The Number Ones

The Number Ones: John Cougar’s “Jack And Diane”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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John Cougar – “Jack And Diane”

HIT #1: October 2, 1982

STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks

A little blog piece about John Mellencaaaaamp, an American kid who got famous when he gave his sound a revamp. Johnny became a big rock ‘n’ roll staaaar by making records you could sing in your car.

For years and years, John Mellencamp has held himself up as an avatar of some sort of mythical rock ‘n’ roll authenticity, a growly working-class brawler who brought his sweaty roots music to America’s arenas when they most needed it. Mellencamp loves to complain about how his first manager made him change his name to Johnny Cougar, or how his label wanted him to be the next Neil Diamond. (That is pretty stupid. Anyone paying attention should’ve seen that Mellencamp was really the next Bruce Springsteen, or at least the closest thing that the ’80s pop universe could cough up.) He loves to talk about how the music business didn’t want his realness.

But what Mellencamp never mentions is that he was a truly great pop product, a guy who was able to cut right through the noise in the early MTV years. Mellencamp’s anti-image working-class-hero pose made for a great image, and his big hits were, by and large, gleaming pop songs. Mellencamp knew how to sell himself, and he should give himself some credit for his top-40 instincts. The guy knew what he was doing. “Jack And Diane,” Mellencamp’s sole #1 hit, is a sharp, well-observed story-song about broke go-nowhere kids in Middle America, but it’s also a big, stomping studio-created jam, the end result of a whole lot of canny decisions.

Mellencamp really was born in a small town — Seymour, Indiana, just outside Bloomington. His father was the vice president of an electric company, but Mellencamp himself was a black-sheep-type, a teenage father and college dropout. When his first wife’s parents finally kicked him out of the house, Mellencamp decided it was time to leave town. Mellencamp was enough of a glam-rocker that he named his early band Trash, after a New York Dolls song. When Mellencamp left Indiana to seek fame and fortune, he headed to New York City. There, he impressed David Bowie’s manager Tony DeFries, who had the idea to change Mellencamp’s name to Johnny Cougar.

Johnny Cougar’s 1976 debut album Chestnut Street Incident sold jack shit, and MCA, his label, dropped him. Mellencamp split from DeFries and moved on to Rod Stewart’s manager Billy Gaff. Gaff signed Mellencamp to his own Riva Records label, and Mellencamp’s sophomore album, 1978’s A Biography, yielded the single “I Need A Lover,” which randomly became a #1 hit in Australia. A year later, “I Need A Lover” charted in the US, too, peaking at #28 and giving Mellencamp his first homeland hit. A couple of other songs inched their way into the top 40. But Mellencamp didn’t really catch on until he jacked his whole sound up on his fifth album, 1982’s American Fool.

If you look at the video for “Hurts So Good,” Mellencamp’s breakthrough smash, he looks like an absolute snack. The clip itself is pure goofiness, full of awkwardly shuffling bikers and dominatrixes dancing on bars. But Mellencamp himself looks amazing. He seems young as hell, even though he was really just past 30 and only seven years away from becoming a grandfather. In the video, Mellencamp struts and preens and shimmies. He’s got a black leather vest and a red bandana tied around his neck, like he’s a Blood or a golden retriever. His hair blows in the wind, and he manages not to fall off his motorcycle. He looks like a cornfed Glenn Danzig. It’s awesome.

This version of Mellencamp was a can’t-miss prospect. “Hurts So Good” had a vaguely masochistic lyric and a huge, shuffling mechanistic beat, with Mellencamp cranking his bray up to near-Springsteenian levels. “Hurts So Good” went straight into heavy MTV rotation, and spent four weeks in the summer of 1982 at #2 at the Hot 100. (It’s a 7.) That made Mellencamp a huge star, and it set the table for “Jack And Diane.”

