Adult Contemporary

Portland Has a Branding Problem: John Mellencamp’s Portland Video Not Portland

A video for the rocker’s terrible song about the homelessness crisis in Portland shows South Central LA, Manhattan, and Brooklyn.

By Margaret Seiler May 17, 2023

In singer-songwriter John Mellencamp’s new “The Eyes of Portland” video, something immediately seems ... off. That sign for Seventh Street? Portland doesn’t have numbered streets, only avenues. The city skyline? That’s the Roslyn Hotel and the US Bank Tower in downtown LA—definitely not Big Pink. This is the eyes of Los Angeles. 

The lyric video, released May 12 on Mellencamp's YouTube channel, presents Portland as synonymous with unrelenting homelessness. In reality, you're looking at LA and New York City: a man pushes a grocery cart in the shadow of Pershing Square and Grand Central Station, and later appears in Brooklyn near the Williamsburg Bridge. And on it goes for four and a half minutes of black-and-white despair, plus a couple quick shots of a child’s hand waving a miniature American flag (ah, patriotism—we get it). 

Mellencamp doesn't wield enough cultural heft to brand Portland, but we don't appreciate him furthering the faux messaging that Portland is a wasteland. The ignorance is not accidental: he's been here, and in fact performed the song at Keller Auditorium in March. So he knows that the place he’s reducing to anguished despondency is in fact a colorful city of music and festivals and greenery. Also, why lazily use recognizable images from other cities to make Portland look bad? We have our own brand of urban decay! Just ask Twitter. Or your uncle from Boise.

Portlanders have gotten used to Vancouver, British Columbia, standing in for the Rose City. I, Tonya was mostly shot in Georgia. So was much of Air, though there were a few shots of Portland bridges. But those films don’t have Portland in their titles. 

John Mellencamp in 2004

This topic is a departure for Little Bastard (a nickname he willingly took on for a while). Back in his John Cougar days, the singer-songwriter was the bard of the Midwest, singing little ditties about American kids growing up in the heartland, and peppering his video for “Small Town” with shots of Seymour and Bloomington, the Indiana towns where he was born and raised. Cattails, covered bridges, and grain towers appear in “Pink Houses.” So we expected an official video for a song called “The Eyes of Portland,” off the artist’s upcoming Orpheus Descending record, to show a little bit of, you know, Portland.

Beyond the catastrophic geographical renderings, we should warn you that the video may inspire some sadness that the same songwriter who gave us “Oh yeah, life goes on / Long after the thrill of living is gone” is now offering up “There are old ones and young ones and white ones and black / They were all shapes and sizes with rags on their back.” He continues: “Some are mentally ill, some are higher than kites / Selling their bodies as day turns to night.” And in closing: “Your tears and prayers won’t help the homeless.” Neither will geographically inaccurate music videos.

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