This week, reader Matthew Bernat asks: “Not that anyone living outside of Massachusetts’ I-495 would know, but this winter, elected representatives introduced competing legislation to name an official state ‘rock song.’ The (ahem) contenders: Aerosmith’s ‘Dream On’ vs. Modern Lovers’ ‘Roadrunner.’ For me, it’s no contest. When I heard ‘Roadrunner’ for the first time it was like I had a retroactive soundtrack for nights spent with friends aimlessly cruising in high school, looking for something—we didn’t know what. And I grew up nowhere near Route 128. I like ‘Dream On,’ but it’s too vague to remind me of anything. ‘Roadrunner’ is claustrophobic and escapist, mentions Stop & Shop, and is a love letter to the Bay State.
What would you nominate for your state’s rock song? Would you give more weight to content, mood, memory, or some other quality?
The city I’ve called home for the past 17 years, Milwaukee, recently decided Peaches’ “Downtown” was an appropriate song to promote its semi-vibrant downtown. I’d like to think that Wisconsin, the state I’ve called home for my entire life, would be a little less clueless when choosing an official song. Me? I’d go with something short and sweet, like the brief “Wisconsin” snippet that precedes The Pulsars’ “Tunnel Song.” Sure, the fitfully remembered Pulsars were from Illinois, and the song’s lyrics—“Will the Robot World be open? / Will the robot come out and play?”—reference a fitfully remembered tourist trap in Wisconsin Dells that no longer exists. Still, “Wisconsin” is practically overflowing with bright, gleaming optimism for the past and the future—something the real Wisconsin could use a little more of these days. Plus, “Hugs and kisses all the way to Wisconsin” is a much better slogan than “I wanna take you downtown / Show you my thing / Show you my thing.”
I was born in Louisiana, and though I don’t live there anymore, it’s still closer to my heart than anywhere else I’ve passed through. Besides, of all the places I’ve lived, it’s got the greatest, most automatic no-brainer choice for state song: Randy Newman’s mournful tribute to a terrible flood, “Louisiana 1927.” Louisiana’s official state song is “You Are My Sunshine,” a song that has never meant anything special to me, or, I suspect, to anyone else in the Pelican State, but that was performed compulsively and maniacally by Jimmie Davis, a segregationist turd who was twice elected governor on a platform of “Hey, it’s that guy who sings ‘You Are My Sunshine!’” Newman’s song is one that swells most Louisiana hearts with pride and tender sentiment. And for better or worse, it captures something essential about Southern character in one line, or rather one word: “They’re trying to wash us away.” I don’t know who that “they” refers to, and the singer probably doesn’t, either, but if a Southerner wakes up in the middle of the night to discover that his bed is on fire, good luck convincing him that sinister, probably pro-government forces aren’t responsible for it.
I live in Colorado, and most songs about the state are either John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” or songs that sound like John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” So, I’ll reach back to the state where I lived as a young kid: Florida. I moved away from Florida long before the punk band Against Me! formed in the shitty Gulf Coast town of Naples (I lived 90 minutes north in the even shittier town of Port Charlotte). But since leader Laura Jane Grace has written so many songs mentioning Florida, I’d definitely pick one of those. “Sink, Florida, Sink,” perhaps? Tempting. But I could see that being a hard sell, what with the recent sinkholes and all. Or “Miami,” with its shout-filled chorus of “Just like Miami! / Miami! / Fucking Miami! / Miami!”? That might be just as contestable a choice. I’d have to go with one of the greatest anthems in Against Me!’s catalog, “We Laugh At Danger (And Break All The Rules).” The song extols the patriotic virtues of getting the fuck out of Florida, because the desire to love-hate Florida (with special emphasis on the hate) is part of what being young and Floridian is all about. If nothing else, I want to hear Grace’s lyrics, “Because if Florida takes us / We’re taking everyone down with us / Where we’re coming from, yeah / Will be the death of us” sung by thousands at a Buccaneers home game. Preferably right before the Ray Jay falls into the sea.
