I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting the great state of South Dakota, but because of the Liz Phair song of the same name, it’s long felt like a familiar place. You know how certain songs can bring you back to a particular moment in time? “South Dakota” takes me right back to being 19, heading to The Savannah College of Art in Georgia. I studied for a few semesters, but couldn’t really justify going into massive debt to learn how to paint, so I stopped going to classes and began working at a Hess Station pumping gas. I had my own little bullet proof hut and would work the early morning shifts. I took some night jobs waitressing and I sold my blood plasma at the hospital twice a month for extra cash. I thought this is Independence!
After some months, I met a guy, let’s call him Fred, and we started dating. Fred was 25 and had a job valet parking and doing some security guard-ing. I had some odd gut feelings about him which I set aside; he had your typical dead stare, and his social boundaries were somewhere between adventurous and inappropriate, but we had a lot of fun at first. We would break into fancy hotel pools and rooftops and play guitar together–he was a Georgia native with a pickup truck, and he turned me on to bands like Guided By Voices, Descendents, and Outkast. Soon we moved into a cute apartment on the south side and adopted a dog. It was nice times just working and living.
As the months went on though, he became increasingly jealous, obsessive, and started drinking a lot. Jealous, like in a way that made no sense because there was hardly a moment I wasn’t in his sight. Jealous, like he began following me to work to watch me from his truck, and would accuse me of cheating or “wanting to cheat” with this or that person. Jealous like he would often hide my car keys so I’d depend on him for rides. The arguments escalated and became louder and more violent. Full on Fights. The police came by a few times, but I wasn’t trying to talk to them for long. (I should mention that I was super combative with authoritative figures at that age.. like an angry little chihuahua.) I was way more confrontational than I should have been with Fred, safely. I thought I was invincible.
At a certain point though, many months in, I realized I was in legitimate danger, but that I had no real friends in town, no money. Calling my mom to talk about my non-school escapades and my 25-year-old abusive live-in boyfriend was not an option in my mind. The worst were nights when I would run and lock myself in our bedroom while he exhausted himself banging and trying to get in. I’d wedge my foot in front of the door or sit with my back against the door holding it closed with my weight–sometimes all night. He would be passed out on the other side the door on the floor in the morning… like go-to-bed Fred.
At the risk of sounding totally cliche, music was my escape in those days, and in particular, The Girly Sound songs. If you’ve never heard of the Girly Sounds, it’s a collection of Liz Phair’s bootleg demos, 40 tracks released in ’91, all recorded on a 4-track. “South Dakota” was on heavy rotation and probably my favorite song along with “Shatter.” Her voice is low and talk-y… soothing. South Dakota is a song about small town boredom.. I would describe the song as “damp”–I feel like that’s pretty accurate?
What made The Girly Sounds so special to me was the fact that they were recorded by her in her bedroom, alone. They felt like a secret. I was alone, too, but it was like having a friend in this music. The songs were dark and funny, and I could connect the collection of songs–and particularly, my imaginary South Dakota–with: CALM >> FLAT>> GRASS >> COWS >>SILENCE. I still get the same fuzzy feeling listening to South Dakota now and it will probably always slow and calm my heartbeat.
Eventually, I literally escaped Fred. I saved and I found an apartment on the north side for me and my dog. But the drama continued in other ways, so after about a year, I asked my mother to let me to move back in with her in New York. I realize now that “South Dakota,” “Shatter,” and All of The Girly Sound songs were possible because young Liz Phair was very much in touch with her instincts; These beautiful, perfect recordings came through because of that. Eventually, I too found that all good things come from following your gut instincts. Beautiful songs. Safety. Kind people. Success. Answers. Truth. The trick is really listening.
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.