Mellencamp had a hell of a time writing “Jack And Diane.” He’s said that he initially wrote the song about an interracial couple, but when the label objected, he went ahead and changed it. That’s a sad compromise, but the song itself still works as a nice little slice-of-life narrative. The two American kids of the song are desperately horny for one another, but they’re conflicted about leaving behind their sad small-town existence. Jack wants to run off to “the city.” Diane isn’t so sure.

I’d always somehow assumed that “Jack And Diane” was about the couple having a kid young, losing sight of those dreams, and settling down. But Mellencamp never actually says that. He leaves their fate ambiguous, though he leaves hints that a boring life is ahead of them, whether together or separetely. Mellencamp tells them to hold on to 16 as long as they can, and he lets them know that, oh yeah, life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone. I think Mellencamp has a lot of affection for these kids, and I think he’s worried that they’ve got some hard lessons coming up.

Mellencamp is the sole credited songwriter of “Jack And Diane,” but he had some unlikely help from Mick Ronson, the great British glam guitarist and former Spider From Mars. (I’m telling you: John Mellencamp, secret glam-rocker.) Ronson played guitar and sang backup on “Jack And Diane,” and Mellencamp has said that Ronson basically figured out how to arrange the song. Ronson came up with the huge “let it rock, let it roll” chant on the bridge, and he also gave Mellencamp the idea to put “baby rattles” — little shaker sounds — in the mix.

“Jack And Diane” isn’t really a rock-band song. It’s full of these great little interlocking parts, both acoustic and electronic. Mellencamp loved “In The Air Tonight,” the haunted 1981 synth-rock masterpiece from Genesis drummer Phil Collins. (“In The Air Tonight” peaked at #19. We’ll see a whole lot of Phil Collins in this column.) Mellencamp wanted “Jack And Diane” to have the same kind of thundering drum break, which was a big relief for Kenny Aronoff, his drummer. Don Gehman, who co-produced the song with Mellencamp, had the idea to set “Jack And Diane” to a Linn LM-1 drum machine, the same gadget that had powered the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” Aronoff programmed the machine — it was his first time working one — and he worried, as he did it, that the machine was about to put him out of work. But then Mellencamp told Aronoff to put a giant fuck-off drum solo on the second verse, and that thundering entrance helps build the song into something special.

All the individual flourishes in “Jack And Diane” — the clearly-synthetic drum sound, the nervous little guitar note in between the power chords, the way the acoustic guitars slide in and out, the way the whole band joins on in the “let it rock” chant — elevate “Jack And Diane.” Mellencamp has always presented as a roots-rocker, but “Jack And Diane,” like most of Mellencamp’s hits, isn’t that. Instead, Mellencamp takes full advantage of studio capabilities and ’80s technology to present his small-town visions in full widescreen. If Mellencamp was the acoustic-guitar farmboy that he sometimes pretends to be, “Jack And Diane” probably wouldn’t amount to much. But thanks to its big, beefy, pop-smart sound, “Jack And Diane” lingers. With all those glammy touches, “Jack And Diane” gives Jack and Diane the dignity that Mellencamp, rightly, believes they deserve.

Mellencamp has said that Riva Records had no interest in releasing “Jack And Diane” as a single, and he basically snuck its lo-fi video through. When he was shooting the “Hurts So Good” video, Mellencamp asked the producers to save a roll of film and shoot one take of him lip-syncing “Jack And Diane.” Then he sent the production company some of his high-school photos and home movies, and, working for free, they spliced it all into a scrapbooky, slapdash video. Apparently that aesthetic worked nicely against the flashier videos of that era, since the “Jack And Diane” clip went into MTV rotation and helped propel the song upwards.

After “Jack And Diane” hit #1, Mellencamp never returned to the top spot, but he remained a total monster hitmaker for years. Eight more Mellencamp singles made their way into the top 10, and one of them, 1986’s crack-boom-bam stomper “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A. (A Salute To ’60s Rock),” got as high as #2. (“R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.” doesn’t really sound anything like ’60s rock. It’s an 8.) Most of Mellencamp’s hits were pure ’80s, but Mellencamp was still a big deal in 1994, when he and Meshell Ndegeocello covered Van Morrison’s 1971 song “Wild Night” and took it up to #3. (Their “Wild Night” is a 6.)

