Local Current Blog

The Minnesota Mystique: Will our most famous musicians be forever inscrutable?

Prince's recent passport photo, via Twitter

To many, it seemed far-fetched when the Awl named Minnesota the single most influential state in American music. That seems like a stretch even to me—unless you adjust for population, we surely can’t hold a candle in sheer weight of history to New York or California—but this past week, Minnesota artists have been so omnipresent in American pop culture that you’d think the office of tourism had organized a media blitz. Watching national and international observers talk about these musicians, it’s been interesting to see how they all seem to be repeating variations on a theme: “hiding in plain sight.”

That’s the headline of a Guardian piece about Prince, who’s somehow managed for three-plus decades to be completely immodest and also obsessively secretive. “The secret gigs, small-hours after-show club performances and parties at his home come with the implicit, tantalising suggestion that those who attend are going to get closer to, and maybe learn something more about, an artist who remains almost completely unknowable,” writes Alexis Petridis. “Of course, they never do.”

The headline struck me, because that exact phrase has been applied many times to the other towering colossus of Minnesota music: Bob Dylan, who this week confused observers with his epic Chrysler ad during the Super Bowl. Is Dylan a sellout? Does he actually believe American cars are better? What would Woody Guthrie say? Remember when Dylan plugged in? Remember when he did an underwear commercial? What the hell, Bob? The artist’s answer, per usual, was gnomic silence.

Then there’s Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, who pursued an on-and-(increasingly)-off-again solo career after Minneapolis’s seminal indie band broke up, falling almost entirely out of public view in recent years—only to suddenly mount what seems to be turning into a comeback tour with festival appearances in Canada, Illinois, California, Utah, and Georgia. Among those three artists, Westerberg has remained the most consistent resident of Minnesota (Prince splits his time between Chanhassen and the cosmos, while Dylan returns only occasionally to reportedly drive his riding mower down rural lanes)—but the Replacements haven’t yet announced any hometown gigs. Why, Paul? What does it all mean?

It’s tempting to think that there’s something in the sky-blue water up here, something about Minnesota that produces eccentric, often maddening geniuses. Is there?

Certainly a decision to remain in Minnesota for all or part of your career is a decision to be at a certain remove from the centers of musical commerce in this country, but Dylan didn’t become any more scrutable when he moved to New York. Further, “hiding in plain sight” is something that it’s easy to say about any musician who reaches the stratospheric heights of fame that permit total creative freedom and compel an artist to hold the world at bay. Artists like Neil Young, Lou Reed, and Van Morrison come to mind here—but on the other hand, there are the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin, artists who are happy to share the secrets of their success. Maybe there is a uniquely Minnesota Mystique.

Looking to the next generation, though, it seems unlikely that any such mystery will linger. Doomtree, Brother Ali, Lizzo, Slug—our hip-hop community, for all its artistic free-spiritedness, is known for being collegial and open (and, something that will absolutely never be said of Paul Westerberg, good on Twitter). Dan Wilson, the Minnesotan most reliably found in the credits of Grammy-nominated albums these days, is a human ray of sunshine. Har Mar Superstar bounces from coast to coast wrapped in many cloaks and a swanky alter-ego, but no one would accuse Sean Tillmann of “hiding in plain sight.”

Maybe, then, Minnesota music is finally coming out of hiding and into plain sight—unqualified.