Scarecrow captures the moment when John Cougar Mellencamp, the rocker who once declared “Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did,” came to the conclusion, “You’ve Gotta Stand for Somethin’.” Mellencamp decided his somethin’ was the people who lived, loved, and lost in the small towns scattered across the United States, the Americans suffering from the suffocating consequences of the Reagan Revolution creeping across the country in the mid-1980s.
Smalltown America is a milieu that treated John Mellencamp well in the past, providing the backdrop for both the rousing “Jack & Diane” and the biting “Pink Houses,” a pair of hits whose popularity helped obscure the grim cynicism lingering at their core. A fatalist by nature, Mellencamp chose to battle his instincts when composing the songs for 1985’s Scarecrow, tempering his Midwestern gloom with notes of inspiration and solidarity. Take “Lonely Ol’ Night,” a cathartic rocker that served as the album’s first single: After singing it’s “a sad, sad, sad, sad feelin’ when you’re livin’ on those in-betweens,” he offers an offhand reassurance “but it’s OK,” deflating pitch black loneliness lurking in the song’s verses. Similarly, after offering a litany of anxieties on “Rumbleseat,” he ends the song on a note of self-help triumphalism that seems at odds with the roiling paranoia delivered in the previous stanzas.
All this is a deliberate choice, part of Mellencamp positioning himself as an advocate for the everyday American on Scarecrow. He was fighting for their hopes and dreams, mourning the disappearing downtown drags, and preserving the memories of the good times. There are storm clouds gathering on the horizon, peeking through on the deceptively bouncy “The Face of the Nation” and swirling on the ominous opener “Rain on the Scarecrow,” a vivid portrait of the wreckage left behind when all the farms in a town shut down. Mellencamp took this issue to heart, organizing the Farm Aid charity with Willie Nelson and Neil Young just after completing Scarecrow. The near-simultaneous release of the album and the staging of the concert created an illusion that Scarecrow had a political bent, which isn’t quite true. Save the pointed “Rain on the Scarecrow,” Mellencamp avoids antagonistic politics—despite its stirring title, “You’ve Got to Stand for Somethin’” is a stroll down Boomer memory lane that functions as a proto-“We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Throughout the album, he traffics in stories and nostalgia, painting a picture of a middle America so romantic that it could’ve served as the soundtrack for a Reagan campaign advertisement if it wasn’t for the pugnacious presentation of these songs.