Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Since I spent last weekend in Boston, I thought it would be appropriate to do my next post on the hardest state to spell-- Massachusetts. As I looked through my music library for songs for this entry, I found that there were two distinct threads of sentiment about the state. Half of the songs were about Boston, and the other half were about the coastal towns. The two themes don't have much to do with one another, so I decided to just split the entry.

Let's start with Boston. I know I've been sort of a downer about some of the places I've written about so far, but I really like Boston, and it seems like I'm not alone. Arguably the most well-known song about Boston is Dropkick Murphys' splendidly shouty 'Shipping Up to Boston,' made famous in The Departed. Scorcese's film is a fairly grim look at the city, and 'Shipping Up' isn't so cheerful either, but it does seem to be the song that most accurately sums up the city. Brash and to the point like Bostonians themselves, the song is (vaguely-- it's not as lyrically complex as most of the other music I've discussed here) about a sailor with a wooden leg who's going to Boston. That's about it, really. But the song is a portal to a crucial part of Boston history-- its background as a port city.

Founded by John Winthrop in 1630, Boston became one of the most crucial American ports for international trade and politics. Home of the Boston Tea Party and a hub for whaling (though neighboring New Bedford is considered the 19th century whaling capital), the pride in 'Shipping Up' is understandable when you think about how crucial the city has been to American history. In fact, you can't throw a lobster roll (though why would you be throwing it and not eating it?) in Boston and its suburbs without hitting something historic. Revolutionary War battlefields? Got it. Salem, home of the famous 17th century witch trials, is right there. So are the homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, as well as Thoreau's picturesque Walden. Why all these notable people chose to live in the furthest reaches of a pleasant climate is unclear, but they seemed to enjoy Boston just as much as the Murphys.

On the far side of the music spectrum, moderately emo piano rockers (I use the term rock very loosely here) Augustana write about a desire to move to Boston in the epynomous song:

She said I think I'll go to Boston...
I think I'll start a new life,
I think I'll start it over, where no one knows my name,
I'll get out of California, I'm tired of the weather...
I think I need a new town, to leave this all behind...
I think I need a sunrise, I'm tired of the sunset,
I hear it's nice in the Summer, some snow would be nice.

Boston... where no one knows my name.

Slightly ironic, considering Boston is home to Cheers, where everybody allegedly knows your name. But what I find interesting about this track is its rejection of what we generally consider desirable about America. Warm sunny climates? Friendly faces? Apparently not to be found in Boston, and that's what the song's protagonist wants. Boston is a representation of the independent American spirit, a willingness to strike out on one's own in a harsh environment.

The desire to live somewhere cold and inhospitable seems to be a trait stretching back to the earliest New Englanders, the Puritans. Why they would choose somewhere as bitterly frozen as Massachusetts is a mystery that I've yet to unravel despite spending four years as a history minor. But hey, they seemed to really like it there despite the fact that they spent their first few decades "planting corn with dead fish in a hole they dug with sticks" (a concise summary courtesy of science historian James Strick). Bostonians seem proud of their resilience and their history, and the boldness of 'Shipping Up' is more indicative of their mentality than the gentle piano plinking of Augustana.

But there's another side to Massachusetts, in the coastal towns encapsulated in the music of Vampire Weekend, poster boys for the Vineyard Vines-wearing, sailboat-loving residents (or more often vacationers) of Massachusetts' seaside. Cape Cod and its surrounding towns, with their opulent summer homes and laid back mentality, are so opposite to Boston that I couldn't find a way to resolve them in this post. Vampire Weekend, especially on their self-titled debut, capture the spirit of the gracious life so perfectly that I'll just give you all the lyrics to see for yourself: here.

Overall, the album is a glimpse into "bleeding madras," Louis Vuitton and sandy lawns-- a life of leisure. Having earned the right to relax through the historic struggles in Boston, the inhabitants of Vampire Weekend's world do so in style. This is a very different coastline from the one seen in Springsteen's 'Atlantic City.' Everything in a Vampire Weekend song is gentle, slightly weathered and faded to pastel like the paint on a beach house. It seems easy compared to the harsh life of the sailor in 'Shipping Up,' but there's also something nostalgic and not entirely happy about Vampire Weekend's music. Their albums are about vacation, but mostly about the bittersweet end of the trip. Maybe they're influenced by the fleeting nature of summer in the far north of America, but the songs are, like so much we've seen already, a look backward. "As a young girl..." Ezra Koenig begins 'Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.' He reminisces then muses, "This feels so unnatural." In 'Walcott,' he asks, "Don't you want to get out of Cape Cod tonight?" While Bostonians love their city and will stay through thick and thin, one leg and frigid winters, Cape Cod residents know their time there is temporary, already fading like old vacation photos.

Shipping Up to Boston-- Dropkick Murphys
Boston-- Augustana
Walcott-- Vampire Weekend
Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa-- Vampire Weekend

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