Monday, January 31, 2011

North Dakota

This is a post primarily about North Dakota, but also a little bit about South Dakota and various other places (SD will eventually get its own post too). It's not that I want to cop out here, but come on. There just aren't that many songs about either North or South Dakota. The two I've chosen to discuss this bastion of coldness and remoteness (home to a whopping 9.738 people per square mile!) are Killers b-side 'The Ballad of Michael Ballantine' and a return to Bright Eyes' 'Four Winds.'

North Dakota in winter doesn't look to conducive to driving, but this post will be about a great American tradition-- the road trip. The Killers have given interviews explaining the titular character of 'Michael Valentine' as a traveling gambler, one of the carefree, itinerant figures who populates American literature, folklore, and history itself (see: Huck Finn, Lewis and Clark, the millions of settlers who went west in pursuit of Manifest Destiny). The compulsion to get in your car (or Mississippi River raft or covered wagon) and go anywhere else is an American compulsion. Springsteen expresses the desire to escape by heading West, but Conor Oberst and The Killers seem like they only want to wander. To spout an insufferable cliché, the journey is the destination.

North Dakota, as one of arguably the remotest states, becomes a stand-in for any faraway destination in what I'll call "road songs." In both 'Valentine' and 'Four Winds,' North Dakota is contrasted with Mexico as locations visited by the traveling narrators. America is a vast place, and there's a certain pride in the declaration that you've made the journey from one far-flung point to another. Maybe it's a way we embrace our pioneer spirit in the modern era when there's less to explore. Michael Valentine also visits Memphis and New Orleans, southern outposts in the American odyssey. The journey is remarkably similar in 'Four Winds'-- Mexico, Dakota, and Cassadaga. The West, far North, and South are viewed as places that still require a substantial journey from the population center of the eastern seaboard.

Like contemporary road movies and books, 'Michael Valentine' portrays an American road trip as an extended celebration; the narrator is the road trip compatriot to the title gambler. Valentine meets women in each city on his aimless progress. There's no plan in his journey. The song begins, "I caught up with a friend in Dallas/ We took a trip to New Orleans/ Those black-eyed ladies/ Won't say they're sorry/ We finally caught a train to Memphis. Where everybody talks the same/ Those blue suede babies/All know my name." Valentine just having an interstate party in a "new suit and black tie." The final line before the last chorus is "I ain't gonna let you rain on this parade." Then the track loops back to another classic American trope-- the American dream of Hollywood. "I've got the buzz like Greta Garbo, walking forward into the sun," the narrator concludes. It sounds like westward progress, toward the sunset, but in the most cheerful way possible.

Bright Eyes' road trip is somewhat less cheerful and slightly more focused on the history of the Dakotas. There's a definite correlation there (we've all seen Fargo, North Dakota isn't exactly a wonderland). As we've seen, Oberst visits all the corners of the country-- Mexico and Cassadaga in the West and South, the "Ivy League moons" of the East, and North Dakota to-- obviously-- the North. Oberst returns to the frequent image of the sunset as well ("shadows lengthen in the sun"); it's a visual that emerges as a metaphor for westward progress and change in the American imagination, closely tied to migration. But Oberst's journey is more thoughtful than joyful, a reflection on "caste, class, country, [and] sect." "A genocide sleeps in the Black Hills, the Badlands, the calloused East." Oberst considers the toll of our conquest of the land, the loss of traditional, pre-Columbian cultures in our push westward. He also casts a different light on the benefit of the road trip. In most incarnations it's a valued learning experience; here it seems hollow and he doubles "back by rented Cadillac and company jet/like a newly orphaned refugee retracing [his] steps/All the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead." Unlike Michael Valentine, he can't enjoy the journey-- like the solider in 'Yankee Bayonet' he thinks of the past and wants to get home.

