Pink Houses; John Mellencamp, 1983

Uh-Huh

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.”

Selected Lyrics:

“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.

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Levelland; James McMurtry, 1995

Where’d You Hide The Body

Sharp as barbed wire, this song by James McMurtry encapsulates the flat vast emptiness of West Texas. It illuminates the motivations of the original settlers, as well as those tangled up in lives of low expectations, contemplating escape.

Levelland sits 30 miles west of Lubbock, on the Llano Estacado, in or near the Texas Panhandle, depending on where you draw the line. The town gained infamy in 1957 as the site of a series of UFO sightings, including sightings by the sheriff and the fire chief. But Levelland was originally written about Floydada, Texas, which is located about 70 miles northeast of Levelland. It is easy to see how the name, Floydada could never serve as the inspiration for any song and would never capture anyone’s imagination.

McMurtry is known for his sardonic wit and his honest telling of pointed stories of life in the forgotten flyover regions of America. It’s no wonder that he is as well known for his lyrics as he is for his assertive guitar playing; his mother was an English teacher and his father is  Larry McMurtry, the novelist behind The Last Picture Show,  Terms of Endearment, and Lonesome Dove.

If you’re ever in Austin on a Wednesday night, be sure to check out McMurtry’s midnight show with The Heartless Bastards at the Continental Club.

“Levelland” selected lyrics:

“Flatter than a tabletop

Makes you wonder why they stopped here

Wagon must have lost a wheel or they lacked ambition one”

“And I watch those jet trails carving up that big blue sky

Coast to coasters watch ‘em go

And I never would blame ‘em one damn bit

If they never looked down on this

Not much here they’d wanna know”

Where the Bottles Break; John Gorka, 1991

Jack's Crows

Jack’s Crows

In 1991, Rolling Stone magazine called John Gorka: “the pre-eminent male singer-songwriter of what has been dubbed the New Folk Movement.”

In a rich baritone voice and alt-country sensibility, “Where the Bottles Break” takes aim at planning’s greatest bugaboo—gentrification and repeat offender—Donald Trump. There is no mistaking Gorka’s stand on the subject with this lucid denouncement of the changes that inevitably come with wealth and growth.

Where The Bottles Break, selected lyrics:

“Further west it’s been gentrified
They turned biker bars into flower shops”

“It happens when the money comes
The wild and poor get pushed aside”

“The buyers come from somewhere else
And raise the rent so you can’t hide
The buyers come from out of state
And they raise the rent”

“Buy low sell high
You get rich and you still die
Money talks and people jump
Ask how high low-life Donald what’s-his-name
And who cares
I don’t wanna know what his girlfriend doesn’t wear
It’s a shame that people that work
Wanna hear about this kind of jerk”