What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond. These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors
Tuesday, March 30, 2021
The #Midwessay: Keith Pille, Memo from the Cultural Geography Desk
Memo from the Cultural Geography Desk
So we’re hashing out what exactly the boundaries of a Midwestern Essay are. I’ve had an essay, a Midwestern one, trying to form in my head for a while now, and it occurs to me that a good way to approach the bigger question would be to look and see what kind of gears and pulleys are behind it.
I’m an old punk. I’ve self-identified as a punk for decades. I live in Minneapolis at least partly because of punk-inflected ambitions fresh out of undergrad (and yeah, “fresh out of undergrad” is one of the least-punk phrases you can use). I keep wanting to write a long essay exploring this; particularly the fact that during exactly none of my punk-identifying years have I had a mohawk or green hair or any of the London Class of ’76 fashion signifiers that we use to identify punks. Instead, the entire time, without thinking about it at all, I was aping the midwestern-slack aesthetic put forward by such acts as the Replacements (Minneapolis), Hüsker Dü (St. Paul), and Uncle Tupelo (Belleville, IL, but really St. Louis). And to be clear: this was the same look in all cases, and these were just the highest-profile exemplars. Lots and lots of smaller bands, including my own, also stepped into line—again, without thinking about it—wearing a defined costume of calibrated sloppiness. Within a scene, fashion is a uniform, especially when you’re just going with the flow.
My point, and the thing I always want to write an essay exploring, is that for a couple of decades at least (I can’t say if it’s still extant among Da Youths, but I know it still exists in the paunchy middle-aged bearded guy demographic) there was a defined Midwestern Punk aesthetic that was its own thing.
But there’s a wrinkle: you can picture a guy in jeans, a Stuckey’s t-shirt, an untucked, unbuttoned flannel, and a Twins hat on top of unkempt longish hair and think “ooh, that’s an authentic Midwest music look!” And you’re not wrong, but you’re also not getting the whole story. Because let’s put it this way: Prince was establishing his own suave horny pirate look before any of the bands I listed out had picked up a guitar. And Prince, born in Minneapolis, is 100% as Midwestern as Paul Westerberg or Jay Farrar. So are Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; they recorded Janet Jackson’s breakthrough album about a block away from my house in south Minneapolis.
And I guess there’s my point. We need to be careful and acknowledge that “Midwestern” is a construct, and like every construct arising out of a culture, it carries that culture’s baggage. And in this case, the culture in question has an unfortunate assumption of default whiteness, which way too easily gets baked into the definition of what “Midwestern” is, which in turn can’t help but affect the discourse on what exactly the boundaries of the Midwestern Essay are.
Keith Pille is a writer and cartoonist who spends a lot of time thinking about art and culture in general and Willie Nelson in particular. His work has appeared in Slate, McSweeney's, DIAGRAM, and several Twin Cities outlets; his cartoons have been profiled by Minnesota Public Radio and Twin Cities Public television. Also, he was once threatened with being reported to the FBI over a cartoon he drew about Fleetwood Mac. More stuff along these lines is rounded up at keithpille.com.