Thinking about these road songs brought me to the ultimate American road trip-- Kerouac's On the Road. As spontaneous as 'Michael Valentine' and discontent as 'Four Winds,' Kerouac's work is the road story that every other storyteller aspires to. Like Bright Eyes and The Killers, his journey includes a foray into Mexico (which somehow becomes a de-facto part of the US in a lot of these road trips) and ends looking westward into the sunset. Whether or not Brandon Flowers and Conor Oberst read or were inspired by On the Road (my guess is yes for Oberst at least), the links between the text and lyrics suggests an ideal road trip that American travelers can make. But a song about Kerouac himself bursts the bubble of the road trip idyll.

Death Cab for Cutie's "Bixby Canyon Bridge" is not about North Dakota, but about DCFC frontman Ben Gibbard taking his own journey to a remote place in hopes of finding inspiration. Gibbard wrote part of the album Narrow Stairs in a cabin in Big Sur where Kerouac himself suffered a nervous breakdown. They're a little long, but I'll post the full lyrics here because you really need the whole story:

I descended a dusty gravel ridge
Beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge
And soon I eventually arrived
At the place where your soul had died

Barefoot in the shallow creek
I grabbed some stones from underneath
Waiting for you to speak to me

And the silence, it became so very clear
That you had long ago disappeared
And I cursed myself for being surprised
That this didn't play like it did in my mind

All the way from San Francisco
As I chased the end of your road
Because I've still got miles to go

I want to know my fate if I keep up this way
It's hard to want to stay away
And everyone you meet all seem to be asleep
You wonder if you're missing your dream...

Then it started getting dark
And I trudged back to where the car was parked
No closer to any kind of truth
As I must assume was the case with you

This is more a 'Four Winds' road trip than a 'Valentine' one. 'Bixby Canyon Bridge' is another story of disillusionment following a journey. Rather than being enlightened in the place where a great author once sought inspiration or solace, Gibbard finds only emptiness. Gibbard and Oberst each recognize the ghosts in the place they visit, lingering sorrows that conflict with what they expect from the expansive West of American dreams. Whether it's the genocide sleeping in the Black Hills or the emptiness of the place where Kerouac faced personal misery, what the destination in the road trip provides is further distress rather than clarity. Maybe the problem is that the modern road trip can only be an escape-- we no longer have places to explore, we're only trying to get away from the ghosts we know. It's interesting to note that Gibbard also closes with an image of sunset in the form of nightfall. He tints the idea of westward progress with a suitably more grim conclusion, just waiting for the coming of darkness rather than following in the path of the sun.

And there we are. An entry about road trips in a blog that's a virtual road trip. Meta or something. Hope you've enjoyed the ride.

Four Winds
The Ballad of Michael Valentine
Bixby Canyon Bridge

Saturday, January 29, 2011

North Carolina

For this post I only have one song to talk about, but it is an especially lovely song. Today I'm looking at North Carolina and The Decemberists' 'Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then). The Decemberists went a little crazy with their last album, the high-concept, Rake's Progress retread The Hazards of Love, but they're better known for their slightly theatrical Americana. 'Yankee Bayonet' is a prime example, taken from the album The Crane Wife.

What's immediately striking about 'Yankee Bayonet' is how perfectly it captures the historic spirit of the South. Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy isn't from the South (he's actually a native of Helena, Montana and the band is now based in Portland, Oregon), but he seems to understand the importance of the past for those who call North Carolina and its neighbors home. There's also more belief in an idyll in 'Yankee Bayonet' than in any other song we've seen so far. The track maintains a belief in love and fate that's absent from the more cynical tracks we've covered.

The song is a duet between a Civil War-era couple that begins with Meloy, and the first line announces these themes. "Heart-carved tree trunk, Yankee bayonet, a sweetheart left behind/ Far from the hills of the sea-swelled Carolinas, that's where my true love lies." I'll admit that I don't know a vast amount about North Carolina history, but the Civil War probably is one of the state's most famous (and in many cases most revered) historical moments. Meloy's "character" in the song seems to have died in battle far from his beloved "hills of Oconee." They're young, expecting their first child when he goes off to war. The song presents a very traditional historical narrative that nicely mirrors the value it places on traditional perceptions of the state and its past. Not that the historical elements of the song are all positive. "Oh, did you see all the dead of Manassas/ All the bellies and the bones and the bile?" Meloy asks. But these lyrics seem to be included as a contrast to the antebellum love story introduced in earlier verses, where the couple meet at a fair in their isolated town.

