Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cameron Esposito on politics and “Pink Houses”

In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.

The hater: Comedian Cameron Esposito should be no stranger to A.V. Club readers—her excellent column, “Who In The World Is Cameron Esposito,” runs on this site every other Friday. She also hosts a weekly comedy show, Put Your Hands Together, in Los Angeles, which is recorded as a podcast of the same name. Her new stand-up record, Same Sex Symbol, is out now on Kill Rock Stars.

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The hated: John Mellencamp, “Pink Houses” (1983)

The A.V. Club: Why did you pick “Pink Houses”?

Cameron Esposito: I was just on a large driving tour where I flew into one place and drove myself to a bunch of different cities. That is one of those songs that’s on some station in every city all the time. If you’re just scrolling and you don’t have anything pre-set in your car, you have to pass “Little Pink Houses.” It’s in there. I know it’s technically “Pink Houses,” but that song should just go fuck itself. It should be called “Little Pink Houses.”

AVC: There are actual charitable organizations called “Little Pink Houses,” after the song.

CE: Yes! That’s my biggest question about it, not just that I don’t like the sound of it—because I really don’t like the sound of it—but I don’t think The A.V. Club is going to need some convincing on not liking the sound of that song. I get a feeling that’s not going to necessarily ruffle feathers.

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It’s more that the message is extremely confusing. I don’t know what that song is actually saying. It’s also confusing that both Democrats and Republicans have used the song even though John Mellencamp—who should never have dropped the Cougar—is an outspoken Democrat. People have used it across the board because, I think, it’s kind of a depressing song. It’s about people not doing well. But people like it because it’s so upbeat—and also because it involves the word “America.” Any song that relates, like, “Ain’t that America,” people assume is a really good song. Like, “We’re all doing great! Ain’t that America?” It’s really a song about how these people’s lives are shitty. Ain’t that America?

AVC: Mellencamp told Rolling Stone that “The American dream had pretty much proven itself as not working anymore,” and that it’s an anti-American song. But even he’s played it at political events.

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CE: It’s played when people are gathering to feel great about themselves and it’s about everything being awful.

AVC: The message is not super clear. It’s about everything being awful, obviously, but also, people are getting some message about individuality out of it. Like, “Oh, he has a pink house.”

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CE: Absolutely.

AVC: “He has his own life.”

CE: His point is just, “The house is so adorable and pink, but this guy’s life is terrible. He should live right next to a highway.” That’s also very judgmental, John Mellencamp. I don’t know why you’re passing judgment on how people should live their lives.

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AVC: Maybe he likes the noise.

CE: Exactly! I find the highway very soothing.

Do you know the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

AVC: Of course.

CE: That song is another one of these songs where I just feel like we’re so up our own asses as Americans that sometimes we sing about ourselves and we don’t even know what we’re saying in a larger view. Bono has the worst line in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and he’s not American, but he’s the guy that sings, “Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you.” It’s a relief song raising money for Africa—which, first of all, we consider to be just one country—and that’s the only relief song that includes a line about how relieved he is. That’s wild. I think it’s supposed to be kind of quasi-ironic, but also—we play that song at the Gap. Irony, I think, is lost on people buying sweaters.

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AVC: Do you think people like “Pink Houses” not because they see themselves in it, but because they assume they’re not that bad off? It’s like how 90 percent of the population or something thinks they’re in the middle class. There could be a sense of, “This poor guy lives down by the highway. But I’m doing okay.” Maybe people like this song because it makes them feel better.

CE: That’s a really good point. I think a lot of Americans round themselves up. But I also think a lot of Americans round themselves down. I’ve been touring, and sometimes I’ll put CMT on in my hotel room—Country Music Television—because I’m alone so much that I want noise to happen, but I want it to be something a little bit soothing. So I’ve been listening to country music, which I’ve never listened to before in my life. It is so weird to hear—and John Mellencamp would have been in the same situation when he wrote this song—but it’s so bizarre to hear, like, Tim McGraw has this song about how he and Faith Hill are going to move back to his mama’s house. It’s about how they don’t have much, but isn’t it great that they have this home that they could look forward to. That is Tim McGraw singing about how he doesn’t have very much.

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AVC: They probably do okay between the two of them.

CE: They could buy their mother’s house and they could also buy both of our mothers’ houses and they could also buy everybody’s mothers’ houses.

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AVC: And then put them on the moon.

CE: We all just want to feel like we’re in it together.

It also bothers me that John Mellencamp would be the right person to sing about this. It’s about a black man. The opening lyrics to this song are, like, “There’s a black guy sitting on his porch and his wife is making slop.” Maybe you’re not the right guy to tell that story, John Mellencamp.

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AVC: Do you think we let him do it because he’s from Indiana? If he was from L.A. or something, we’d be like, “Hmm.”

CE: I guess my question is: At what point do you stop telling the story that you grew up with? I don’t know if you ever have to. When your life changes drastically and you’re playing massive stadiums, do you still get to sing that song? I’m not sure. I’ll tell you when I’m playing massive stadiums how I feel.

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AVC: That’s actually a good question for comedians. If you’re telling jokes about how you’re poor and then you start doing okay, what’s the joke? If you’re on TV shows and movies, what’s the joke? You have to find a new way to do your same material or to reflect who you’ve become.

