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Place and Music


As articles pour in marking the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, many focus on the Seattle scene of the early 1990s with its flannel and dark lyrics. Of course, Seattle’s changed a great deal over the past two decades with the rise of Microsoft and Starbucks, becoming yuppie central by the late 90s and a wealthy urbane city to the present. Articles note the contrast, such as this one from the Times.

Overall, the article was kind of a boilerplate discussion of the matter, but this bit rankled me:

When Mr. Cobain sang “I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us,” was it really emblematic of a new Seattle sound or was it just shrewdly packaged punk by some jaded dudes from a dreary old logging town, Aberdeen, Wash., more than 100 miles outside the city?

Does it matter?

Well, part of the question doesn’t matter–who cares if it was shrewdly packaged punk or not, but the issue of place matters a lot. And the bifurcation of Seattle and Aberdeen makes very little sense within the context of the time. While Seattle was transitioning in the early 1990s from a dreary little city in its own right to the bright city of tomorrow as it likes to define itself, the Pacific Northwest as a whole was going through rough times, with the spotted owl crisis shutting down the lumber industry. Although the overall effect on the regional economy was not nearly as great as predicted, due to the rise of the tech industry and tourism, in the small towns of Oregon and Washington, things were really tough. For a young person, there weren’t a lot of options, as I talked about the other day when discussing my home town of Springfield, Oregon. For musician kids in the Northwest, Seattle became a place to migrate. It wasn’t much nicer, but for Kurt Cobain, escaping Aberdeen for Seattle was no doubt pretty appealing. Similarly, the Melvins are from the very not nice town of Montesano, Washington and the Screaming Trees hail from Ellensburg, Washington.

More broadly, music has almost always been connected to place, with the cities and their hinterlands helping to create a particular music scene. The laid-back country-rock-folk of late 60s and early 70s Los Angeles, the punk scenes of depressed London and New York in the mid to late 70s, the hippie heaven of San Francisco in the 60s, the Sunset Strip and 80s glam metal. Grunge and Seatte are the same–music created by the depressed economic conditions and run-down logging towns of the Pacific Northwest by people who fled those places to the larger but equally rough dive neighborhoods of Seattle. Thus, when Nirvana did its interpretation of the Appalachian folk song “In the Pines” in its unplugged performance, it made a lot of sense. In the Firs might have been botanically accurate, but the loneliness and desolation of the impoverished forest came through in Cobain’s words:

What concerns me about popular music in the present is the lack of place. With the internet, we seem to have lost the need for particular places to inform and shape our music. The scene in Portland is basically the same as that of Austin and Brooklyn, with hipsters moving to different spots in the Hipster Triangle seemingly for reasons of new styles in asymmetrical hair. Austin is perhaps the prime example. Austin became a center of music in the 1960s and 1970s for a few reasons–the University of Texas meant a lot of clubs to play at, the city had cheap rent, a lot of hippies and therefore drugs. But that music was pure Texas–Willie Nelson on his return from Nashville came to a town already imbibing in Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Roky Erickson, Butch Hancock, and so many other amazing Texas musicians. Some of those guys are still around and there are a few younger Texans who are keeping up the spirit. But the Austin scene, like much of Austin itself, is today almost completely immune from Texas as a whole. No one is actually from Texas and outside of the greater Austin area, real Texas is to be mostly avoided.

That’s all fine I guess, but something is lost when we don’t have music that arises from place. You see this in rock and pop lyrics today–place hardly ever plays central roles in songs. For that matter, the songs rarely center narrative stories that would allow the songwriter to place a person in a place and time. I’m not really sure why this is, but I think we have an unfilled physic need for such songs. And I think that’s why there was such an overwhelming critical reaction to Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois; for all its filler material (nearly half the album could be slashed), it told stories about a time and place that many of us could relate to, even if we’ve spent very little time in the Land of Lincoln. Yet while Stevens’ influence on sonic structures seems evident in pop and indie music, his lyrical contributions have been minimal and in fact, his own recent album seemed to shy away from telling those types of stories.

Maybe it’s just a musical phase. I hope so. I love exploring new music and the sounds of modern rock music are pretty remarkable. But the lyrical content is by and large underwhelming and I have to believe at least some of that is a result of losing contact with place.

I should also say that I don’t even really like grunge music, neither at the time nor today. It never much appealed to me aesthetically. At first, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t cool, then I realized it was because most of it wasn’t very interesting. I could go on, but doesn’t Mike Cooley really sum up the whole movement?

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