‘Mellencamp’s classroom tape’

John Mellencamp is one of my favorite rock singers. I find it fascinating how he depicts urban life. It is well-known that in his songs he delivers sharp criticism of the Reaganian neoconservative policies, as he sings in his 1989 hit, ’The Country Gentleman’: ”He ain’t a-gonna help no poor man … He ain’t a-gonna help no women. He ain’t a-gonna help no children. He’s just gonna help his rich friends.” In his imagination those ordinary, often blue collar men, women and children are the key actors which seems contrasting to Reagan’s America as he constructed the American small town. This small town with its community based ideas like family, religion, respectability are highly visual in his 1980’s hits. I always felt that these small towns are sung as if they had been homogeneous. By far in ’We are the People’ he bawls into the public:  ”If you try to divide and conquer.  We’ll rise up against you.”  Drawing this line between ”we” and ”you” allowes him to raise and enter almost within every chart as the champion of small town values. And as a champion he needed to construct a world which is threatened.

In ’Paper on Fire’s’ video clip the band, the singer and the residents, no matter their social background, gender or age are having a jamboree in the streets. It is charming how he mixes styles, genres and lyrical strategies in order to emphasize his message, which criticizes those who betray their ideals and want to ”love with no involvement”. This threat comes from the outer world, which is powerful and disastrous at the same time, as unemployment, misery, disintegration. A world without expectations and responsibility appears which erects everywhere. It would be easy to internalize a world without expectations, Mellencamp suggests. He stands up against this disintegration and he declares it very plainly in his evergreen ode, ’Small Town’. Its lines are familiar to me too as I was also raised in a little blue collar town.  ”Educated in a small town. Taught the fear of Jesus in small town. Used to daydream in that small town. Another boring romantic that’s me.” It is clear where I/he/we belong(s) to.


I perceive this narrative universal, especially when I evoke my grandfather’s saying who used to describe those very elegant, very tall, implausibly blonde men in the 1990’s who had come to North Hungary with the promise of transition to a better world, as men ”who came without knocking”. It seems small town people are used to build discursive walls between themselves and outsiders. These stories reveal a special athmosphere of urban life on the frontiers. And in particular for me when I had grown taller than those strangers and have left to a big city, granted an understanding about urban life which could be applied to compare, measure and comprehend the different practices of everyday.

D., a 10th grader girl, described Latvia as a country that is ”in movement”. ”Young people from the villages move to little towns, young people in the small towns are about to leave to Riga and young people in the capital  plan to study or work abroad. ”The last who leaves Latvia, turn off the light!” (”Taxes and taxpayers fly away, bye bye!”, commented someone else.) And D. spoke by experience, as in 2013 she was a newcomer in Riga from Ventspils.

The image of this disturbed society caught the attention of multiple ethnographers. For instance Dace Dzenovska tried to portray the ”emptying of the countryside” after the ”great departure” (the wave of mass emigration from 2008 on). She was interested in how Latvia’s inhabitants live, maintain their own life and narrate the social change of the rural landscape (DZENOVSKA, 2011). On the other hand journalist Janis Zvers films docu-stories about Latvian people living in other EU countries, because of Latvia’s bad economic situation.

Nevertheless youngsters who are either sent to Riga by their parents to guarantee better education for them, or whose parents left abroad, leaving the teens behind to finish high school in Riga find themselves ”in between” are neglected in scientific literature. As I didn’t create focus groups or reference groups, I cannot provide exact statistics. This was never my goal, I wanted to experience instead an interpretation of youth culture. Moreover I can mention concrete examples. I used to know V., a high school graduate, whose parents are working in England, while they rented a flat for him on Krisjana Barona street. V. is originally from Kandava, a small settlement in Kurzeme (Courland). Nowadays he lives and continues his studies in Copenhagen, Denmark. He talks with his mother in England and with his grandmother in Kandava on Skype. By coincidence we met on bus no. 22 in October 2014. He came back for a visit during autumn break. He was extremely happy to view his favorite places, taste his ”beloved” Latvian foods again and to meet with his grandmother in the countryside. V.’s itinerary from 11. Novembra Krestmala to the restaurant LIDO on Elizabetes street was the best mental map for me. Many researchers would write about his transformations, but he was so happy that I just enjoyed his companionship without taking any notes afterwards. I got a Danish pin from him, that I’m really proud of. I remember it with love, and I showed it at my new school also. These boys and girls like V. and D. are those ”normal exceptions” whose life embraces the experience of contemporary youth in Riga. They should deserve more attention.

Youth experience is lovely, hard, blurred and sharped at the same time. The liminal and hybrid nature of youth cultures are widely recognized by the representatives of various social sciences. Kelsey Henke states that ”The existence of group boundaries is instead replaced by the liminal subculture, a heterogeneous collection of radical identities resisting assimilation into a collective subculture. Individuals with a liminal status have transient attachments and higher degrees of personal autonomy, exhibiting markers of a greater subculture while retaining individual identity (HENKE, 2013, 120.).” The postmodern city is liminal, you are on the threshold. In other words when in January 2014 thousands participated in forming a human chain, passing 2,000 books from the old National library building to the new one, we didn’t see an extraordinary event, but the mere replication of the liminal city. There might be racing liminalities as distinguishing still plays part in our life. Riga is a key city to understand the postmodern urban experience.

And how should the classroom be organized in such circumstances? In brief, I don’t know. I can only write about my experiences. I consider the classroom as a net of connections. And I try to provide the sense of relationship and belonging to my students. Instead of being one of those ”teachers” who behaves like an ”adjective generator” and suggests ”You are childish, emotional, hysterical, expecting, demanding, ready for the asylum.” Or those who say ”I don’t want to talk to you now. I know when you create stress.” Those who inflict their own successes or failures on teenagers and start preaching about responsibility, professionalism, objectivity and in truth they are revealing their own incompetence/impotence after saying ”Life must be quite a schematic thing for you. I’m not able to think that way.” Their students might have asked only for empathy, a smile or advice. On the contrary, I want(ed) my students to think of ourselves as WE. I want(ed) to belong to the same community, not as a powerful one, but as a respected member. It is hard to find a community to belong to outside of the classroom and could be one of these. So the schools need to be more caring ”Mellencamps”. I argue, it would not be an outdated role. The circle is closed… or is it?!


Literature cited:

DZENOVSKA, Dace: Notes on emptiness and the importance of maintaining life. The Anthropology of East Europe Review. 29 (2): 228-241.
HENKE, Kelsey: Postmodern authenticity and the hipster identity. Forbes & Fifth. 2 (3): 115-129.

One thought on “‘Mellencamp’s classroom tape’

  1. Pingback: “There is no world.” The troubled imagination of a hipster band | comingtoage

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