“Fuck off then, you Michigan poser,” you’re probably thinking. And that’s fair. I agree that it’s kind of bullshit to be choosing/writing about the song that embodies a place without having ever been. But! Would it help if I told you I’m from Cleveland? A little bit? Ok, cool.
Growing up in Cleveland–well, right outside of Cleveland, technically–I heard talk of Detroit thrown around here and there. I think my ex-stepdad went to car shows there or something? So, yeah, pretty far removed. But the main context I heard Detroit talked about in was usually just people commenting on how terrible it was. Not like even in a competitive way. I mean, not that the competitive sports stuff doesn’t exist between Michigan and Ohio–I don’t give a shit about sports, but, uh yeah, now that I’m looking back, I vaguely remember that being a thing. But this shit talking Detroit that stands out in my memory was something very different. It was about poverty, home foreclosures, dead bodies, and rampant stray dogs. You’re probably thinking, “Uh, ok Cleveland, you’re really not one to talk about struggling cities.” Again, I say fair.
Besides just being two of the largest cities in the Midwest, Cleveland and Detroit have a lot in common. They were both manufacturing cities that faced the collapse of their industries due largely to the rise of technology and inexpensive production in Japan. This, paired with an increased emphasis on suburbanization post-WII, contributed to massive losses in population in both cities over the years. Since I was a kid, both Detroit and Cleveland have pretty consistently been at the top of the list of the poorest big cities in the U.S. with some of the highest rates of unemployment, housing vacancy, and crime.
Right around the time I graduated high school, I remember this Youtube video going viral called
“Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video,” which was just that–a hastily made tourism video (complete with zooms, quick cuts, and cheesy music) poking fun at Cleveland. “Come on down to Cleveland town, everyone/ Been under construction since 1868/ See our river that catches on fire…/ Our economy is based on Lebron James/ Buy a house for the price of a VCR/ Our main export is crippling depression…/ It could be worse though, at least we’re not Detroit / We’re not Detroit!!”
As a dumb young person looking for work as a writer, this is why I left Cleveland for New York City, and, frankly, why I never really cared about Detroit: because I thought there was nothing there for me. Well, I suppose there was cheap rent. But what’s the point of having cheap rent when you don’t have a job I love? Cleveland faded into the background of my life as a place where my family lives and home to my favorite grilled cheese sandwich I could get once a year when I visit for Christmas. And Detroit? Well, for a while I kind of forgot it existed. But then I discovered techno music.
Detroit is the birthplace of techno. In the early 80s, Juan Atkins, AKA “The Godfather of Techno,” along with Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson dreamt up the very first wave of techno music as high schoolers in a Detroit basement–well, right outside of Detroit, technically. They became known as The Belleville Three and catapulted this new sound into awareness–or, rather, obsession–in Europe. Dummy has a really interesting guide to Detroit techno music that you should read if you’re interested in learning more about the history, but also, they really eloquently explain the influence of Detroit as a city itself on the creation of this music: “Even amongst the growing number factories and companies closing, almost all families in the greater Detroit area were still somehow tied to the automobile industry in some way. The kids of this generation grew up listening to their parents tell them about the robots that were being shipped into replace them and how they aided in mass production. Technology was an omnipresent, mythological force that was greeted both with suspicion and the hope that it might provide a road towards salvation… The masses may have been dancing to disco in New York City, and the underground of Chicago was embracing the warmth within its burgeoning house movement, but there was nothing to celebrate here in a city fraught with decay and corruption. It was songs about automobiles from Kraftwerk, the twisted and manipulated vocals of Yello, and the caustic rhythms uniting all of these genres that came purely from machines that resonated and caught on amongst the city’s clubs and young creatives.”
Isn’t that fucking beautiful?? The idea of taking technology–something largely responsible for the crumbling of your city–and using it in a completely different context to make the world around you more beautiful? Fucking poetry. Detroit is a symbol of strength and resilience and creativity in the face of adversity, and Juan Atkin’s “Techno City” embodies that struggle and that victory. And, these days (don’t tell my mom I said this, but), I’d honestly rather visit Detroit over Cleveland any day.
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.