What Happened to the Minneapolis Music Scene?

Photo by Flickr/jimieye - CC-BY-2.0

Photo by Flickr/jimieye – CC-BY-2.0

The global outpouring of front page tributes to Prince after his untimely death at age 57 shows not just how important and influential he personally was, but also his hometown of Minneapolis.

Prince sold over 100 million records. He played all of the instruments in many of his songs, including When Doves Cry, his first #1 single. He wrote several songs made famous by other recording artists, including Manic Monday (The Bangles) and Nothing Compares 2U (Sinead O’Connor). He was legendary for his live performances.

But while Prince may be the most famous pop artist to come out of the Twin Cities, there were many other popular and influential Minneapolis-St. Paul musicians active during his heyday.

The Jayhawks were a seminal country-rock band known for their amazing harmonies who were one of the progenitors of the alt-country genre. They were themselves influenced by a Minnesota (though not Minneapolis) native of a previous generation, Bob Dylan. I personally consider many of their albums timeless classics that still rank among my favorite today.

A musical world away, Lipps, Inc. was a Minneapolis funk band famous for “Funkytown,” which was reputedly about the band’s desire to move to New York. From funk we can go to punk and find Hüsker Dü, band whose work influenced key bands like Nirvana, the Pixies, and Green Day. All female punk band Babes in Toyland was a precursor of the riot grrrl scene. But wait, there’s more. The Replacements were one pillars of the early alternative rock movement. Soul Asylum’s alternative style later came to be referred to as “proto-grunge.”

All of these were active in the 1980s when Prince became a superstar. It’s a pretty impressive performance for Minneapolis, especially when you consider the variety of genres involved and the influence on important musical movements.

Today it would appear that there are still a lot of local bands in Minneapolis. In 2012, a web site called Livability.com ranked it the second best music scene in the country (outside of NYC, LA, and Nashville). While the original post is now gone, references to it suggest this was mostly because of the number of live venues, and highlighted a lot of people from out of town who had performed there.

There does not appear to be anything like the 1980s era level of musical influence and mass popular success, however. It’s always tough to judge in the moment, as influence is only visible in retrospect. Also, I’m probably showing a bit of my age, and am no longer as plugged into pop music as I used to be.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that Minneapolis was once a city that had enormous cultural influence at the national level that now no longer does.

This is especially notable when juxtaposed with its general trajectory as a city, which has been upward. Minneapolis is highly regarded today. Since the 1980s it has become more educated, more diverse, more dense, built a light rail line, is a cycling capital, etc.  In short, it did everything a city is supposed to do.

Yet culturally Minneapolis is far less influential and important than it was back then.

I merely note this as a curious observation. As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on the dearth of writers in cities, investigating this to see what it might reveal would be interesting. Perhaps there’s nothing there. It’s the nature of “scenes” generally to rise and fall. But some places – Detroit, for example – have managed to continuously reinvent themselves culturally across scenes over time.

I think it would be an interesting case for a writer to dig into, one where again the right balance of affection and detachment (i.e. with a love for the city but not undertaken with booster-glasses on) might reveal some richness about the region that we never knew before. I did a little bit of Googling on the topic, but all I came up with was this and this. If there’s more already written, please post in the comments.


from Aaron M. Renn


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