The North Carolina preserved in 'Yankee Bayonet' seems rural, slowly paced and gentle, traits mirrored in the tempo and melody of the song itself. I don't mean "slow" or "rural" in a derogatory manner. Rather they're traits of place that were lost after the Civil War, as the U.S. became increasingly industrialized in its move toward the modern era. Neither am I saying that there weren't distinct and serious problems with life in the antebellum South-- the era was anything but gracious for slaves and poor farmers who weren't lucky enough to be at the top of the plantation system. But there is something to be said for the simpler, slower pace of life that is still preserved in some aspects of the modern self, and that's what Meloy captures here. What says it best might be the devotion of the two speakers to one another. None of the doubt and bitterness that has plagued other voices we've heard arises in their declarations to one another. They're simply in love; the woman describes how her heart was "pierced by a pin" when they first met. It's simple, unexpected, unplanned and refreshingly without doubt.

The other striking thing about the track in relation to its place is how strongly and positively the speaker is tied to home. Not even death is powerful enough to keep the male speaker from wanting to find a way back to North Carolina-- "When the sun breaks to no more bullets in Battle Creek/ Then will you make a grave/ For I will be home then." Even if he can't return home in life, he wants to rest there rather than the burial ground referenced in the first verse. Like his thoughts about the love he left behind, his feelings about his home are refreshingly straightforward. He's proud of where he came from and wants to return there.

Both the relationship and the history of North Carolina are frozen at high points in the song. The couple have only fond memories of one another. Either they weren't together long enough to learn the things they didn't like, or the passage of time and turmoil has crystallized only their best aspects. Much like the gracious history of the South that gets viewed through rose-colored glasses, their romance is preserved when they were most in love, perfect enough that they hope to transcend the boundaries of life and death:

But oh my love, though our bodies may be parted
Though our skin may not touch skin
Look for me with the sun-bright sparrow
I will come on the breath of the wind

Maybe it's my inner cynic making this interpretation, but I don't see a New Yorker coming up with those lyrics. They're just not realistic. Or maybe they're just a reflection of the Decemberists' aesthetic overall. Their music looks to the past fondly, though not too idealistically. They do acknowledge that it was probably horrible being a chimney sweep or an 18th century woman married to a rake, but at least you weren't plagued with the kind of doubt and paranoia that seems to worry LCD Soundsystem.

I'm not sure how to end this entry because the end of 'Yankee Bayonet' is wordless, but possibly the most moving part of the song. The track closes with a harmony that encapsulates the slowness and longing of the song as a whole. Maybe it's best to just listen for yourself.

Yankee Bayonet

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

Thursday, January 13, 2011

New York

This summer at Oxegen, I had the unexpected pleasure of catching Jay-Z's set while waiting for Arcade Fire. I'm not a huge rap fan, but I have to admit he puts on a great show. The only let down was his inclusion of the wretchedly overplayed 'Empire State of Mind' (okay, maybe the 20mph wind, rain, and near-freezing temperatures were also an issue, but not a deal-breaker). When I was looking for songs for the New York entry, most of them were about hopes and dreams and stuff. Feeling brand new, nothing like New York, etc., etc. A truly hilarious professor I once had used to dismiss comments he didn't like with "Well...all right." New York hopes and dreams? Well...all right. That's not going to make for a very interesting post, so instead I've found two truly heartbreaking songs about the Empire State.

My favorite song about New York is LCD Soundsystem's sprawling 'New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down." James Murphy produces some of the catchiest dance/electro out there, but what's surprising about his music is the way his lyrics are a total sucker punch of nostalgia and longing as soon as you stop dancing and start listening. The entire Sound of Silver album is, thematically, a look backward. The title track is a snide, retrospective brush-off of teenage emotional turmoil, 'Someone Great' a bitter torch song, 'All My Friends' a triumphant flip through memories. All my friends have never been able to agree on which track is the centerpiece of the record, but I think it's 'New York.'

