Howler and the hometown hate debate

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Let's turn this into a teaching moment.
Minnesota Give Up. No, that's not the title of Howler's next album, nor is it the slogan for the eyebrow-raising marketing campaign the band rolled out last week. But, if you were to read some of the things being bandied about on the interwebs about the interview that their baby-faced bandleader, Jordan Gatesmith, gave to the Guardian's Alex Petridis, you might think just that.

There's been considerable hand-wringing -- as well as some intelligent conversation -- generated by Gatesmith's interview, in which he had some less-than-flattering words for his hometown music scene. What he said doesn't exactly qualify as grounds for controversy, so given the touchy reaction of some folks, it's probably just the kind of bratty behavior the Twin Cities could use more of. Lest we forget, it's just the sort of thing a journalist like Petridis would love Gatesmith to say about our exotic little backwater town.

Earlier this morning Gatesmith had the opportunity to explain himself, and he struck a mature and contrite tone. Yet this episode once again brings to the fore a long-percolating subject of debate: Just how healthy is the Twin Cities music scene these days?

One of the funny things about Gatesmith's original comments -- beyond, of course, the curious fact that he singled out the 4ontheFloor -- is that he didn't really say anything new. Sure, there were the same old complaints about how long it's been since the Purple One and the 'Mats were doing their thing. Then again, who hasn't heard that dozens of times over? Far more compelling, and eloquent, was what Gatesmith had to say in an interview in January with Jim Walsh, where he wondered whether "Minneapolis is where dreams go to die."

Nonetheless, the response to his comments were swift. Over at the Current, Andrea Swensson wrote a nigh-on-seething blog post, wherein her relative lack of commentary was her harshest means of criticism. Meanwhile, Becky Lang threw her hat into the ring as well with an intriguing column over at the Tangential. Lang suggests that "what makes you famous in Minneapolis" boils down to two things: "Having a live show that people talk about and get social points for being at," and "having a lot of friends in the local journalism/music scene who will support you."

Oh no, she didn't!

Lang makes an interesting point, but she undercuts herself by speculating that "anywhere else," you only need to "have an interesting record" to be successful. Really? So the same can't be said of anyone in Brooklyn, or Chicago, or any other city? That's far-fetched, and somewhat naive.

What Lang is getting at, however, is the notion that the Twin Cities are too incestuous -- another oft-repeated criticism of the local music here. But this, too, has always seemed like a flimsy argument. First off, say what you will about how technology has wiped out the need for local scenes, but it remains true that musicians working with other musicians, artists with other artists, is healthy. Some of the best local music in recent years has happened through collaborations and "icky" cross-pollination.

And second off, if the scene seems too cliquey, well, making connections is a reality of almost any business -- and, like it or not, music is a business, and success a function of it. (Believe it or not, that's also true of Elite Gymnastics and, yes, Howler.) Hell, the real issue may just be that Minnesotans are bad businesspeople. The fact remains, however, that the musicians in this town are regular people, and they'll probably talk to you if you say hi. Same with us pesky journalists, in case anyone cares.

Perhaps a better way of phrasing things is to say that the Twin Cities are too insular. Gatesmith touches on this when he says, "They'll really build up these bands... that I will hate... And then, of course, nothing will happen outside Minneapolis for them." This, really, is the crux of the problem, the root of our self-consciously wondering whether anything is "wrong" with the music here -- our collective inferiority complex, you might say.

Once up a time, this was something Swensson herself referred to as "the Current effect," back when she was running this very blog. All things considered (pun intended), the local media have done a great job of trying to promote local talent. This is something to be grateful for, but unfortunately it has the tendency of becoming hyper-local and, sometimes, overly navel-gazing. The Current is a perfect example of this sort of double-edged sword: They even have a separate 24-hour local feed, but does our sense of that music ever get inflated and become too cheerleaderish?

(To be fair, it's radio. If a DJ were to say, "Up next, here are three shitty bands," it wouldn't really fit the format. Then again, Blitzen Trapper, Dawes, and the Avett Brothers are all boring. Mumford and Sons, too. But I digress.)


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