I’ve always liked Delaware, even the way it was treated like a truck stop by my parents on drives to less gray skies. I’ve always liked that transitory feeling, that a place people make homes and build lives could be treated as so momentary to so many people. I’ve had friends go to college in the state, and they enjoy the same feeling: they put some roots there, but not all of them, a poorly planted tree.
That sense is the very same that drives emo legends The Promise Ring’s most famous song, 1997’s “Is This Thing On?” (it’s the single on their most successful album, Nothing Feels Good, one song so canonized it’s even the title of the definitive emo book, Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo.)
“Is This Thing On?” isn’t long. There are only four lines of lyrics, a brief message that mirrors the often transient experience of traveling through the state. Frontman Davey von Bohlen sings variations of the following: “Delaware are you aware of air supply and television?”“Delaware are you still there? Is this thing on? I coming down.”“Delaware are you aware? Are you tonight? Are you?” Someone in the background screams “Philadelphia!”
The meaning of the song has oft been debated but the most sensible folklore is that the song was written about Jade Tree Records, the label The Promise Ring were signed to at the time, whose offices were in Wilmington, Delaware. Both founders of the label, Darren Walters and Tim Owen, live and operate out of Philadelphia, where they teach at Drexel University. If that mythos is to be believed, even then Delaware was seen as a foundational place, later to be abandoned for some other East Coast city–the first capital of the United States, a place with real permanence.
What the song lacks, and I’d argue purposefully, is any real detail about Delaware. The state is given no defining features, but is asked a lot of questions. Delaware is presented as a mystery, albeit, a concerning one. It’s a state with charm, but charm you’d have to spend some time in to learn about. If you don’t, and if you’re just passing through, perhaps it’s Delaware asking you, “Are you aware?”
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.