I’m trying to pinpoint the musical identity of Wisconsin but it has been difficult. It’s not Bon Iver or The Violent Femmes. It might actually be polka music, but then again Pennsylvania has one of the most famous polka songs named after it. Even Wisconsin’s own identity annoyingly rubs up against its neighboring states.
My partner, who is from Michigan, lays exclusive claim to using the human hand as an ad hoc map of her state, even though you could easily do it for Wisconsin it’s just that the thumb looks like it’s been in a wood lathe. My buddy from Illinois regularly and impolitely reminds me that his state is the home of Chicago and all its metropolitan and artistic glory, even though demographics and creativity of Milwaukee show it to be similarly diverse and vibrant. And anyway, Wisconsin is more famous for killing musicians than birthing them (Stevie Ray Vaughn and Otis Redding both died in plane crashes that triangulate to be about 30 minutes from where I grew up).
For me, Wisconsin is what you make of it. The glacier that crept down into the Upper Midwest created a piece of land in southwest Wisconsin actually called the Driftless Area. It feels like blank slate, as white as the snow that falls onto its kettles, eskers, moraines, and other glacial erratics left over from thousands of years ago. It is onto this snow where you can pee your dreams in broken, yellow cursive while barely holding a bottle of High Life the cool way–between your index and middle finger.
Wisconsin ranks third in the nation when it comes to bars per capita, just under who cares. Cheap beer is drunk at cheap bars that have themed nights (Blue Moon Mondays, $2 Tuesdays, Why Not Wednesdays) that function as nothing more than bad excuses. The time I spent growing up there was both marred and defined by the hours I spent in dive bars in Stevens Point. I gave the jukebox $5 and played classic rock most of the time because that’s what felt like should be played in a bar. Why, I thought, should anything else should be heard except for rock ’n’ roll: Journey, Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Dio, Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, Supertramp, Rolling Stones, Thin Lizzy.
The guys and girls were all boys, and being back in town was just being back at the booth, smoking cigarettes, and ordering another pitcher. It’s singing the guitar solo, where harmonies just mean “different notes.” My home state feels somewhere familiar with your friends, eating cheese and carbs, listening to music sung by a black Irish man name Phil because that’s what I made of it, something wildly acceptable, populist, and not its own. We are the cultural equivalent of a hot dish, we nice to a fault, we are driftless. It’s spectacular.
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.