This happened. Really. Here’s the story: In honor of John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s release of “Pink Houses” back in 1984, MTV gave away a house in Bloomington, Indiana. Bloomington is a nice town. It’s hard to imagine, however, some young cat from the coast giving up life there for a random spot in middle America without promise of work or reward (the actual winner came from Seattle… and never occupied the house, surprise, surprise). It seemed a less than inspiring prize.
Even the song paints little pink houses in a not-so-glamorous shade:
That’s broken down imagery: an old woman cleaning up slop while a man watches traffic whiz by. But what is clear to us as listeners of the story is not recognized by the man in the story–he thinks he’s got it pretty darn good, with his porch and his pink house and his pretty-wife memories.
So who is right? The listeners who want more for the man, or the man who is happy in a less-than-ideal situation? Mellencamp claims this scene is “America”. So what does this say about America? That the country is broken down? Or that the country is content living in the less-than-ideal?
The American Dream says that s/he who works hard can gain wealth and happiness. From that perspective, Mellencamp’s view of American (as presented in “Pink Houses”) unsettles us. It is unsettling because it simultaneously suggests that perhaps hard work doesn’t lead to wealth and happiness while showing us that contentment can be had without the wealth. Contentment can be found on a porch by the interstate.
But ain’t that America?
Mellencamp has remarked that he greatly dislikes the last verse of the song:
The last verse, though, is where a really poignant turn is made. Here we get a suggestion of what the pursuit of happiness can do: it can kill. Our quest to be happy now leads to destruction. Is that America? Is happiness in the moment really what we want. Is the pursuit of happiness really something that makes us happy? Or do we want a deeper contentment?
Maybe the little pink house wasn’t such a bad prize.