, based on the song, in which they gave away a pink house in Indiana. They got a great deal on the house–$20,000. Unfortunately, the house was across the street from a toxic waste dump. When Rolling Stone pointed this out, MTV bought another house to give away, after painting it pink. MTV held on to the original contest house until 1992, because they couldn’t get rid of it.
Inspiration for the song came when Mellencamp was driving on Interstate 65 in Indianapolis. As described in the first verse, he saw an old black man sitting in a lawn chair outside his little pink shotgun house, unperturbed by the traffic speeding past. “He waved, and I waved back,” Mellencamp said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “That’s how ‘Pink Houses’ started.” He either surmised or found out later that the man lost part of his property when the highway was built.
If you’re a geek like me, you may recall that the house at the center of the 2005 Kelo v. City of New London case was also a little pink house.
In 2008, Susette Kelo’s little pink house was disassembled and moved piece-by-piece to a new location. It now serves as a monument to those who oppose the use of eminent domain for economic development reasons.