- Honorary Degree (2000)
Doctor of Music
Presenter: Myles Neil Brand
BIOGRAPHYAnd it all comes true/ Yes it all comes true Like a wheel inside a wheel/ It turns on you And you think, What have I done? What can I do? What you believe about yourself/It all comes true
— John Mellencamp and George M. Green "It All Comes True," from John Mellencamp
Probably the furthest thought from John Mellencamp's mind, as he stepped onto campus on a sunny afternoon 35 years ago, was that he would someday receive an honorary degree from Indiana University. The Seymour, Indiana, native drove over to Bloomington one afternoon with some friends to see what the big college town was all about. Before long, they were talking to some attractive female students—all went swimmingly until one of John's friend's blurted out that they were all still in high school. That abruptly ended the boys' first experience with university life. Although inauspicious, it was the beginning of a lifetime association with the campus and community. And as it turned out, there would be plenty of surprises and hard-won successes in Mellencamp's life that would have been impossible for that 14-year-old boy to dream.
Take the 37 gold, platinum, and multiplatinum records, and 12 Grammy Award nominations, for example. Or the more than 30 million albums sold, and the fact that Mellencamp's music has provided the soundtrack for more than one generation during the past two decades. Or even more importantly, that he would give voice, dignity, and financial support to keep the American farmer—a dying way of life—in the public view.
His career has been marked by reinvention, starting with his initial incarnation as "Johnny Cougar" and a few late-'70s albums that were met with critical pans forceful enough to quash someone with less fire and ferocious talent. It wasn't long, though, before fans and critics alike witnessed his metamorphosis into a sharply skilled singer-songwriter who reclaimed both his family name and the deep roots of his musical character. As he puts it, "I had no other option left but to just be myself."
By 1982, two of Mellencamp's singles from the album American Fool—"Jack and Diane" and "Hurts So Good"—placed concurrently in the Top Ten, an achievement last accomplished by the Beatles 18 years earlier. A solid string of hit records followed; most notably the 1985 highly acclaimed Scarecrow album, which fused tough, rustic rock with evocative imagery of rural family struggle. That same year he helped launch the annual concert event Farm Aid, which raises money for family farms, a cause to which he is still devoted today.
"Just as Bruce Springsteen put the plight of the factory workers and decaying cities into the pop charts and popular consciousness, John Mellencamp expressed the hopes and disappointments of rural and small town America," says Glenn Gass, IU associate professor of music. "In the 1980s, an era of excess, synthesizers, and oversized Superstars, he helped bring rock music back to its musical roots and social conscience." His popularity soared with 1987's Lonesome Jubilee, backed up with the strength of what was considered by many critics to be the world's best rock band. Mellencamp and mates launched a "roots rock" revival that prevailed through the late '80s, and he is still both a force and a major influence in the music world. He continues to write and record music—including the self-titled John Mellencamp, which won universal acclaim, and Rough Harvest, a compilation of newly minted covers of his own songs and others'. In 1991, he received the Nordhoff-Robbins Silver Clef Award for his involvement with music therapy for handicapped and autistic children.
Mellencamp's creative muse also finds expression outside of music making. In 1992, he made his big-screen debut, starring in and directing the film Falling from Grace, for which he also co-wrote the screenplay. He gained prominence as a painter throughout the 1990s; his works have been featured in several major exhibitions at locations around the nation, and his artistry was explored in the 1998 book, Mellencamp: Paintings and Reflections. All profits from sales of the book go to the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, which supports school music programs. These days, critics are quick to sing Mellencamp's praises. Anthony DeCurtis, former editor of Rolling Stone magazine, says, "Mellencamp has created an important body of work that has earned him both critical regard and an enormous audience. His songs document the joys and struggles of ordinary people seeking to make their way, and he has consistently brought the fresh air of common experience to the typically glamour-addled world of popular music."
Timothy White, editor in chief of Billboard magazine, adds, "In a world of fearful followers, John Mellencamp is a bold and intuitive leader who enriched American popular music and the lively arts as well as being a commentator of dramatic vision."
Through it all, Mellencamp has chosen to remain in Bloomington, close to his heritage, though a move to a music industry hub might seem to be a more obvious choice. The Voice of the American Heartland knows where he fits best. DeCurtis praises him for staying put. "He has never forgotten where he came from, and in his songwriting, his decision to continue living in Indiana, and his political activism in support of family farmers, he has honored his roots."
The sense of warmth that the Bloomington community has for Mellencamp is mutual. "It is obvious from his work that John is ever mindful of and grateful for his small town Indiana roots. He has established himself as an asset to the state of Indiana, and to this community in particular," says Stephen L. Ferguson, IU trustee. The Mellencamp Pavilion stands on the IU Bloomington campus as a tangible testament to Mellencamp's affection for his adopted alma mater. He also is a member of the President's Circle, Hoosier Hundred, and the Alumni Association. He has donated a portion of the proceeds from two recent concerts to the IU Student Foundation for scholarships. Many of his other considerable philanthropic deeds have gone largely unpublicized. "Mellencamp has done more than anyone...to put Bloomington on the map and give it an unmistakable resonance," says Gass.