Gonna die in this small town

For the Prince George residents wondering what this midterm election nonsense tonight in the United States is about (and why it's interrupting all of the regular network shows with wall-to-wall live news coverage), there was a taste of it Sunday night at CN Centre when John Mellencamp took the stage.

The pride of Bloomington, Ind., Mellencamp must feel right at home when he comes to Prince George. Prince George isn't much smaller than Bloomington and both cities are surrounded by rural towns. Most of the citizens of Monroe Country live in Bloomington, just like most of the residents of the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George live in Prince George.

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Bloomington, just an hour south of Indianapolis and its two-plus million residents, is an outlier in south-central Indiana. The vast majority of the state, which is home to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, are solid Republicans, but not Bloomington.

U.S. President Donald Trump carried Indiana by more than 20 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016, but the numbers were reversed in Bloomington.

The only other place in Indiana that consistently votes Democrat is in Gary, in the far northwest corner of the state, but that's because Gary is actually part of greater Chicago.

Although he made no reference to Trump directly Sunday night, the 67-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer joked that Canada should build a two-foot wall at the border to confuse Americans looking to come north for free health care. Mellencamp's disdain for his own people and his Indiana roots has been fuel and fodder for his music for his entire career.

Like Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., Mellencamp's iconic Small Town is one of the most misunderstood songs of the 1980s. While most listeners gravitate to the last verse of Small Town (and the Prince George crowd sang it enthusiastically), they gloss over the first half of the song.

"All my friends are so small town, my parents live in the same small town, my job is so small town, provides little opportunity," he sings.

The narrator makes his peace with his small town roots ("got nothing against a big town, still hayseed enough to say look who's in the big town") but that final line - "gonna die in this small town and that's probably where they'll bury me" - cuts both ways.

On one hand, it's a triumphant shout of independence and on the other, it's a tragic admission of defeat by a man geographically and ideologically trapped by his roots, unable to shake the small town and be the man he really wants to be.

Mellencamp's heartland songs have always translated well in Canada and to Canadians outside of the major urban centres because of that small town tension. Can't wait to get out, can't stop going back.

This was well-tred territory for Canadian rockers in the 1980s, too, from Small Town Bringdown by the Tragically Hip to Rush's Subdivisions.

"My old school is getting drunk on the town, don't think they'll ever get out, go home just to realize, why I had to get out," the Grapes of Wrath sang in Backward Town about Kelowna, their hometown.

Despite his incredible career success, Mellencamp clearly still has a big chip on his shoulder about leaving Indiana to become a rock star, from the big city record companies forcing him to change his name to John Cougar to the dismissive Rolling Stone magazine reviews comparing him to Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen.

To this day, Mellencamp's seethes over how guys from Detroit (Seger) and an urban area of New Jersey sandwiched between Philadelphia and New York City (Springsteen) were defined as heartland rock over a guy actually from the heartland.

He's the Rodney Dangerfield of rock, still feeling he doesn't get enough respect.

That anger is how everyone from a small town feels, whether they are in the U.S. or Canada, from Bloomington or Prince George, when they go to the big city and are treated like unsophisticated country bumpkins.

It's the same anger that drove those small heartland American towns into the arms of Trump. Tired at being told what to think and believe by the tastemakers and trendsetters in New York and Hollywood, they saw their outrage in Trump's outrage.

Mellencamp has slammed Trump repeatedly in interviews but he also clearly understands why his state elected Pence governor and then backed the Trump-Pence ticket to the White House.

Big city Democrats, like Barack Obama from Chicago, have looked down their noses at the little people from the small towns for too long.

All of the polls heading into today's vote suggest a United States sharply divided between rural and urban concerns, a worrisome trend also evident across Canada.

"So black lives matter, who we trying to kid, here's an easy target, don't matter, never did," he sang Sunday on Easy Target, the only song he included from his newest album Sad Clowns and Hillbillies.

"Crosses burning, such a long time ago, 400 years and we still don't let it go."

Small town alienation and resentment, too often morphing into hate and violence, has been around even longer than he has and will continue long after he's gone.

Still, the hopeful optimism, a heartland staple, eventually shines through in Mellencamp's music and in the millions of Americans dutifully casting their ballots today.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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