John Mellencamp gets dismissed as a poor man’s Springsteen a lot, but that’s not exactly fair. To be sure, there are more than a few similarities between the two artists. But using the fame and brilliance of one as a way to diminish any talents the other might have is the wrong way to look at it. If you don’t like Mellencamp, just say so. Don’t use Bruce Springsteen to do your dirty work (something the Boss most definitely would not approve of).
They got lumped together in the 80s, when Springsteen ruled the world with his blockbuster Born in the U.S.A. Mellencamp had a monster hit of his own around the same time, 1985’s Scarecrow. Both albums took on the causes and lives of ordinary Americans, and used roots based Rock & Roll to do it. But there’s something more real about Mellencamp. I don’t know how else to say it. For all his charm and charisma, Springsteen is less approachable than Mellencamp. There’s a sense that Springsteen constructed himself–through his music, his persona. (That’s not a bad thing, just an observation.) John Mellencamp just seems to show up and be himself. Now, who he is isn’t always going to be nice or pleasant. But he won’t hide any part of himself to please anyone. Personally, I think Mellencamp is kind of an ass. But I sure do like his music.
I like the melancholy of this song. It feels lonely. And the video, for all the carnival lights and bustle, feels lonely, too. There’s a line near the end that kind of sums it up: “She calls me ‘baby.’ She calls everybody ‘baby.'” Maybe people come and go so often, she just can’t be bothered to use their names. Maybe she forgets his name because she’s been drinking a little too much. Maybe she just wants the connection, giving people nicknames to feel closer to them. But they’re all just ‘baby.’ Who was the first one she called that? What happened to him. Why doesn’t she just let go? The story of this nameless woman and the guy in the song isn’t elaborated, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s as old as time. “It’s a lonely old night. Can I put my arms around you? It’s a lonely old night, custom-made for two lonely people like me and you.”