"The most crucial thing for me is that I want it to be real."
That's what Mellencamp told Creem magazine in 1987. Two years later, he released a song about it. In "Pop Singer," he explains that the music is what is important to him, and that he has no use for the gladhanding, trend-following or fan interaction that is expected of Pop Stars.
Mellencamp wasn't always so "real" - his manager had him use the stage name "Johnny Cougar," which took him years to reverse. He soon took control of his career, however, and did things on his terms. Any part of the job that isn't related to making or performing music is something Mellencamp avoids. He will begrudgingly do promotion, but refuses corporate music traditions like radio station concerts and meet-and-greets. This stance didn't endear him to industry types, but many fans found his candor refreshing and appreciated his authenticity and devotion to his craft.
When he wrote this song, Mellencamp was going through a divorce with his second wife, Victoria Granucci. "I was questioning the importance of music," he told Rolling Stone. "Everybody was having to kiss everybody's ass. If you want to be on MTV, then come here and do this. All these backroom deals were getting made. I was like, 'I don't want any part of this.'"
Mellencamp articulated his position in this song in his 2018 DVD Plain Spoken, where he explained that what he was after was a creative life away from his hometown of Seymour, Indiana. Had he become a painter, he would have been just as fulfilled, but when his demo got him a management deal, he was drawn toward music.
"Everybody wanted to be a rock star in the '80s," he said. "Everybody but me."
This song runs just 2:46, which is appropriate, as hit pop songs tend to be short, in part so radio stations can play more of them.