'New York' is a strange track because it's a love song to a place, but not a happy one. It's the lyrical equivalent of the pros-and-cons conversation you have with your friends when you're thinking of breaking up with someone. "New York, I love you but you're bringing me down" could as easily be about the spouse you need to leave. It's a song about being completely lost in a place you know well. On one hand it's comfortable, you still love it--" New York, you're perfect/ Don't please don't change a thing." But it doesn't last. Murphy admits, "New York I love you, but you're freaking me a death in the hall/that you hear through your wall." Even horror is buffered. The entire song, from the lyrics to the dreamy tempo, is about a slow disconnect.

Murphy, however, never severs the ties. 'New York...' isn't a condemnation so much as a rumination. He's reconsidering the place he calls home without ever reaching a conclusion. "You're still the one pool where I'd happily drown," he admits. New York is the ex who you keep going back to because they promise things will be different, better this time.

The final, beautiful crescendo of the song deals with a syndrome familiar in writing about New York-- the sensation of feeling alone while surrounded by people. "Maybe mother told you true/ And they're always be something there for you/ And you'll never be alone/ But maybe she's wrong/ And maybe I'm right/ And just maybe she's wrong/ Maybe she's wrong/ And maybe I'm right/And if so, is there?" The lines ascend in tempo and pitch until the final question, and then the song drops off into a gentle instrumental, leaving the question unanswered. Murphy isn't even sure if he belongs in the city at all, how could he be sure if he feels connected to other people too? Maybe he does, and that's why the back and forth of questions is so crucial to the track. Each of us has to decide for ourselves. Do we look backward to familiar advice, to familiar relationships, for comfort? Do we take on the New York dream of stepping into uncertainty in pursuit of something better? New York holds a place in our national imagination, so we have a certain nostalgia for it that conflicts painfully with the truth. Is there a grain of hope underneath? Maybe. Is there?

The Pogues' 'Fairytale of New York' is another song about looking backward, though one that's certain in its unhappiness and regret. Incidentally, it's my favorite Christmas song. Also the only Christmas song to include the line "You're a bum, you're a punk, you're an old slut on junk," unless I missed some verses in 'Jingle Bells.' Anyhow, it's a song about two Irish immigrants trading barbs during a breakup. They meet on Christmas Eve in New York and make grandiose plans. "This year's for me and you...I can see a better time when all our dreams come true"-- Jay-Z, much? The next verse is a series of New York clichés ("They've got cars big as bars, they've got rivers of gold") that quickly turn sour-- "the wind blows right through you, it's no place for the old." The promises that the city makes to them-- fortune, love, Broadway stardom, don't come to fruition and they quickly turn on each other. "You scumbag, you maggot, cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your ass, I pray God it's our last" is the bleak high (low?) point of the song. Not Jay-Z anymore.

The real kick of the song comes with the final verse. "I could've been someone," Shane McGowan laments. To which Kristy MacColl replies cooly, "Well, so could anyone." That's the truth of the matter. New York inspires dreams by the million, but not everyone has what it takes to achieve them. Or the city doesn't give what you need. The songs I've chosen to talk about New York make it fickle, harsh underneath the sparkle and skyscrapers. Maybe so many people dream about success in New York that the concept is meaningless. You think you can become an actor/Wall Street mogul/etc? Well, so could anyone.

The danger in New York is one and the same with what makes it so appealing. You can start again there, be anyone you want, but will you make the right choice? It's not a question anyone can answer with particular certainty, even with the benefit of hindsight, and these two songs capture that perfectly. New York is another place where the American dream falls through, despite the fact that it's the ultimate symbol of what we feel we can achieve as a nation, and the face we put on for the world.

So, New York is a place of hopes and dreams in the end. Well...all right. Sometimes the hopes and dreams succeed. Sometimes they get crushed and the result is amazing songs. And sometimes we feel, like James Murphy does, that we aren't sure about New York. Maybe it's wonderful, maybe it's too big and too uncertain and too imperfect. But everyone wants to write a song about it.

