John Mellencamp produced an oil painting inspired by street art that pointedly declares, “Martin Luther King had a dream, and this ain’t it.” King deliberately looks nothing like the civil rights leader. It is on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the “Mellencamp” exhibit until early 2018.
Next to the painting is a bit of an artist statement from Mellencamp: “[It’s] not so much a portrait as a feeling, isn’t it? There’s no attempt to make it look like King, but the message eclipses the physical likeness. A painting has to be beautiful, even in its grotesqueness. That painting is grotesque, but I think it’s still beautiful.”
“There are a lot of songs that are that way. That are like, ‘Oh fuck, I don’t really want to hear this. But I’ve got to.’ It’s beautiful for that reason. I think that that painting falls into that category.”
“Easy Target” on Mellencamp’s latest album, “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies,” falls into that category as well. It is a folk rock song that challenges white supremacy and the legacy of slavery in the United States.
In Mellencamp’s most potent verse, he sings, “So, Black lives matter / Who we trying to kid / Here’s an easy target / Don’t matter, never did.”
“Crosses burning / Such a long time ago / 400 years and we still don’t, let it go.”
It opens like the ballad for an old time Western movie. Then, abruptly, the words, “Black lives matter,” subvert the abstract forlorn sentiment of the song, making it clear there is something deeper behind Mellencamp’s dejection and disappointment.
“The war on the easy targets, we won’t ever get this done,” Mellencamp adds, recognizing there will always be people who American society exploits and considers disposable.
Mellencamp’s “easy targets” live behind bars and are kept separated, a nod to how elites create division in order to maintain their influence and power.
The rock musician described “Easy Target” as a “reflection on the state of the country.”
Mellencamp has long believed he has a responsibility to use his art to help those who are struggling and forgotten by society. He co-founded Farm Aid, an annual concert benefit for family farmers, in 1985.
“From playing many years, playing in the back rooms of bars, and the barns, and getting an education from the farm workers, and the factory workers, watching the struggle of the people far away from the interstate that the public eye no longer looks at, [I’ve seen that] the people who built this country on their sweat have slowly and silently been left behind,” Mellencamp declared, when he was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
“And as long as I can hear a song that puts a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat, I know that there’s still hope and I’ve got a job that’s unfinished. There’s still work to be done.”
“Easy Target” shows there is still plenty of work to be done.
Listen to “Easy Target”:
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