Howler and the hometown hate debate
Minnesota, Give Up. No, that's not the title of Howler's next album, nor is it the slogan for the eyebrow-raising marketing campaign the band just rolled out. But, if you were to read some of the things being bandied about on the internet regarding the interview that their baby-faced bandleader, Jordan Gatesmith, gave to the Guardian's Alexis Petridis, you might think just that.
There's been considerable hand-wringing—as well as some intelligent conversation—generated by Gatesmith's interview, in which he had some less than flattering words for his hometown music scene. What he said doesn't exactly qualify as grounds for controversy, so given the touchy reaction of some folks, it's probably just the kind of bratty behavior the Twin Cities could use more of. Lest we forget, it's just the sort of thing a journalist like Petridis would love Gatesmith to say about our exotic little backwater town.
Later on, Gatesmith had the opportunity to explain himself, and he struck a mature and contrite tone. Yet this episode once again brings to the fore a long-percolating subject of debate: Just how healthy is the Twin Cities music scene these days?
One of the funny things about Gatesmith's original comments—beyond, of course, the curious fact that he singled out the 4ontheFloor—is that he didn't really say anything new. Sure, there were the same old complaints about how long it's been since the Purple One and the 'Mats were doing their thing. Then again, who hasn't heard that dozens of times over? Far more compelling, and eloquent, was what Gatesmith had to say in an interview in January with Jim Walsh, when he wondered whether "Minneapolis is where dreams go to die."
Nonetheless, the response to his comments was swift. Over at the Current's website, Andrea Swensson wrote a nigh-on-seething blog post, wherein her relative lack of commentary was her harshest means of criticism. Meanwhile, Becky Lang threw her hat into the ring as well with an intriguing column over at the Tangential. Lang suggests that "what makes you famous in Minneapolis" boils down to two things: "Having a live show that people talk about and get social points for being at," and "having a lot of friends in the local journalism/music scene who will support you."
Oh no, she didn't!
Lang makes an interesting point, but she undercuts herself by speculating that "anywhere else," you need only to "have an interesting record" to be successful. Really? So the same can't be said of anyone in Brooklyn, or Chicago, or any other city? That's far-fetched, and somewhat naive.
What Lang is getting at, however, is the notion that the Twin Cities scene is too incestuous—another oft-repeated criticism of the local music here. But this, too, has always seemed like a flimsy argument. Say what you will about how technology has wiped out the need for local scenes, but it remains true that musicians working with other musicians, artists with other artists, is healthy. Some of the best local music in recent years has happened through collaborations and cross-pollination.
If the scene seems too cliquey, well, making connections is a reality of almost any business—and, like it or not, music is a business, and success a function of it. (Yes, that's also true of Elite Gymnastics and even Howler.) Hell, the real issue may just be that Minnesotans are bad businesspeople. The fact remains, however, that the musicians in this town are regular people, and they'll probably talk to you if you say hi. Same with us pesky journalists, in case anyone cares.
Perhaps a better way of phrasing things is to say that the Twin Cities is too insular. Gatesmith touches on this when he says, "They'll really build up these bands...that I will hate.... And then, of course, nothing will happen outside Minneapolis for them." This, really, is the crux of the problem, the root of our self-consciously wondering whether anything is "wrong" with the music here—our collective inferiority complex, you might say.
Once upon a time, this was something Swensson herself referred to as "the Current effect," back when she was working at City Pages. All things considered (pun intended), the local media have done a great job of trying to promote local talent. This is something to be grateful for, but unfortunately it has the tendency of becoming hyper-local and, sometimes, overly navel-gazing. The Current is a perfect example of this sort of double-edged sword: They even have a separate 24-hour local feed, but does our sense of that music ever get inflated and become too cheerleaderish? (To be fair, it's radio. If a DJ were to say, "Up next, here are three shitty bands," it wouldn't really fit the format. Then again, Blitzen Trapper, Dawes, and the Avett Brothers are all boring. Mumford and Sons, too. But I digress.)
Of course, the same is equally true of what gets written here, and at other local outlets, as well. In fact, while this writer is baffled by the suggestion in some quarters that we "need to be tastemakers" (a meaningless term), the local media should toughen up a bit, and give some honest, constructive criticism. It's better for the bands that way, and it would ease the perception that we're just a little too buddy-buddy for our own good. Ironically, when someone like Gatesmith says just this thing, the claws come out. Or, come to think, not ironically at all.
Then there's the dreaded "Picked to Click curse," the great ruse that frequents many of these conversations. The theory goes that the local media hypes up new bands before they've properly developed, and then ignores them when the next flavor of the month comes along. That's not a trend that's exclusive to the Twin Cities. In fact, it runs rampant in contemporary music journalism; just ask Tapes 'n Tapes how capricious the blogosphere-at-large can be. As unfortunate as it may be, the "curse" is just a microcosm of the challenges any band faces.
But all of this brings us back to Gatesmith's original point about the lack of a modern-day Prince or a Hüsker Dü to call our own. He reiterated that point this morning when he said, "I think there's been a lot of critics that have come out of that scene, right after the Replacements, they've kind of hung around. And I think they've all banded together over the last 10 or 20 years, and I feel like now, it's kind of time to make a little bit more room for the younger generation."
That's a good point, but let's go one step further with this: Simply put, what's the point of having a local music scene? Is the idea to foster a local community of artists and entertainment, something we might romantically call "culture"? Or is it merely to be a stepping stone, to produce bands that will go on to bigger and better things elsewhere? Ideally, of course, it would be a combination of the two, but let us not forget that guys like Prince and Bob Dylan never showed any interest in keeping all operations in their home state, no matter how we cling to them. (Meanwhile, Craig Finn gets to have it both ways. Bastard!) So maybe that's not ideal either.
More problematic is that, when we set ourselves those kinds of expectations, we're bound to be disappointed. Saying that there's been "this giant lull period of, like, 30 years" completely ignores, among other things, the great punk music of the '90s—the sort of music that helps make for a thriving and truly local scene. Think of it this way: How many other cities in North America can claim to have had several true "national" bands break out in the past 10 years? What if you're looking for bands that people watching the Grammys will recognize, rather than just Pitchfork readers? It's a small, almost non-existent pool.
Here's an idea: Let's stop idol-worshiping bands like Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, and, yes, Prince. Each were great artists, and in all likelihood the most important ones to come out of these cities—especially when viewed from a broader perspective. We should appreciate them and be proud of them. But living forever in their shadows is unhealthy. If that's all there is for us to do, then we might as well give up.
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