New York I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down
Fairytale of New York

Sunday, January 9, 2011

New Jersey

Where to even start here? I guess I could make some New Jersey jokes, but probably you've heard them. Or I could use this post to analyze some of the fine musical stylings of Jersey Shore's Pauly D, who is allegedly a DJ. But, of course, when you think of New Jersey you think of Springsteen. (If you don't, go buy Born to Run immediately and rectify the gap in your musical knowledge.) The hardest part of writing this entry was not thinking of songs to write about, but choosing from the wealth of options created by Bruce and the E Street band during the last 30 years of his career.

A couple of years ago, I was on my way to New York by train and chatted with a man from Georgia who was sitting beside me. He'd never spent any time in the northeast and asked me if our trip, from Philadelphia to Manhattan via New Jersey, would be scenic. I was surprised, and had to break the bad news to him that NJ isn't exactly known for its stunning vistas. Even Bruce Springsteen, arguably its most famous and loyal resident, spends a lot of time singing about how much he'd like to leave New Jersey. And that's what this entry will be about. In New Jersey, I'll consider the traditional American expansionist mentality: the desire to go West in search of a better life.

Earlier in this blog, I looked briefly at the writings of Sir Walter Raleigh and the consistent desire in American art to escape and expand. Springsteen looks from his home state toward loosely “western” spaces like the Badlands, California, and even Florida; he is more concerned with the idea of escape than the destination. "Born to Run" displays perhaps the strongest sensibility of the West as freedom or redemption, though these are themes that run throughout his extensive catalogue. Springsteen associates the West with the redemptive qualities of speed and youth, closely tied to American ideas of rapid progress. His catalogue is filled with songs that crescendo from quiet vocals to bombastic finales as western spaces open before bold young protagonists (“Thunder Road;” “Jungleland”). Springsteen begins “Born to Run” by identifying what must be redeemed through a westward journey: “in the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream.” Labor, once a gateway to success in America via the Puritan work ethic of Underhill’s peers, now symbolizes entrapment. Springsteen’s New Jersey home is populated with grim factories and grinding labor. “Working on the Highway” compounds this commentary on the loss of pride in work through a story of what seems to be honest employment, but is really convict’s toil “on the Charlotte County road gang.” “Atlantic City,” however, offers Springsteen’s most negative vision of soulless labor in the East: “Well, I got a job and tried to put my money away/ But I’ve got debts that no honest man can pay… I’ve been looking for a job, but it’s hard to find/ Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” In these lines, Springsteen paints a grim portrait of what must be escaped via westward travel.

Economic freedom, an escape from the poverty of Springsteen’s New Jersey, becomes a chief motivation for the speedy escape that “Born to Run” prescribes. Springsteen was “born down in a dead man’s town” where “the street’s on fire/a real death-waltz between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy” (“Born in the USA;” “Jungleland”). “Mainstreet’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores/ Seems like no one wants to come down here no more/They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks/Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back,” he worries in “My Hometown.” In the face of this poverty, he speculates about “packing up our bags maybe heading south.” His greatest desire is to leave the “swamps of Jersey” that bog him down literally in “Rosalita” and spiritually in dozens of other tracks. In the face of impossibly high debts in “Atlantic City” he says, “So I drew what I had from the Central Trust/And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus.” Springsteen portrays movement—to anywhere new—as the first and most logical escape from sorrow and poverty.

Love and youth also become obsessions for Springsteen in his rejection of the oppressive East. “I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul,” he promises Wendy in “Born to Run.” Most images of westward escape in Springsteen include a partner to escape with, whether “Rosalita,” the woman the narrator addresses in “Atlantic City” or Mary in “Thunder Road.” “Thunder Road” links the romance of escape to the re-attainment or preservation of younger, happier times—a connection first made in Raleigh’s redemptive explorations for Elizabeth. “So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore/ Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,” Springsteen tells Mary when he proposes that she “climb in” and leave their dreary town behind (“Thunder Road”). They are not too old to hope for a better future together. For Raleigh, the West is a chance to return to past joy; for Springsteen, it is a place to stay young and in love.