Since a lot of us live in Illinois, I’m going to leave that to someone else and nominate Neil Young’s Helpless for the official song of Ontario, Canada. “There is a town in North Ontario,” has become a hallowed opening line in my home province, but it’s the rest of the lyrics that makes me pick the track. Young describes the awe-inducing sights of Ontario’s wildlife with beautiful but sparse lyrics, and his mournful request, “Baby, sing with me, somehow,” perfectly captures the nostalgia that pervades his, and many other Ontarians’ work. Canadians already consider it one of the great songs of our country, so why not make it official? For extra credit, check out K.D. Lang’s version, my current favorite.
I believe that I’m the only likely respondent currently living in The Most Symbolic Damn State In The World: California, home of beautiful people, excellent weather, and riches beyond belief. At least, that’s the story told by “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & The Papas, and that’s the song I essentially have to choose or choose against in doing this piece. After all, the song is so well established that a director on the opposite side of the world can use it in a film about getting away from working-class ennui in Hong Kong. The dominance of that sound in its symbolic representation of California may limit my choices here, but it’s actually triggered some fine musical responses. My favorite is Wolf Parade’s “California Dreamer,” which adapts the music of “California Dreamin’” to the indie prog rock the band is known for, while also serving as a lyrical rejoinder to the naive hopefulness of the original, from the perspective of those left behind in the New England winter.
While I agree that our initial reader’s suggestion of “Roadrunner” is probably the best choice for my home state of Massachusetts, I wish we’d think outside the box here in the Commonwealth and choose They Might Be Giants’ “Wicked Little Critta” instead. A parody of the low form of humanity known as the “Masshole,” this song name drops Bobby Orr, John Havlicek, and has enough bad Boston accents to fill a dozen parodies of Good Will Hunting. When people think of this state, they usually think of the accent first and foremost. Instead of shy away from it, why not lean into it? Most of us can handle a joke, even if short dudes in backwards baseball caps named Smitty might have a problem with TMBG warbling our state anthem. Oh well. The rest of us can hum along to this insanely catchy song and then headbang during its Dropkick Murphys-esque coda. Along with Dunkin’ Donuts, this song should be part of our everyday routine from Boston to the Berkshires.
My adopted home state—California—is so many different states in one that coming up with one song that equally stands for Los Angeles and the Bay Area and San Diego and the Inland Empire and Redwood Country and all those cranks living in the extreme northeast corner of the state is decidedly unlikely. Like Texas or the country as a whole, California contains multitudes and a whole bunch of room to spread out in. Plus, I’m making this harder by forcing myself to choose a song by an artist from California, which isn’t hard, exactly, but eliminates some potential options. I’m going to go with The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” because it so readily embodies the many different sides of this versatile state, and it’s a terrific song to boot. As for my home state of South Dakota? That one’s much tougher, because the only musical artist of note to have actually been born in South Dakota is Myron Floren, and I somehow doubt “Lady Of Spain”would work. There are a few other artists who’ve passed through S.D.—Shawn Colvin comes to mind—but the answer, after racking my brain, is obvious: Kory & The Fireflies’ “Sometimes,” complete with video from 1988 that was, sadly, actually filmed in 2000.
My plan was to hold out on answering this long enough that both “California Dreamin’” and a Beach Boys song got taken, and look at that—first two California songs off the list. Now that those standards have been accounted for, I feel just fine deviating from the more rigid ideas of a California song. I completely agree with Todd’s observation that California’s many regional identities form a microcosm of the entire country, and because one song can’t encapsulate it all, I’d rather go personal for a song that best expresses how I feel about my home state. I have a deep-seated fear of flying, and because of that I often resorted to taking Amtrak across the country when returning home from college, mostly on the California Zephyr between Emeryville and Chicago. It’s a 50-hour trip without any delays, but I relished those multi-day treks across the country, listening to music as the scenery rolled by, devouring stacks of books, and the whole time anticipating seeing California again. In 2009, after collaborating on music for a documentary about Jack Kerouac’s second novel Big Sur, Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar (formerly of Uncle Tupelo and currently of Son Volt) recorded an album together based on Kerouac’s writings. I played One Fast Move Or I’m Gone—and especially the first track “California Zephyr”—so many times on my cross-country train trips that I will forever associate it with Amtrak. It’s short and sweet with nothing more than acoustic guitar and Gibbard’s voice. Though California can’t really claim anyone involved in the song, it never fails to conjure my feelings about returning home.
