I submit that John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” is the song most representative of Indiana, though it’s a controversial pick. It’s unclear whether the song is about Indiana at all. If Mellencamp is to be believed, the song was inspired by the Tennessee Williams play Sweet Bird of Youth, which is set in Florida. A literal reading of the lyrics doesn’t reveal any obvious allusions to Indiana. Jack and Diane are said to be “growin’ up in the heartland,” but as far as I can tell Tastee Freez does not have a franchise in the state, so when the song’s eponymous pair are sucking on chili dogs, they may be doing so across the border in Ohio or Illinois.
However, Mellencamp is unmistakably associated with Indiana. He was born there in 1951, in the town of Seymour, and still lives in the state, haunting the environs of Bloomington, home to Indiana University. Mellencamp is no longer the cultural force he once was — arguably the last significant hit he had was 1994’s “Wild Night,” a Van Morrison cover he performed with Meshell Ndegeocello–but he is still venerated in Indiana. Mellencamp stands almost alone as an icon Hoosiers of all persuasions can agree on. It’s telling that when I performed “Jack and Diane” at my high school’s senior talent show, I sported a Phish T-shirt and hip-length hair pulled back into a ponytail. That juxtaposition may seem incongruous, given Mellencamp’s blue-collar style, but it’s indicative of his near-universal appeal in the state.
One could ask, though, why is “Jack and Diane” the song of Mellencamp’s most representative of Indiana? “Small Town” is more on the nose. You could make a good case for “Cherry Bomb,” which is thematically similar to “Jack and Diane,” but is a touch too sentimental for Hoosiers’ matter-of-fact sensibilities. “Hurts So Good” is Mellencamp’s best song and the video was filmed in Medora, Ind., near Mellencamp’s hometown of Seymour, and features the singer gallivanting around with a biker gang in crotchless chaps.
But more than any other song of Mellencamp’s, “Jack and Diane” embraces the defiant self-reliance, xenophobia and resolute acceptance of misfortune that has formed the core of Indiana ever since the territory was wrested from Native American control in the early 1800s. When Jack suggests the pair “oughta run off to the city,” Diane replies, “Baby, you ain’t missin’ nothing.” So they stay, enduring the harsh realities that transform them from sixteen-year-olds into adults, while doing the best they can to stoke the irreverent flame of youth. Hoosiers know wherever you go, life can beat you down—and it goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone. Why go anywhere else?
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.