Wyoming is rich with associations: endless skies, arid landscapes, cowboys, rodeos, sculpted mountains, empty spaces, Dick Cheney, lingering beauty, the least populous state in the Union.
Me, I associate Wyoming with Kanye West.
I grasped for and leaned heavily on all of my most cherished music the year I upended my life and moved to Wyoming. I remember arriving in the winter after graduating college, bleary-eyed from two days of nonstop driving in a blue sedan with Illinois plates, when suddenly the skeletal thistles of a tumbleweed scuttled across the road and shattered under the force of my car.
The dawning horror was palpable. My mother, sitting in the passenger seat reading, didn’t seem to think this was strange or even worthy of a comment. I, somewhat less unflappable, found myself engulfed by an onslaught of paralyzing regret and incredulity.
I was here now. I was really in Wyoming.
Even after settling in with a group of friends–fellow transplants who never expected to live in Wyoming–there was always a sense of otherness that remained. Casper, where I worked as a reporter covering high school sports for the local newspaper, is plenty small, but it’s hardly the ghost town it nominally suggests. At the very least, there were a handful of bars for us to play pool, drink inexpensive beer and commandeer the jukebox from roughnecks and oil-field bros whose musical inclinations contradicted our own.
The jukebox at Wonder Bar was a touchscreen model with an LED display that allowed you to request songs from your phone. Open a new account, and get your first song free. Open an infinite amount of accounts with a rotation of slightly varying email addresses, and enforce your musical taste on the rest of the bar, free of charge, for eternity.
Once we learned of this loophole, the bar was ours–a safe haven that helped close the gap between the world we had left and the world we found ourselves inhabiting. Full autonomy to dictate which songs played felt like a superpower. I listened to Kanye constantly, over and over, as a kind of defiant counterpoint to my new surroundings. Subjecting the rest of the bar to songs from Graduation or songs by LCD Soundsystem for 8 minutes and 56 seconds at a clip provided a sense of comfort. We were invincible in this arena that otherwise, at least for me, never completely felt like home.
Any displeasure local patrons might have stomached was mostly incidental–they just weren’t into the music we played. But sometimes it was fun to choose songs with other peoples’ reactions in mind. There’s a specific joy one feels when actively, consciously, purposefully scanning a songbook at karaoke night to request something no one else in the bar but you and your dumb friends will want to hear.
The pained grimaces on the faces in the crowd were unmistakable the first night I mustered what rudimentary rap skills I possessed to perform “Homecoming” at Karen & Jim’s, a dilapidated Hollywood-themed haven of American kitsch that clearly wasn’t accustomed to hip-hop entering its shared auditory space. This response was not surprising, and I remember eagerly jumping at the opportunity to experience it again with a girl I desperately wanted to like me because she was cool and pretty and my tolerance for loneliness had run out–so much so that I conveniently neglected to mention that I had already performed a solo rendition just a few weeks earlier.
This time around, though, performing “Homecoming” became oddly riveting. I logged serious hours with Graduation back in high school. It’s such a perfect, extravagant spectacle; it takes me straight back to my blunted-out days in high school, when my friends and I first got our licenses and we drove around in our parents’ minivans. I don’t care that Graduation is arguably the least innovative of Kanye’s oeuvre. Even Lil Wayne’s verse on “Drunk and Hot Girls” is a stealth classic, and that song is fucking terrible.
But as I absolutely butcher Chris Martin’s outro Loyee oyee ohs and we scurry off the stage, “Homecoming” is in the process of a metamorphosis. I stand at the bar drinking warm beer under a row of dim lights, and I begin to think about how someday the piano part on “Homecoming” will take me back to drinking warm beer under a row of dim lights, a mounted head of Admiral Ackbar making heavy eye contact with me from across the room. “Homecoming” will be forever connected to the year I lived in Wyoming.The song, like all of my favorite songs, is a living document. This is just the latest entry.
“Crushing embarrassment and defeat,” my friend said recently when I asked her to recall how she felt after bombing in such spectacular fashion. Maybe I’m just a weirdo, but the friction between our disparate backgrounds–she from Philly, I from Chicago–and the rest of the bar was kind of the point. The discomfort produced its own narcotic high. It produced a misguided, ecstatic confidence. It allowed us to shield ourselves from any potential judgment that would have made us feel embarrassed had we been up there on our own.
Looking back, favoring hip-hop instead of country music or sanitized top-40 felt subversive, embracing the separateness and rising above it. It didn’t matter if no one else liked it, because we liked it. We didn’t fit in, but we didn’t fit in together, which in turn created a special type of belonging: a holistic bubble that no outside force could penetrate. Our gleeful catastrophe served as an outlet to exercise control–choosing what songs would be played and when, rather than enduring whatever the environment might inflict upon us. I love this feeling. Butchering “Homecoming” at Karen & Jim’s rekindled the original love I had for the song while imbuing it with additional meaning. When I return to “Homecoming,” I’m overcome–transported back to that emotional state.
This happens to me with music all the time. Even now, nearly two years since I’ve lived in Wyoming, I’m constantly surprised by how certain songs conjure specific shared experiences. Wyoming, in this sense, is an idea as much as it is a place. Each succeeding listen of “Homecoming” reinforces the constellation of images and knowledge that constitute the memory, the sonic manifestation of a beacon signaling that your circumstances, regardless of how they first appear, can align to result in something enduring. I can feel the resonance of these powerful associations every time I play this song, many of which harken back to this random town in this strange, unfamiliar place I had not previously cared for or about but now can’t imagine never having been a part of my life. Somewhere, a tumbleweed drifts along the side of the road, but I’m too busy singing.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.