Scott Von Doviak
As a non-native Texan who has lived in Austin for almost 18 years, I’m practically obligated to go with Lyle Lovett’s “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas).” But instead, I’m going with “The Pride O’ Texas” by Austin’s venerable psychobilly band the Flametrick Subs. It’s a raucous rave-up that turns the traditional favorite “Deep In The Heart Of Texas” (not the official state song, I was surprised to learn) into a lowdown white trash anthem: Instead of the stars at night being big and bright, lead singer Buster Crash informs us that “the trailer park is nice and dark” and “Daddy beats his wife within an inch of her life.” Odds are that the tourism board will never adopt “The Pride O’ Texas” as a campaign song, but it sure is fun to imagine Rick Perry’s face if the song ever played at one of his “better living in Texas” rallies.
Well, I can beat all of that. Y’all might think your choices are “special” and “well considered” and “songs that people might like to listen to more than once,” but none of you can top the fearsome, soul-sucking power that is the “Maine Christmas Song.” Or maybe this is just because I grew up listening to it. Written in 1987 by Con Fullam (and performed by country singer Malinda Liberty; it’s the best possible combination of names), “Maine Christmas Song” is catchy, heart-warming, and utterly sincere. It features lines like, “There’s still meaning in the magic of Christmas / In the state where the Christmas trees grow,” and, “It’s the spirit of sharing, giving and caring, hanging wreaths upon your neighbors’ door” (presumably not to mark them for future purges). It’s the sort of thing that never leaves your fucking head. And as cheerfully corny and mundane as it is, I can’t help but have a certain fondness for it. As far as Maine goes, this is as good a representation as I can think of: as uncritically woodsy as an L.L. Bean catalog, and so homey you can’t help wondering where everyone keeps their knives.
Usually when people learn I’m from Indiana, they make some remark about John “Cougar” Mellencamp, and just so we’re out ahead of this one: No, I’m not picking John Mellencamp. Instead, when I think of the state that bred me—specifically the industrial area known as “The Region”—my inclination is to pick something representative of that small facet of Indiana as opposed to all the cornfields beyond. When it comes down to it, I’ll be petitioning for Indiana to use Latterman’s “‘Dozer Rage.” Although the Long Island band probably didn’t intend the song’s lyrics to reflect Northwest Indiana’s decaying infrastructure, it’s a love letter and indictment that encapsulates everything I know of my home. Its faults are at the forefront—burned-out buildings, general urban decay, and the fact that “the water’s fucking poison,” etc.—but there’s a beauty in knowing that “All these lit up billboards and bright city lights can’t keep all the stars from coming out tonight / Yeah, the sun’s gonna rise and light this cold, dead city / It’s all gonna burn, but we are still alive.”
Oh, Florida. Like Jason, I hail from the Sunshine State. But the curious nature of the state eludes me still. I defend Florida from the haters, but ran away from it at the first chance I got; it’s a weird place to grow up, and all evidence suggests it’s getting weirder. In the last decade or so, Florida has also grown to national prominence (some might say infamy)—there’s a surprising amount of culture coming out of my home state. Culture, and you know, voter fraud. But when I was growing up, it was the sticks—a place so far outside of mainstream dialogue it felt abandoned. My favorite album to listen to when I’m about to face Florida again is The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee, because it’s good, weird, and sad. It’s one of the few things I’ve listened to that gets how the suburbs of Florida are so isolating, so alienating, and yet also, purportedly about family and togetherness. The album is about a couple that moves in together in a ramshackle house in Florida’s capitol city. They love each other, but can’t stop fighting. In “Tallahassee,” John Darnielle asks: “What did I come down here for?” Then a moment later, he answers, and the answer is just as sad as the question: “You.” It’s not a triumphant song, it’s not a happy song, and it’s not an angry song. It’s resigned. Which is how I feel about Florida, always.