So, maybe this entry wasn't about New Jersey, but about how to leave it. No matter what Springsteen thinks about his home state, one thing is certain for me. There is no American musician who captures the spirit of life in our nation the way Springsteen does. Some might argue for Bob Dylan, but I'm ruling him out because at this point I can't even understand him when he sings. The first song I remember hearing was 'Thunder Road.' I was three and my mom had a cassette of Born to Run that she often played in her car. At that age I didn't know who Roy Orbison was, but even at that age I could envision the scene in rest of the opening verse.

The screen door slams,
Mary's dress waves.
Like a vision, she dances across the porch as the radio plays...

No one else has ever captured a moment, and such a quintessentially American one, in the way Springsteen does. When he sings, I'm on my porch too. The boards are too hot under my bare feet and the paint is chalky, a sun-faded blue grey. Screen door springs are always worn out, so the door closes behind me with a metallic clang that rings down across the yard. There's actually nowhere to drive a car near my porch, but every once in a while I still look out past the columns hoping someone will be waiting with an offer to set off for somewhere new. In Springsteen's America he would have a beat up car and guitar. Maybe that's the real American dream--certainly an American tradition, anyway--setting off to explore even though you might not really be ready.

Who would have thought? The most beautiful music about America might come from New Jersey.

Born to Run
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Atlantic City

For more on visions of the West in American music, I recommend Greil Marcus' excellent book Mystery Train.

Friday, January 7, 2011


This entry will not be about the Phantom Planet song 'California' that introduced the deeply mediocre TV show The OC for several years. Nor will it be about any song written by Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have shaped a nice career for themselves with songs like 'Californication' and 'Dani California.' The Phantom Planet track shows California as it appears in popular culture, sunny and laid back, a place apart like Florida. By contrast, RCHP are Californians who see the state for what it really is: seedy underneath a cheap, flashy exterior. A Hollywood film set with false-front buildings that collapse in a month.

But, as I said, this entry isn't about those songs. Instead, it's about the way outsiders look at California. Not just outsiders from other states, but from another hemisphere. When I chat with my British friends, I usually find that their US geography is limited to New York, Disney World, and California. The rest of the country is just background noise. (I told an acquaintance this summer that I lived outside Philadelphia. His response: 'Is that to the left or right?') So today I'm looking at the way two British bands think about California, and what that says about the place America occupies in the international imagination.

Let's start with a song that admits it doesn't take an objective viewpoint in its understanding of place. Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys released 'Fake Tales of San Francisco' in 2005 on their breakout EP Five Minutes with Arctic Monkeys. Debuting to massive hype, the Monkeys stood out because their songs spoke so directly about life for average young people in Britain. Tinged with Alex Turner's slang ridden, dialect-heavy lyrics, their debut album was a snapshot of British society. With that in mind, it's no wonder that Turner seems spitting mad about American influences in the British indie scene in 'Fake Tales.'

The track roundly criticizes bands that mask their own culture in favor of pretending they're part of the American music scene. “Get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook,” the Monkeys tell posing “super cool band[s]” with “their trilbies and their glasses of white wine...weekend rockstars." The song challenges bands that try to distance themselves from their British roots. “Yeah, I’d love to tell you all my problem/ you're not from New York City, you're from Rotheram,” Turner says coolly before condemning an Americanized band as “fucking wank.” (A lyric quieted down to 'not very good' on subsequent releases-- it doesn't quite capture the venom of the original.) You can practically hear the band's eyes rolling when the titular "fake tales of San Francisco echo through the room." In this track, there's not a lot of warmth for the state that many people consider the most pleasant place in America. (At least 37 million of us do, according to the 2010 Census. That's 12 million more than California's nearest competitor, Texas). But Turner sees "more point to a wedding...without a bride or groom" than he does in pretending to be from California. And really, what's so wrong with being from England? It's working out all right for Arctic Monkeys.

Art Brut also take on, with their usual tongue-in-cheek attitude, the clash between British life and fantasies of California in 'Moving to LA.' Singer Eddie Argos complains satirically that “there’s not much glam about the English weather...I’m considering a move to L.A." Unlike the Monkeys, Art Brut aren't angry that people from Britain might rather live somewhere sunny, warm, and glamorous. They're just putting out a friendly warning that they might be let down once they get there. The song is a litany of increasingly ridiculous stereotypes about what happens in on the West Coast. Here's an excerpt:

Hang around with Axl Rose
Buy myself some brand new clothes
Everything is gonna be just fine
I hear the murder rate is in decline...

