Babyface turns 30 this year. Sure, the Man Who Would Be Babyface — Kenneth Edmonds — was born in 1959, but the singer, songwriter, producer, and all-around hit maker extraordinaire began taking baby steps up the Billboard charts the year Michael Jackson’s Thriller dominated every chart. Join Robert Cass, Jeff Giles, and Mike Heyliger as they take a look back at the first three decades of Babyface’s career, with various detours along the stream of consciousness.
Mike: Sooooo … you’re gonna start this one off, right, Bobby?
Robert: Sure, I’ll take the lead. I’ve never been afraid to [dramatic pause] [insert song title].
And speaking of [insert song title], it’s much better than I expected it to be, possibly because I was expecting it to be the theme song to the 2004 remake of Walking Tall, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Johnny Knoxville, so the bar was set pretty low to begin with.
I have no idea how Mellencamp and Babyface ended up working together, but both are from Indiana. Maybe Mellencamp heard Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” sometime between ’96 and ’03 and thought, I could use a hit like that, prompting him to get in touch with his fellow Hoosier. Or maybe L.A. Reid, after taking over Island Def Jam in early ’04, thought, John could use a hit like that, prompting him to get in touch with his former songwriting and production partner. (‘Face briefly toured with Mellencamp in October of that year as part of the “Vote for Change” concert series, playing a mini set in between Mellencamp’s main set and the encore. At Chicago’s Riviera Theatre his Post-it-sized set list included “Change the World,” and the concert ended with ‘Face joining Mellencamp for the latter’s 1985 hit “Small Town.” In case you’ve forgotten, George W. Bush still got reelected.)
Jeff: This was a new cut on the final (for now, anyway) Mellencamp Mercury compilation, right? I liked it when it came out, but I’ve always kind of dug Mellencamp’s (admittedly rather timid) forays into R&B/hip-hop. Until this week I had no idea Babyface had produced it. The more you know!
Robert: You are correct, sir. “Thank You” was the other new track on Words & Music — it leads off the second disc — and was also produced by Babyface, though I don’t know if it features his backing vocals like “Walk Tall” does.
Mike: It’s not a bad song, just kinda … there. The video was cool, though. I remember seeing it on VH1 a couple of times, back before it became the Incredibly Awful Reality-Show Network.
Robert: ‘Face Time has become the equivalent of those old Life cereal commercials, with Mike, naturally, being the equivalent of Mikey.
Was “On Our Own” the best-tasting song so far in this series?
Mike: My favorite so far might actually be Damian Dame’s “Right Down to It.” “On Our Own” is close, though.
Robert: To paraphrase Patton Oswalt, in a previous life the Whores Were Punching channel aired a Behind the Music episode on Mellencamp, and I was surprised how self-deprecating he was in his interview segments — he’d always seemed to take himself so seriously. But maybe he felt he had to after starting out his career as “Johnny Cougar.”
Anyway, I’d rather seek out his timid forays into R&B/hip-hop, as Jeff puts it, than listen to an album like No Better Than This (2010), for which Mellencamp recorded songs at Sun Studio in Memphis, a Baptist church in Savannah, and a hotel room in San Antonio where, if I remember correctly, Robert Johnson awkwardly shared a double bed with the devil after the front desk accidentally booked them into the same room. Mellencamp recorded the album in mono using just one microphone and an Ampex portable reel-to-reel from the mid-’50s and blah blah blah — PLAY “AIN’T EVEN DONE WITH THE NIGHT,” JOHNNY COUGAR! WOOOOOOO!
Mike: That … sounds … horrible. I either didn’t know that No Better Than This existed or I blocked it from my memory.
Jeff: I think a lot of Mellencamp’s stuff is pretty boring, but I do have to give him credit for basically shrugging and walking away from the limelight when his sales started to dip in the late ’90s. He could easily be another Benatar or Eddie Money flogging his old hits in shitty venues, but he’s followed his own path.
Robert: True, but I think there’s a conspiracy behind those Farm Aid concerts, which Mellencamp helped organize in 1985, to make it appear as if certain artists actually want to play the county-fair circuit after the hits have dried up, not because they have to. “I just want you people to know that I’m here today because you’re my people. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere el— Hey, could someone please tell Bell Biv DeVoe to turn down the bass on the south stage? I can barely hear myself lie right now.”
Mike: He’s got a pretty long list of great singles. I’d put his best-of compilation(s) up against those of most other artists from his era. Is he in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Jeff: I’ve grown to appreciate his ’80s stuff over the last 10-15 years or so, but he was so pervasive at the time — he released what seemed like an unending series of sepia-toned singles about his life in a small town rockin’ on the farm with the scarecrow and the poor farmer and boo Reagan — that I tuned him out for a lot of years. He seemed like Springsteen for people who demanded mullets.
Robert: And that’s why I thought he was so unrelentingly earnest until I saw him making fun of himself on Behind the Music. But the earnestness continued, of course, with “Walk Tall,” which at least kept up with the changing times by switching from a “boo Reagan” stance to “boo Bush.” Wikipedia says that the lyric “So be careful of those killing in Jesus’ name / He don’t believe in killing at all” was changed to “And I wish you all a long sightline / And the strength to walk tall” to get the song onto the radio in ’04 — and, presumably, VH1, since the original line is also redacted in the video for “Walk Tall” — but at a concert two years later Dan Quayle, another fellow Hoosier, allegedly “walked out as Mellencamp performed the song after he introduced it as being for ‘those being ignored by the current administration.'”
Hey, for all we know the former vice president had to go to the bathroom — isn’t that standard procedure for concertgoers when a long-running act plays a bunch of old hits, then says, “Now I’d like to play a song off my new album”? — or maybe he realized, “Hey, I’m being ignored by the current administration! When was the last time George Jr. or Dick returned one of my calls?” and had to leave the concert because he knew he was five seconds away from bursting into tears. I’m sure he told his friends and family that the tears were triggered by seeing a Hoosier onstage and then remembering the Gene Hackman film Hoosiers (1986) — “Who hasn’t cried at the end of that movie?” — but I don’t think anyone was fooled.
Mike: I’m surprised Mellencamp would agree to changing that lyric.
Robert: Is he still dating Meg Ryan, America’s former sweetheart? They got together after he lived out the American dream of marrying a supermodel — in his case, Elaine Irwin — then divorcing her once she was no longer a supermodel (admittedly, this sub-dream isn’t as admirable, but it’s still on the list for a lot of men), making him an inspiration to us all.
Mike: Meg Ryan? Wow. I’m out of the loop on my TMZ.
Robert: You mean you turn your nose up at VH1’s programming but not TMZ‘s celebrity gossip? I guess that’s one way of walking tall.
For an in-depth look at Kenneth Edmonds’s discography as a solo artist, see Mike and Jeff’s Popdose Guide to Babyface.