Yes, the Wisconsin delegation is picking the most on-the-nose artist ever for a state that is not exactly known for being able to think outside of the box. In fairness to us, the last time we tried something unexpected, it lead to this, so excuse me for resting in the comfortable.
“Holocene” is the most Wisconsin song for a lot of reasons, some of them external. Justin Vernon of Eau Claire is the most famous artist this state has in 2016, and if not for our Friar Tuck-haired, stuffed suit governor, he’d be our most public figure to the rest of the country. He’s probably not the most popular musician ever reared in Wisconsin–peace to Steve Miller–or the most historically significant–a Rest in Curds to Les Paul–but he’s the most important.
Wisconsin, even internally, is largely defined by Madison and Milwaukee. Those are the cities you try to move to for college, and failing that, the cities you move to when you finish college upstate at UW-Oshkosh, UW-Stout, or UW-Green Bay. It’s a rite of passage living upstate to see your friends, one by one, march southward, onto the greener pastures of the Bayview neighborhood in Milwaukee, or the Willy St. area of Madison, or if you live in Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, or Rhinelander, to see them move westward to Uptown in Minneapolis.
Justin Vernon is important, because unlike every notable Wisconsin musician listed on Wisconsin’s Wikipedia page, he’s the only one who didn’t get famous until he went home, to his parents’ cabin outside of Eau Claire–which is actually a bigger and more modern city than you Brookyln-ites are imagining; they have a mall, it’s not Twin Peaks. When Vernon retreated from North Carolina and his failed retroactively important band DeYarmond Edison–which also yielded Field Report and Megafaun–and despite all odds, got the world to pay attention to the brokenhearted, incomprehensible folk songs of a weirdo who matriculated at Eau Claire Memorial and UW-Eau Claire, he proved to an entire generation of Wisconsin kids that their experiences were valid, that they could make important art from even the “boring” city of 70,000 where they grew up.
But that wasn’t enough. Vernon has spent the intervening years since For Emma, Forever Ago willing Eau Claire—and the surrounding cities of Fall Creek and Chippewa Falls—into an actual cultural epicenter. He built a studio where he records bands from around the world. He has a music festival entering its second year. His efforts in revamping parts of downtown, and to build the cultural center around himself in his hometown directly inspired an incredible novel by a Wisconsin writer. He’s brought to Wisconsin a cultural relevance the state has never had, outside of our impact on the national cheese supply, and the fact that our football team is legitimately the greatest of all time (in some ways it’s remarkable I made it this far without a Packers shoutout).
I realize that I am probably underselling Vernon’s talents being the reason all this has happened, and him bringing this stuff to Wisconsin is only after touring the world to rapt audiences afforded him the capital to make Wisconsin culture mean something. You don’t get flown to Hawaii to smoke Ls with Rick Ross and Kanye in the studio if you’re not immensely talented. But at the same time, he’s the first celebrity from Wisconsin that people feel like actually comes from here. My cousin Adam has run into him grocery shopping in Eau Claire. I like to tell everyone my cousin Brian partied with him in high school—which Brian told me once at a wedding when we were drunk, and I’m not going to fact check him. People actually know him as a person who lives in Wisconsin and does Wisconsin things. I mean, shit, I know at least five people in my life who have had existential breakdowns in cabins up north like Vernon did.
All I’m saying is that the distance between Wisconsin and whatever astral plane cultural relevance happens on got a lot smaller because of Bon Iver.
“And at once I knew I was not magnificent”
Living in Northern Wisconsin is to be confronted daily with your own insignificance. The woods were there before you were born, and they’ll be there after. There are more trees than there are people you will ever see or know. Farmers have tilled the land for cows for 150 years. There are buildings that were built with bare hands that have been standing longer than the state borders. The glaciers made this landscape sometime between when a cave gorilla stood up on his back legs and the dinosaurs drowned. Your impact on the landscape will be negligible.
“3rd and Lake it burnt away, the hallway
Was where we learned to celebrate”
Living in 150-year-old industrial cities in the Midwest is to be confronted with a history that modernity is constantly trying to cover. The old mansions of lumber barons become museums become old apartment buildings become new subdivisions. The old brewery becomes loft apartments meant to draw a young populace that may never gentrify it.
When you choose to live in that city after you graduate, you basically live inside your own memory. You see the building you used to get fucked up in and listen to music in burn to the ground when a new generation of undergrads leaves a burner on. You remember that time you were the first one to say hello to an old high school classmate who was home for Thanksgiving and who didn’t recognize you. You drive home drunk on the same streets you learned to drive on. Even if you’ve moved on, and you’re an indie rock superstar who has had casual conversations with the most transcendent artist of your generation, your life still happens in the place where you were figuring things out, learning how to be who you wanted to be.
“I could see for miles, miles, miles”
“Holocene” is the most Wisconsin song because it’s the only song I’ve ever heard that actually sounds like Wisconsin. Not the people, or the cities; the landscape itself. It sounds like the way that the farmland and in central Wisconsin rolls and rolls and rolls on and on and on when you’re driving on Highway 29. It sounds like sun peeking through the canopy when you’re up north of Green Bay when the interstate stops. It sounds like the moments when you look out at the landscape, and it looks like it’s never ending.
It’s full of promise, and it’s full of nostalgia, and it’s full of melancholy. Just like Wisconsin.
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.