The song was a success in the U.S., reaching #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, and becoming a top ten hit on the main Billboard Hot 100 chart. It also topped the Canadian Singles Chart, and charted on various European singles charts.
In a 1989 interview with the BBC, Mellencamp said: “‘Paper in Fire’ deals with a lot of biblical things – paper in fire, in fact, is hell, and is referred to in the Bible as hell. ‘A man will be cast into paper in fire.’ It’s in there, believe me, it’s in there. That’s where that term came from.”
“It is better to be criticized by a wise man than to be praised by a fool! For a fool’s compliment is as quickly gone as paper in fire, and it is silly to be impressed by it.” Ecclesiastes 7:5-6 Living Bible (TLB)
The line, “we keep no check on our appetites,” from the song’s final verse, was cited in the 1963 movie Hud, which is one of Mellencamp’s favorite movies and has inspired many of his songs.