When I get off the plane
The first thing I'm gonna do is
Strip naked to the waist
And ride my Harley Davidson
Up and down Sunset street
I may even get a tattoo
My problems are never gonna find me
I'm not sending one letter
or even a postcard back
I'm drinking Henessey
With Morrissey
On a beach
Out of reach
Somewhere very far away

It's up for grabs whether or not Art Brut actually thinks they'd like to live this life. It sounds fun, but my suspicion is no, they wouldn't. There's a slightly cruel undertone to the whole song. A little touch of, "Here's what we've been told about California. We're not really going for it, but thanks for trying." In the modern era of constant, dismal tabloid photos, some of the glamour has been drained from Hollywood, and Art Brut is mocking how tacky and ostentatious the culture has become. In their own way, the band is expressing the same sentiment heard in 'Fake Tales'-- don't sell out for a California dream that isn't worthwhile. Celebrities aren't Grace Kelly anymore. Now they're Lindsay Lohan staggering out of a club at 4 am every single night, or the millionth shot of Chris Pine getting a coffee (does the man do anything else?) 'Moving to LA' is a wink where 'Fake Tales' is a punch in the jaw, but both are telling you to look again at one of the quintessential American states. Art Brut isn't buying what Arnold is selling in his California tourism ads. And anyway, would Morrissey even like California? It seems far too sunny and busy for contemplative moping.

People from other countries, like Americans themselves, no longer see California as everyone once perceived it-- a promised land. Countless waves of people have come to California looking for a new life: prospectors and wagon trains coming west in search of gold, immigrants from southeast Asia seeking new paths in America, and endless generations of young people who think they can make it in Hollywood. California, like Florida, is probably a popular song subject because it's a dreamland more than a reality, easily shaped to fit what your imagination desires. It's no coincidence that Walt Disney chose to build his other great escapist attraction here. But the illusion never seems to last; there's always cynicism underneath, a fitting metaphor for a state that's all about appearances. Views of California could be a microcosm for the way perceptions of America in general are changing in the modern international world, but that's a difficult generalization to make.

To close, Brits aren't the only ones with some reservations about the Golden State. Arcade Fire's stunning The Suburbs, which we'll return to with Texas, fleetingly mentions the state in 'Half Light II: No Celebration.' Win Butler begins the song with a surrender: "Now that San Francisco's gone/ I guess I'll just pack it in." Whatever he was looking for-- solace? fame?-- he doesn't find it in California. He suggests "we head back East/to find a town where we can live." As a symbol of an older part of our national history, maybe he's seeking deeper roots, something more organic and substantial than what California has to offer. That's what The Suburbs seems to be about, after all. Escape from mindless, modern sprawl. But is the East really any better? We'll find out soon, because I'm tackling the big one next: Springsteen and New Jersey.

Fake Tales of San Francisco
Moving to LA
Half Light II: No Celebration

Monday, January 3, 2011


I went back by rented Cadillac and company jet,
like a newly orphaned refugee, retracing my steps,
all the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead.
They said, 'You'd better look alive.'

Four Winds, Bright Eyes

I don't have any particularly warm feelings about Florida. Disney World is nice and all, but I doubt I'll ever want to live in a place where the average humidity is a steamy 91% in July and alligators could chomp down my dog/child/leg like a Kit Kat. So why begin my journey here? I started this blog by making a list of each state and then listing the songs I could think of, just off the top of my head, that spoke about it. Some, like the painfully un-rhyme-able Hawaii, remain blank for the moment. Florida, surprisingly, hit upon two of my favorite artists-- Bruce Springsteen, who name drops the state in 1984's 'Working on the Highway,' and Bright Eyes (the sometimes stage name of Nebraskan singer-songwriter Conor Oberst), who penned the lyrics above for 2007 album Cassadaga.

