Theory Teacher's Blog

the ideology of pop

Does pop music have an ideology? Recently, John Cougar Mellencamp has told the presidential candidate John McCain to stop playing his songs “Pink Houses” and “Our Country”, and you can see articles about that by clicking [here] and [here]. Mellencamp is a vocal Democrat. Does that mean that his music is ideologically “liberal”? Was McCain simply misunderstanding the ideology of the songs?

Well, I doubt anyone would say the lyrics of his songs are subtle. “Our Country” is a song that hopes America can someday live up to its principles of tolerance and diversity, and “Pink Houses” would seem to be criticizing the gap between the rich and poor in America, so its line “Ain’t that America” is meant to be sarcastic. In that sense, his songs seem to articulate some of the standard features of the Democratic Party’s campaign platform or “ideology.”

So, was McCain’s simply listening to the chorus to each song and not paying attention to the content of the lyrics? Maybe.  But on the other hand, it’s not as if McCain is opposed to diversity and dismissive of poor people. Quite the contrary. It’s just that the McCain and Clinton/Obama campaigns have different approaches for resolving these issues in addition to having different priorities.

Perhaps ideology is something more complicated than belonging to a political party or having views.  For instance, one might interpret the movies Knocked Up, Waitress, and Juno, which have all appeared in theaters this past year, to all be “pro-life” because none of the characters get an abortion (and in two of the movies, nobody even says the word “abortion.”) But because the movies are so goofy in style and so unrealistic in plot, it’s hard to read them all as committed to a pro-life political agenda (though some film critics have read them this way) just because of the characters’ choices. (By the way, I’ll be blogging on those movies soon.)

One way to think of ideology is as a system of symbols or keywords that seem to be foundational or essential. So, in Mellencamp’s songs, the phrases “our country” and “freedom” and “America” are repeated over and over. Irregardless of the political party that Mellencamp prefers, his songs still evoke an emotion that both Republicans and Democrats can relate to. Thus, just as Nickel analyzed the ideology of 19th century history books to be centered around the word “freedom” so that every historical event basically had the same moral and every historical figure was the same character “type”, so are Mellencamp’s songs centered around a sense of national identity and national destiny. What’s interested about such keywords such as “freedom” or “country” is that even though they seem to be essential to American ideology, they are actually quite hard to define. Their meanings are indeterminate, and perhaps their indeterminacy is precisely what makes them powerful ideological symbols.

Now, if we think of ideology in the way Zizek does, then we start seeing music as a performative gesture or “speech act.” Zizek is making a distinction between the literal meaning of a speech act and the social meaning. So if a friend of mine is doing something annoying and asks if I mind, I might answer, “No I don’t mind,” but the social meaning is “I will tolerate your being annoying if you tolerate me being annoying later. We are friends.” The social meaning is our friendship. Likewise, Mellencamp’s songs are very complex speech acts that express feelings about the future and past of this country. Although his songs criticize America’s hypocrisies, they also express hope for it. The social meaning is the assumed destiny of the country and the shared hope.

What is perhaps almost more important than the content of the lyrics is Mellencamp’s country style that expresses longing or nostalgia for an idealized folksy America (even if that folksy America never really existed.) Thus, his songs express hope for the future in terms of nostalgia for the past. And this idealization (which is as much a style as it is an idea) is the ideology of the song.


February 11, 2008 - Posted by | music


  1. I also saw this story and imediately thought of this class. It seems liek Reagan and Springsteen all over again. I was thinking about how in class it seems like we talk about demystification and always end up with the “right’ answer. it seems liek after somehting is demystified it we finallly can interpret it correctly. But can someone use demystification and end up with a “wrong” answer? We also talk about demystification in a more academic way, but can it be used in something like this? When McCain (or probably more accuratley his campaign since I’m sure he didn’t pick this himself) picked these songs it seemed like he changed the meaning of them. Is he using dmeystification in any way? Maybe I don’t have a proper understanding of it, but it seems like we can use it in every day life and not just in literature. Also, it seems to me lke Mellencamp is angrier about who is using the song and not what it is being used for. If Obama blasted only the chorus of “our Country” at a rally and ignored the rest of the words, would mellencamp be angry? My guess is probably not, even though he could distort the song in much the same way as McCain has.

    Comment by valteamxblades | February 11, 2008 | Reply

  2. I agree that Mellencamp would probably be cool with Obama using his music. He’d probably be overjoyed.

    Perhaps one of the things Mellencamp is worried about is precisely what you mention. When McCain plays the song for his campaign, it changes the meaning of the song… and Mellencamp probably doesn’t like the “new” meaning.

    But changing the meaning of a song is not demystification. I’d like to respond to your sentence, “is he using demystification.” One does not use demystification. One demystifies. And when one demystifies, one is essentially claiming, “this song or poem or speech or whatever presents a false sense of reality; here is the real reality.”

    McCain’s use of Mellencamp’s song actually seems to mystify more than demystify.

    However, the fact that McCain wants to use the songs does force people to scratch their heads and say “what is that song about again?” And perhaps unintentionally, the little spat between McCain and Mellencamp draw attention to the mystical character of the songs. It draws attention to how Mellencamp is part of a bigger ideology and doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

    And perhaps that’s what pisses him off so much.

    Comment by steventhomas | February 12, 2008 | Reply

  3. It would be interesting to look deeper into or work to demystify the ideologies behind generic branding, don’t you think?

    Comment by somethingcatchy06 | February 14, 2008 | Reply

  4. Would it be interesting? Hmmm…. perhaps. But don’t leave me hanging; tell me how.

    Generic is cheaper, and that’s the only reason I know why people would prefer generic products, so what’s there to demystify?… I’ll try to think on this more, but in the meantime, I’m curious about what you’re thinking.

    Comment by steventhomas | February 14, 2008 | Reply

  5. […] post about a Japanese comedy skit that was more popular outside of Japan than inside it, and also here in a post about the politics of rock and roll. Explicit in NPR’s question is the issue of […]

    Pingback by Reading Slumdog Millionaire « Theory Teacher’s Blog | January 31, 2009 | Reply

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