CE: Comedy is so personal right now, in a great way, and part of that is because you can sell your individual brand directly to people. You don’t need to go through the filter of some big corporation that tells you what you are. You can just be, “This is what I am,” and you can put it out as a podcast or whatever. Or a column on The A.V. Club. Things like that. Louis C.K. talking about his family is his way of not talking about his job. If he talked about his job, he’d be like, “I’m killing it.”

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AVC: It would be almost unrelatable. Not unrelatable, but he’d have to find something to talk about within that job that wasn’t, “So I was at the studio…”

CE: I heard a pretty successful comic not too long ago who was talking about getting an escort to the airport because he was too famous to walk through the airport by himself. I was watching him try and tell this story, staring at the audience trying to figure out if they could get on board with this. It would be scary to not be able walk through the airport without being stopped, but at the same time, if you don’t think about it that way, if you think about it, like, “This guy’s talking about getting escorted through the airport like it’s a bad thing”—you have to keep yourself in check, figure out what’s coming out of your mouth.

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AVC: John Mellencamp probably gets escorted through the airport.

CE: Are you sure John Mellencamp even has to go to the airport? The plane just picks him up outside of his lake house, which is very large.

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AVC: Have you seen pictures of him recently? In the past year or so?

CE: No, I haven’t seen pictures of him recently.

AVC: He was dating Meg Ryan for a while, so there’d be pictures of them in People Magazine.

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CE: Oh my God, that’s right. Oh, Jesus.

AVC: He’s always wearing track pants and smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

CE: Oh no!

AVC: He looks okay, but I wouldn’t want to look at him close up.

CE: You think he’s looking rough?

AVC: He looks okay from a distance, but he’s been smoking Marlboro Reds or whatever for 40 years.

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CE: The funny thing is, I think of he and Bon Jovi as having the same head. They just have one head that they share between the two of them. So I think that John Mellencamp looks great because Bon Jovi looks great.

You know how there are certain people that became famous at the same time and they have the same gender? Mary-Louise Parker and Elizabeth Perkins are like that. And then when they were on the show Weeds together, I was like, “Come on! How did they cast the same person twice?”

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AVC: Or the Paxton-Pullman thing. Or Reid Scott and Ben Feldman.

CE: I think the most surprising and best one is Tilda Swinton and David Bowie. I have, for a very long time, thought, “They occupy the same space in the universe.” Then, last year, David Bowie put out a video where Tilda Swinton was in the video. I can’t believe the world kept spinning after that. I was like, “They know!” I guess I thought I had figured it out but maybe they didn’t know.

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AVC: I think that they know.

CE: “Yeah, we get it. We’re the same.” That was amazing to me.

AVC: Bill Paxton and Bill Pullman probably get questions about each other all the time.

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CE: Absolutely. Speaking of Bill Paxton: The final thing I’ll say is that Weird Science was on the other day in the hotel. This is mostly going to be a hotel-room-based interview. Remember the movie Weird Science?

AVC: I’ve actually never seen it, but I used to watch the USA show.

CE: Holy heck. The show: not even worth your time. But the movie: great. Kelly LeBrock is beautiful in it. It’s amazing. Bill Paxton is in it. Also, there’s a very tiny part for a very young Robert Downey Jr. He’s in it for 20 minutes. It’s kind of in that time where you’re like, “You didn’t know”—it’s wild to look at him at a time in his life when he didn’t know whether or not he was going to make it. He got a bit part. He got a 20-minute part. I’m sure he was excited about it and didn’t realize he was going to be Iron Man.

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AVC: I was reading Rob Lowe’s books when I was on vacation. A lot of his first book is about that: “I started working with these guys and then we’d hang out and then I was best friends with Emilio Estevez and he lived across the street.” It’s a lot of that where you’re like, “Whoa, how did these guys somehow all make it?” They’re all very talented, but it’s such a weird aligning of moons.

CE: I have a weird thought on that if you want to hear it.

AVC: Of course.

CE: I’ve been noticing lately how many of my friends are really successful now. I see my friends’ faces on buses. When I’m flying, they’ll be on in-flight entertainment. You see people all the time. I started to feel like, “Wow, this is really weird that I know all these people.” But those dudes all made it because they all knew each other. There were probably 300 other guys that they also knew that didn’t get as far as they did.

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You know how when you see a picture in The New York Times or Entertainment Weekly or anything, and you’re like, “How do those two people know each other?” It’ll be, like, Kate Moss and Stephen Hawking. How do they know each other? But I think after a while, your co-workers are people that you’ve known forever. You all start together. More people aren’t added to the mix. There aren’t more people starting at age 50 that have the same experiences as Rob Lowe. He was around those dudes and then those dudes all made it. But I’ll bet there are dudes that he didn’t include in the book that are like, “That guy’s great, but he’s an insurance salesman now.”

AVC: He mentions that Dick Van Patten had three sons who worked a lot, and I was like, “Where are these guys now?” But they were popular at the time. They’ve fallen away.

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CE: I don’t think that’s a bad thing. People figure out what they want to do.

AVC: Maybe they wanted to be realtors.

CE: I think it’s that. Everybody starts and knows each other for years. Eventually, those are the people that have been doing it forever. Makes sense? I’ve cracked the code!

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