I live in New Jersey, but quasi-official state song “Born To Run” is such an obvious, perfect choice it doesn’t really merit discussion. So instead, I wanted to think of a song for New York, where I grew up. NYC has loads of songs, from Sinatra on down, and while Buffalo did have this delightful theme song, the rest of the state is mostly ignored by story and song. The local musical icons—Rick James, Ani DiFranco, Mercury Rev—don’t have anything terribly New York-specific. But then I hit on a song that serves both upstate and down: The Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll.” Lou Reed introduces us to a girl who, even from the age of 5, knew her suburban existence was boring and empty. But “Then one fine mornin’ / She puts on a New York station / You know, she couldn’t believe what she heard at all / She started shakin’ to that fine, fine music / You know her life was saved by rock ’n’ roll.” Suburban ennui, and the sense that the city and its life-changing excitement is always beckoning? That’s New York State in total.
Like Mike, I live in New Jersey; one of those who was born and raised here and have never left. But unlike Mike, I don’t think “Born To Run” is the unquestioned song of the Garden State. In fact, I always have resented the assumption that everyone from New Jersey is an unabashed Bruce Springsteen fan, because that’s simply not true. While I like Bruce, I’m inclined to listen to some of the state’s more alternative acts, from the Smithereens to The Feelies to Yo La Tengo. That being said, when I think of my home state, the other massive rock superstar from the state, Jon Bon Jovi, comes to mind. Granted, I like Bon Jovi about the same as I like Bruce, but when I think of a state that’s always striving, always wanting to show everyone how it’s more than what people’s perception of it is, the song that comes to my mind is “Livin’ On A Prayer.” The song seems to capture the essence of the Jersey I know even better than “Born To Run.” It’s all about blue-collar love, hair and leather, working on the docks, evoking the feeling of going down the shore to see your favorite cover band play until the wee hours. Bruce is tough and gritty, but the guy you’ve always envisioned sitting on the counter stool next to you at the diner, eating that Taylor ham, egg and cheese sandwich, is Bon Jovi, both the band and the singer.
Despite the fact that I left Michigan around the same time, I’m still disappointed with Jack White for ditching his native Detroit for Nashville in the late ’00s. The way things have gone in the Mitten State since that departure, I have half a mind to nominate The White Stripes’ “The Big Three Killed My Baby” as the state’s rock anthem, but I have too many personal connections to the Michigan auto industry to actually mean it. Besides, Ford, GM, and Chrysler only fucked up part of the state—there are still plenty of pristine, rustic getaways outside of the Lower Peninsula’s urban centers. These are the places the Stripes’ “Hotel Yorba” evokes—even if the song takes its title from a crumbling inn turned subsidized housing complex in southwest Detroit. (Memo to “Don’t Stop Believin’”: The only “South Detroit” is Windsor, Ontario). White’s lyrics revel in the dream of leaving smoke stacks and concrete behind for lakefront property and dirt roads, a Rust Belt fantasy with the potential to sound as phony as any of the roof-shakin’, floor-stompin’ blues lifts in The White Stripes songbook. But in the right hands, it totally works, forming a musical (if romanticized) portrait of Michigan living that cuts right to the heart of an expat like me.
