Was He Right? | John Mellencamp Walks Out

Adapted from Words Like That S2 Ep. 2: “Mellencamp, Civil War, X-Men '97, Mel Gibson" originally released April 29, 2024.

First, for the record, I am a fan John Mellencamp’s music. Although I’ve never taken the deep plunge into his catalog, his hits are some of the few songs from the ‘80s that I even listen to. He reminds me a lot of John Fogerty, my favorite artist of all time, and I know he and Fogerty have collaborated.

Now, although I missed the event when it happened in March, John Mellencamp recently semi-addressed the incident shown and discussed below. The setup: He’s performing this show in Toledo, solo acoustic set—apparently, that’s all he’s playing these days—and he’s telling a story between songs. Here's the video from TikTok user Papa Shoe.

If you can't watch or hear the clip, Mellencamp seems to be in the middle of a story about an elderly lady chastising him for something related to Jesus. A heckler yells, “Just play the music.” The audience boos the heckler. Mellencamp becomes angry, cusses the guy out. Audience cheers. Mellencamp tries to get back to the story. Someone else shouts, “Authority Song.” Mellencamp threatens to stop the show. The audience begs him not to. He says he’s going to cut the show 10 songs short, goes into his hit “Jack and Diane” (which I deduce was intended to be his closer), stops, and walks off the stage.

Now, this part isn’t being reported everywhere, but he did come back after about 5-10 min. and finish the show. Based on his facial expressions and delivery, it looks to me as though he may have intended to come back when he initially walked off, although I could be wrong. Regardless, he has a little history of hitting back at fans and also getting mad and walking out of situations he’s not happy with.

Mellencamp has since given an interview to The Washington Post, and although he didn’t talk about the Toledo dust-up directly, he addressed his expectations of his audience:


“I do expect etiquette inside of the theater, the same way you would at a Broadway show,” he says. “My shows are not really concerts anymore. They’re performances, and there’s a difference between a performance and a concert. Look, I’m not for everyone anymore. I’m just not. And if you want to come and scream and yell and get drunk, don’t come to my show.”


Okay. So, again, he’s only playing these listening room-style shows now. I’ve played those myself, and from an artist perspective, I can confirm they’re fantastic. It’s just you, your guitar, and the audience. The people that come to those shows are often “music people” and are there to hear the songs as songs, not as ditties to dance and get drunk to. And Mellencamp has a fair point here about practicing decorum in general.

But I look at this as both an artist and as a music fan (and I was the latter long before I was a the former). We don’t have the context of the story he was telling. We don’t know what he was saying. There have been conflicting reports that it was something political. If it were something political—well, I think anybody going to a Mellencamp show would already know his views and that he’s vocal about them. But we don’t know. We do get him talking about a woman scolding him for being a “smart aleck” while she was “talking to Jesus.” So, maybe this story came off as blasphemous or religiously offensive to somebody, which would be understandable.

Regardless, if I’m in the audience at a show, and the performer says something so offensive or affronting to me that I feel compelled to act, I just leave, because shouting at the performer is going to accomplish nothing positive. The performer is never going to say, “Oh, okay. I’m sorry. Here we go. 1, 2, 3…,” and enthusiastically launch into the next song. The only thing this accomplished was giving Mellencamp meat for his next Washington Post interview and content for internet hacks like me.

But as an artist, I would also never do that to my audience, and I’ve played shows where the crowd was less than friendly. Obviously, I’m not in Mellencamp’s stratosphere and, realistically, never will be. But these people paid good money to hear the show, and based on the audio, the bulk of them were on Mellencamp’s side. So, even if he’s mad at the couple of people that were negatively vocal, that’s no reason to punish the rest of the group.

Also, while I understand the distinction he’s trying to make between “concert” and “performance”—that the former is full band/arena and the latter is quiet and intimate—they’re really the same thing. A concert is a musical performance, and a musical performance is a concert. And Mellencamp just comes off as a snob when he attempts to draw a line between them.

So, what do you think? Was Mellencamp justified or just a jerk?

Cole Powell is an award-winning singer/songwriter and Z-list YouTuber. Armed with degrees in computer technology and liberal arts and sciences, Powell seeks to pontificate his pitiful opinions to the masses through any means the internet allows.

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