“Here’s a little ditty ‘bout Jack and Diane / Two American kids growing up in the heartland / Jackie’s gonna be a football star / Diane’s debutante, back seat of Jackie’s car.”
There is arguably no other opening verse that distinctively reminds us that we are listening to a John Mellencamp song than his 1982 hit single Jack & Diane. It came at a time when Mellencamp was still calling himself ‘John Cougar’. The single went to #1 on the Billboard chart and turned into Mellencamp’s shining moment and his most successful hit.
Originally Jack & Diane was in its infancy about mixed-race couples. But Mellencamp was steered away from that idea by his record company and reluctantly Jack, the black male protagonist of the song, was suddenly a white football star. This revelation of the song’s true origins was only touched on by Mellencamp more recently some thirty years after its release. He also implied that he didn’t have too many regrets about giving in to record label pressures. He was young and ambitious and despite not getting his own way, the song’s themes still largely remained intact.
The song of course would go on to become a quintessential time capsule of small town rural America. More than that it was a coming-of-age story about two teenage lovers who are scared to death of growing up. When Mellencamp sings, “Hold on to 16 for all as you can / Changes coming around real soon / Make us women and men” it hits home a message easily relatable by millions of kids growing up in the early 80s in America and around the world.
Interestingly, Mellencamp was far from happy with Jack & Diane after he recorded it. He was displeased with certain sonic elements particularly the hand claps. He even got cold feet and flirted with the idea of cutting it from his new album American Fool until his band begged him to keep it. Not until he began playing it live did he truly appreciated how important of a song it had become to fans and even himself.
“I think people, particularly in the Midwest, really identified with these characters,” Mellencamp once said. “I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, “I’m Jack and I’m Diane. You wrote about my life.” To me, that’s a successful song.”
It’s fair to say what people love most about Jack & Diane is its brash electric guitar intro which makes way for one of rocks most recognisable acoustic guitar hooks with lyrics that preface a short simple song. For an unassuming little pop song, the track in truth grows into a jarring electrified anthem. This formula is cleverly repeated throughout the song with handclapping and an innovative beat that had Mellencamp stumped before ultimately a Linn drum machine and Kenny Aronoff saved the day with a more than satisfying pounding drum fill that breaks into a choral anthem. “So let it rock / Let it roll / Let the Bible Belt come and save my soul…”
Last but not least the key lyric to Jack & Diane is arguably when Mellencamp in the chorus sings, “Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” In David Masciotra’s book, Mellencamp: American Trobadour, he elegantly sums up this line, by saying it seems to hint that “regardless of geography, life is destined to disappoint, but it can also momentarily thrill. Jack and Diane are living for the thrill until that thrill is gone.”