There exists a song called “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!,” and the fact that someone decided to call a song that (it was Sufjan Stevens, but you knew that) should automatically place it in contention to be the official song of the Land Of Lincoln. No, Stevens isn’t from here, but he did choose to write a whole album of songs about our fair state, and this one would be fabulously obnoxious if played at public events: It’s not only very long, but also filled with facts and flights of fancy about the place. It’s actually broken into two parts: “The World’s Columbian Exposition” and “Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream,” each of which references major Illinois points of pride. The song isn’t simply a celebration, though. Sure, it celebrates the introduction of the Ferris Wheel and Cream Of Wheat (both debuted at the 1893’s World’s Fair), but it also features the narrator crying himself to sleep while thinking about poetry and the devil. It’s as complicated as the state itself (and also a great song).
I spent six years living in Missouri (St. Louis, to be specific), and quickly discovered that the city’s famous native musicians—including Michael McDonald, Chuck Berry and everybody’s favorite cuddlethug, Nelly—are rather revered. The area has a much more complex relationship with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who was born in nearby Belleville, Illinois, but spent quite a lot of time in the Lou with his massively influential band Uncle Tupelo before heading north to Chicago. Yet for Missouri’s song, I’d still have to go with Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer.” The song begins with the lyrics, “I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands / I used to go see on the Landing in the summer,” which is a direct reference to a touristy area right on the Mississippi River that used to contain a whole ton of rock clubs and, back in the ’80s, cheesy cover bands. (When the song says, “Shiny, shiny pants and bleach-blond hair / A double kick drum by the river in the summer,” it’s an accurate representation of the time and place.) The song goes on to reminisce about a failed romance and the loss of a simpler time, when stoned KISS covers were the pinnacle of entertainment during long, hot summers. The idea of being nostalgic for a place you no longer live—for a time that no longer exists—is a common thread in the music of many Missouri-bred artists, especially because plenty had to leave the state to find better opportunities. Now that I no longer live there, I too long for some of the city’s cheesier activities and attractions and relate to Tweedy’s own reminiscing, which is especially poignant, given that the Landing is now home to a huge, garish casino and drab parking lots.
I’ve lived my entire life as a resident of the state of Virginia, which took the time to rescind its longtime state song, “Carry Me Back To Old Virginny,” way back in ’97 but, even after a decade and a half, still can’t be bothered to take the time to formally replace it with anything else. This is particularly ridiculous when you consider that they even held a contest to select a new song (the website is still out there), but after announcing that the contest was being suspended indefinitely, the most recent update assured participants and observers, “We are making plans to finalize the selection process for our search for Virginia’s Official State Song and hope to have legislation drafted for the 2005 Session. In 2007, the Commonwealth will celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown and it will be appropriate to have a new Official State Song in place for that occasion.” You can see how well that worked out. For the longest time, just about everyone I knew who cared about the contest at all was rooting for the Robbin Thompson Band’s “Sweet Virginia Breeze” to be given the nod, but if I was given carte blanche to pick any song, I believe I’d like to see Fountains Of Wayne’s “I-95” get the win instead. It’s not exactly a complimentary look at my home state, but it handily sums up the part that’s most often experienced by bands passing through, and it certainly goes a long way toward explaining why so many of them can’t be bothered to hop off the highway in any significant fashion.
I live in Illinois now, but since Josh has already chipped in an answer for our mutual home state, I’m going to pick a song for my original home, Ohio. The Buckeye state actually has a perfectly okay official rock song—The McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy”—but were I to pick something less sports-related and that might more reflect the current state of economic affairs in much of Ohio, I think I’d have to go with the Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone.” Chrissie Hynde is from Akron, which is only about an hour from where I grew up, and so when she sings about going back to her home after living elsewhere for a little bit, it rings pretty true. All her favorite places have been boarded up, and the spots she knew for years have all gone away. While, fortunately, my favorite spots in Cleveland haven’t vanished yet, I have no doubt that, by the end of my life, most of them will disappear. All that being said, I still miss my home state, and could have just as easily gone with Doris Day’s “Ohio” (“Why oh why oh why-o, why did I ever leave Ohio?”), but that song doesn’t really rock, so Pretenders it is.