By Jim Bessman for Goldmine
The “Troubled Land” video is Mellencamp’s second Web site-only clip, following his cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The performance comes on the heels of a CBS News/New York Times poll has found that a record high 89 percent of Americans — Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike — believe that the country is on the wrong track.
In agreement with the song’s opening lyric — “Well there’s a pain in my side/But I keep travelin’ on/Bring peace to this troubled land…” — Mellencamp was, himself, greatly troubled. The singer-songwriter shared his thoughts on the war, the role of government, and of course, the economy — all topics that are reflected in “Troubled Land”’s dark tone — in an interview at his Bloomington, Ind., home.
“Ten years ago, there wasn’t a house in town worth a million dollars—and now there are so many!” Mellencamp said. “Who are these people that can afford them? They can’t afford them. That’s the whole point!”
America’s rampant consumerism, he suggested, breeds such crippling national irresponsibility.
“If it’s a divine right to have a car, everybody would want to have a Porsche,” he postulated. “Nobody would be responsible.”
Hence the necessary evil of government, and by extension, the more recent unnecessary evil of government deregulation.
“Society needs government — that’s why we have laws,” he said. “Do I always want it in my house? Hell, no! But I understand that we’re all human, and according to the Bible, sinners: We tend to let our greed and irresponsibility take advantage of the system. And there’s been nothing in the last few years to prevent us from doing so, in fact, we’ve even been encouraged to be irresponsibly greedy and wasteful! So you really can’t blame people for wanting a million-dollar house or a Porsche, but it’s only helped lead us into the economic mess we’re in now.”
Shifting to the foreign affairs aspect of all that ails “this troubled land,” the avowed pacifist commented on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re in wars that we shouldn’t be in,” he said. “We simply cannot afford, either ethically or economically, to continue to be the police of the world.”
An additional negative associated with the wars, he noted, is the privatization/outsourcing that he feels has been so damaging to American society as a whole. He referred specifically to private security contractors like Blackwater USA, a product of a limited military commitment at the onset that has since proven enormously costly for all sides.
“It’s the same things with privatized prisons in this country — to use one example,” Mellencamp said. “Why are there so many prisons? Because they’re owned by private companies! And they’re filled with petty drug-use people because the companies get a set amount of money per inmate and spend less than they get so the rest is profit — and there’s no incentive to let anybody out..”
The end result is “the ruination of the compassionate country that the United States used to be,” concluded Mellencamp. “But here’s the zinger: In some ways, it’s almost a good thing. Because we’re lacking the roots of what made this country great. You hear it in the music, see it in the movies. And what about the labor of the great American workers? We don’t have that anymore, either, because there’s no work for them to do! So maybe it’s best if we bottom out, to allow our compassion and authenticity to come back. And responsibility.”
He nostalgically recalled the time of his grandparents.
“If you wanted a soda, you had to pay for the soda. You couldn’t charge it or put it on layaway or steal it. If you want a soda you have to pay for the soda! And the Depression gave us Woody Guthrie! Like today, you know, it’s the Pussycat Dolls. But Woody was the real thing. He was authentic.”