As much as I love The Boss, 'Four Winds' prevailed because it says so much about what I too want to say about America as I write. But we'll get there soon-- some background on the song first. 'Four Winds' was the first single from Cassadaga, an album named for a small Floridian community of psychics. The track itself is replete with Oberst's beloved literary references and SAT vocabulary. (Check out the full lyrics: here). Broadly, it's a song about American cultural diversity, but the concept doesn't get the same laudatory treatment it got in your high school history textbooks. "She breaks, she breaks, she caves, she caves," is the song's final line. Four Winds is about cultures failing to mesh, oil on water rather than a melting pot.

Florida is a great place to begin because it was one of the first places were cultures brushed. Ponce de Leon's expedition of Spanish explorers in search of gold and youth landed in Florida in 1513 and Europeans in all parts of the Americas wasted no time in obliterating, intentionally or just carelessly, the native cultures they found (with the exception of the stupendously hapless Cabeza de Vaca, who really deserves a minute of your time on wikipedia). 'Four Winds' suggests that we haven't made much progress since Ponce de Leon and his contemporaries blazed through pre-Columbian America. "Your class, your caste, your country, sect, your name or your tribe/ There's people always dying trying to keep them alive," Oberst begins. America is a nation founded on taking risks, accepting the possibility of death, to keep your beliefs and your culture alive. But this isn't a song about the American dream. The next verse begins: "The Bible's blind, the Torah's deaf, the Qur'an is mute/ If you burned them all together you'd be close to the truth," dismissing the value of the traditional religious beliefs that so many Americans hold dear. Oberst isn't very hopeful about America in general. "There's bodies decomposing in containers tonight/in an abandoned building where/ squatters made a mural of a Mexican girl..." Multiculturalism, sure. But squatters and decomposing bodies too.

'Four Winds' isn't a song about the American dream, and this blog isn't about that either. What surprised me most as I looked over that song list was how many tracks reflected what Oberst says so beautifully. There's a darkness to America that seeps out through its music; there's glamor, and hope, and beauty-- but there's something richer, too. A sense that sometimes the spiral is unwinding, the seams are splitting because there's so much underneath. I considered the possibility that this just said something about my music taste, but the spectrum of musicians that voiced similar opinions was remarkably broad. 'Four Winds' is a song about the processes of convergence and divergence that we face in such a vast nation. Cultures don't blend like they might; they're blind, deaf, and mute to one another. The titular winds never converge: they ruffle the hair of the Mexican girl, "cry" and level stands of trees. There's pressure from all sides, and Oberst isn't sure we can stand up to it.

Expansion, another key aspect of the American dream, isn't the answer either. (This theme will come up over and over again as I write.) The notion of a frontier is one of the earliest aspects of American literature, extending back to Sir Walter Raleigh's travels "to seek new worlds, for gold, for praise, for glory” after being slighted by Elizabeth I. Traditionally a symbol of attainment and success, the frontier in modern music remains present but becomes less tangible than it was for early explorers. In 'Working on the Highway,' the young couple at the center of the song reach their frontier-- a new life in Florida-- but aren't allowed to stay. Their motivations weren't so valorous anyway; they ended up in Florida to escape disapproving parents. Oberst's description of himself as a "newly orphaned refugee, retracing [his] steps/all the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead" suggests that he doesn't place much faith in exploration either. He and the psychics of Cassadaga seek belonging among a group that is no longer even on Earth, never mind in Florida. Is it because he doesn't feel there's any place for him among America's living population? Because that population is so lacking in cohesion that there's no way to identify it and decide if he could belong?

That's what America is about, after all. People seeking a place where they can belong. In this blog, I'll explore the way musicians belong to their places, or come to the conclusion that they actually don't.

Florida is a place we go at the beginnings and ends of our lives, softened in memories with a humid haze around the edges. As children we take a spin in Walt Disney's magical teacups, and when we're old we retire there to bask in the enveloping warmth of tropical sun. It's a place to escape from what happens in between these two poles of existence, apart from Springsteen's seedy romance and Oberst's bitter dismissal of our cherished national identity. A place at the fringe of our country, for people on the fringe of society like Cassadaga's psychics. A place to visit, but not to stay. So let's go on.

Working on the Highway
Four Winds
The Killers' fantastic Four Winds cover