In the time since “Jack And Diane,” Mellencamp has changed his stage name a few times, from John Cougar to John Cougar Mellencamp to finally just John Mellencamp. He helped establish Farm Aid in 1985. He got married and divorced a few more times. He toured a bunch and eased into an elder-statesman role, eventually becoming the sort of guy who records T Bone Burnett-produced albums that you could buy at Starbucks when Starbucks sold CDs.

Mellencamp also found some success as a visual artist and as an actor. (He says that he came close to being cast in the Brad Pitt role in Thelma And Louise, which is fun to think about.) For years, Mellencamp served as a reliable center-left pundit, at least until he became one of those fucking freaks who endorsed Michael Bloomberg for president earlier this year. Lately, Mellencamp has reportedly been working on turning “Jack And Diane” into a Broadway musical. I know he’ll do the best he can.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Jermaine Dupri sampled “Jack And Diane” for the So So Def remix of Queens rap great AZ’s “Hey AZ.” Dupri also rapped on the “Hey AZ” remix, which was on the soundtrack of the 1997 movie Caught Up. Here’s the song:

(AZ’s highest-charting single, the 1995 Miss Jones collab “Sugar Hill,” peaked at #25. As lead artist, Jermaine Dupri’s highest-charting single, the 1998 Da Brat/Usher collaboration “The Party Continues,” peaked at #29. As a guest, Dupri’s biggest hit is Dem Franchize Boyz’ “I Think They Like Me” remix, which peaked at #15 on 2005. As a producer, though, Dupri will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Jessica Simpson sang over a “Jack And Diane” sample on her frothy 2000 single “I Think I’m In Love With You.” Here’s the video:

(“I Think I’m In Love With You” peaked at #21. Jessica Simpson’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “I Wanna Love You Forever,” peaked at #3. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1983, “Weird Al” Yankovic wrote a “Jack And Diane” parody called “Chuck And Diane” about Prince Charles and Princess Diana. But Mellencamp didn’t want Yankovic to do a “Jack And Diane” parody — he was trying to get the song adapted into a movie at the time — so Yankovic used those ideas instead on his song “Buckingham Blues.” In 2003, though, Yankovic guested on The Simpsons, where he sang a “Jack And Diane” parody called “Homer And Marge.” Here it is:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” a parody of a song that will end up in this column. “White & Nerdy” peaked at #9, and it’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On “Contemporary Man,” a song from Action Bronson and Party Supplies’ extremely entertaining 2012 mixtape Blue Chips 2, Party Supplies samples “Jack And Diane,” as well as a couple of other songs that will appear in this column. Here’s “Contemporary Man”:

There’s another 2012 song that features Action Bronson and samples “Jack And Diane.” Kool G Rap’s posse cut “Men At Work 2020″ — which features Bronson, Nutso, Rugged Intellect, FT, Ras Kass, and Necro — also works “Jack And Diane” into a rich web of samples. (The “Jack And Diane” sample briefly appears during the Ras Kass verse.) Here’s that song:

(Action Bronson’s highest-charting single, the 2015 Chance The Rapper collab “Baby Blue,” peaked at #91. Kool G Rap, meanwhile, got up to #74 with the 1995 Nas collab “Fast Life.” None of the other guys on “Men At Work 2020,” at least as far as I can tell, has ever made the Hot 100.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the 2018 single “I Was Jack (You Were Diane),” the half-rapping bro-country star Jake Owen compares his own characters to Jack and Diane over a “Jack And Diane” sample. Here’s Owen’s incomprehensibly long music video for the song:

(On the Hot 100, “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” peaked at #43. Jake Owen has a bunch of country char-toppers, but his highest-charting Hot 100 single, 2011’s “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” peaked at #21.)