Song Review: Jake Owen, “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)”

Jake Owen’s new single “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” is meant to conjure images of teenage nostalgia, but the only thing I see is a big old fork sticking out of Owen’s career.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Jake Owen, but once upon a time he released material I could actually appreciate (“Alone With You,” “What We Ain’t Got,” etc.). In truth, however, he never evolved beyond being “the Barefoot Blue Jean guy,” and he kept going back to that well even as the genre tide turned against Bro-soaked party tunes. The results were exactly what you would expect: Some of the worst songs I’ve reviewed on this blog (“Good Company”, “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You”), and absolutely zero traction on the radio. Now, with his career in real danger of flatlining, Owen has taken an even more desperate measure: Blatantly ripping off John Cougar/Mellencamp’s 1982 classic “Jack & Diane”  for his own new single “I Was Jack (You Were Diane),” and while it clears the low bar of Owen’s last two singles (in fact, it’s probably his most listenable song since “What We Ain’t Got”), if it takes this level of plagiarism to make your material even remotely tolerable, you probably need to consider a career change.

Honestly, it’s the unrepentant sound copying that bothers me the most about this track. Lyrical allusions and hook “borrowing” happen all the time in music, but only a select few tracks also copy the production of their spiritual predecessor to this extent. To call this a lazy effort would be giving the producer too much credit: Essentially, this song takes all the melodic guitar riffs from “Jack & Diane” (both the acoustic and electric ones), smashes them together, tosses a token banjo and drum machine on top of the whole thing (who the heck thought that was a good idea?), adds a steel guitar stab or two, and calls it a day. I can only recall two songs that went this far with their production: Kid Rock’s 2008 tire fire “All Summer Long,” and Brad Paisley’s actually-decent “Old Alabama” from 2011, which only worked because:

  • Paisley already had enough gravitas and stature to make the song feel like more than a cheap coattail-riding effort.
  • Paisley worked really hard to pay the proper respect to the group he was mimicking (Alabama even got to sing and play on the track).

This song, in contrast, doesn’t feel like a tribute to Mellencamp at all, and just seems to be trading on his name to get some attention.

While the mix admittedly generates a fair amount of positive energy, it creates more of a generic party atmosphere than a nostalgic one, and it doesn’t feel personal or emotional enough to move the listener. I’m not sure whether I’m more irritated by the Mellencamp mimicking itself, or by the fact that the result sounds so uninteresting and run-on-the-mill.

As a singer, Owen has an easy, earnest delivery that’s probably above-average in the genre today…so why in the name of Jimmy Buffett does he feel the need to channel his inner Sam Hunt and talk-sing all the verses here? (It certainly can’t be because it worked so well on “Real Life.”) In doing so, his voice completely loses its tone, and turns what should be a casual, song-induced walk down memory lane into an ear-grating nightmare that invites comparisons to Walker Hayes’s “You Broke Up With Me.” He sounds just as good as he ever did on the choruses (decent range, decent flow, decent power), and he’s still got enough charisma to sell these sorts of lightweight tracks, so why he chose to sing a song that handicapped him like this is just inexplicable.

As far as the lyrics go, the title pretty much gives the song away: The narrator reflects upon how “Jack & Diane” made he and his significant other act and feel when they heard it, and wonders whether it still makes the other person think about those wild and crazy days. The song-as-a-nostalgic-touchstone angle has been done to death in country music (even Chase Rice took a stab at the topic last year), and there’s nothing here you haven’t seen or heard a hundred times before. (Given that the “American kids” and “holdin’ on to sixteen” phrases are ripped right from “Jack & Diane,” that statement is true both figuratively and literally.) The imagery is generic, the use of Mellencamp’s tune in the story is predictable and uninteresting, and the talk-singing structure was a poor design decision. You’ve got to give me a compelling reason to listen to a song about “Jack & Diane” rather than just listening to “Jack & Diane” directly, and this track doesn’t deliver.

At best, “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” is a forgettable, unremarkable track that really doesn’t justify its existence. At its worst, it’s an shameless attempt to drum up some money and notoriety via a knockoff of a rock ‘n’ roll classic, one that would make John Mellencamp turn over in his grave even though he’s still alive. I understand that Jake Owen’s career is on the ropes and that desperate times call for desperate measures, but there are some lines that are better left uncrossed, and trying to co-opt an artist’s legacy like this just to earn a few radio spins is one of them.

I closed my “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You” review by saying “Come on Jake, you’re better than this.” I was wrong.

Rating: 3/10. I’ve got a growing list of artists that need to be booted out of country music (Dan + Shay, LoCash, etc.), and Owen has just added his name to it in bright red ink.