If you're a flinty-hearted scrooge, a mean-spirited oaf, a sophisticated high-hat, or anything approaching a hipster, you hate this song. That probably defines it better than anything else. For the rest of us who know we're hicks, who celebrate our modest prosperity around a simple family hearth with a needlepoint "Home Sweet Home" framed - NON-ironically - on the wall, this song is our ballad.
John Cougar Mellencamp stands alongside Bruce Springsteen and George Thorogood in the class of pure Heartland America. He fits into the wider base of the genre known as "heartland rock," thus including a wider group of Bob Seger, Tom Petty, and Van Morrison. But only Mellencamp, amongst all those, has the claim of being a Hoosier. The blue collars and the hardhats, the men and women who make the heart of this country work, have a hero in Mellencamp, who knows just how they feel, because he is one of them.
"Small Town" is mainly about two towns in Indiana: Seymour, where he was born, and Bloomington, where he also lived. Both cities show up in the video. However, Mellencamp has said in interviews that he was really singing about any American small town, whether it is in the Rust-belt, Corn-belt, or Bible-belt, or anywhere where the Stars and Stripes fly.
Note the mood of this piece. It is neither profoundly happy nor sad, not particularly making any point. It's just a song about being proud of who you are, not trying to be a big shot. It is a populist song, a crowd-pleasing anthem, a ballad of both humility and pride. It is almost impossible to be American and not identify with it in some way. Like American culture, it mentions Jesus without making a sermon out of it. Oh, a small town provides little in the way of opportunity, but so what? It's good enough for him.
So compelling is this song and the singer that the town of Chillicothe, Ohio (population ~22,000), convinced Mellencamp to come play two free concerts simply through the citizens signing a petition.
So, let's do a roll call of heartland music tropes: Guitar, drums, and harmonica? Check. Some country influence? It goes great with Kentucky Fried Chicken, and it's possible to Texas Two-Step to it. A sense of isolation? Yes, geographically, economically, and socially; Bill Gates does not identify with this song. Released in the '80s? Check, 1985. Patriotic values? Brother, you can drive your pickup with the "Let's Roll" bumper stickers on the dirt road straight from the Creedence Clearwater Revival concert to a John Cougar Mellencamp concert, and not see anything but working-class folk just like yourself the whole way. Why, even his middle name is a distinctly American native mammal.
The closest the song comes to apologizing for itself is with the line "another boring romantic, that's me." But notice he managed to snag an "LA doll" and bring her back to the small town to convert her from her city-slicker ways. Yes, that's how you do it! Bring those high-falutin' elitists back down to Earth!
Okay, we're done. The rest of you can stop making those gagging noises, now.