What in the musical world do these three things have in common?
A singer-songwriter who peaked in the 1980s.
A storied manufacturer of big green tractors.
And the Savior who promised we would not perish but have everlasting life if we believed in Him.
You might be tempted to answer, “Uh … nothing?”
But songwriter Shane McAnally, one of three country scribes behind Keith Urban’s latest hit, begs to differ. These three influences, McAnally recently told Billboard, shaped the lives of many a teen growing up in the heartland back in the day.
“All of the writers that I write with come from that small-town place where we didn’t have a lot, but it seemed like we had a lot because we had all we needed,” McAnally began. “John Cougar references all the sort of sexual tension of teenage angst all of us were growing up in. John Deere represents the way that our parents worked and what we saw living in the country, and of course [there’s] the element of religion. And [there’s] irony in John Cougar starting the line, and John 3:16 ending the line because that was the push and pull of that teenage thing.”
John to the third power. Country style.
In this song, of course, the first question this odd troika raises is which themes get the most time. Do all three Johns get equal emphasis? Or, as it should, does the last one get the most?
The tune begins with a litany of backwards-looking shout-outs. “I’m a 45 spinning on an old Victrola,” Urban sings. “I’m John Wayne, Superman, California/I’m a Kris Kristofferson Sunday morning/ … I’m a two-strike swinger, I’m a Pepsi-Cola/I’m a blue jean quarterback saying ‘I love you to the prom queen’/In a Chevy/ … I’m a mom and dad singing along to Don McLean/At the levee.”
Then we plunge headlong into that “sexual tension” and “teenage angst” McAnally mentioned with, “And I’m a child of a backseat freedom, baptized by rock ‘n’ roll/ … I’m still a teenage kid trying to go too far.”
The song’s first biblical allusion is mixed with a rebellious one (“Marilyn Monroe and the Garden of Eden, never grow up, never grow old/Just another rebel in the great wide open on the boulevard of broken dreams”).
Then the chorus: “And I learned everything I needed to know from John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.”
Rack up a few points for romanticized indiscretion, then, and a shorthand reference to Jesus’ words of salvation.
And then the rest of it comes. Maybe. The song’s brief bridge reads, “I spent a lot of years running from believing/Looking for another way to save my soul/The longer I live, the more I see it: There’s only one way home.”
Of course you’ll have to rely on the song’s title to understand that the way is found in the verse, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
But don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty glad it’s in there.
The narrative arc of “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” seems to go something like this: A generation of wild kids grew up in small towns, worked hard and rebelled hard. Eventually they grew up and figured out that all that misbehavior wasn’t as fulfilling or even as alluring as it seemed at the time. The only way home? Well, God.
In that way, Jesus does get the last word.
But I wonder if that’s the song’s loudest word. Is the salvation plan rolled out in John 3:16 the main message fans will take away here? Or is it the winks at “backseat freedom” and being “baptized by rock ‘n’ roll”?
I’ll bet John Cougar’s already answered that question in, say, the lyrics of “Jack & Diane.”
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.