Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Golden Finch and the Red Oak Tree

There's a sense that if one if from New Jersey, one must completely and totally be from New Jersey. If someone asks you to describe yourself, the correct answer is not "I'm 21, I'm an English major, etc." The correct answer is "I'm from New Jersey, etc." Pretty much all New Jerseyans I know despised the state until they went to college, where we learned that everyone else hates our state, and thus we must learn to love it. We will defend our right to have someone pump our gas, tell others that only the highways smell bad, and damnit, we will love Jersey Shore, while pointing out that only two of them are actually from New Jersey. We may still hate the other half of the state (fuck you, South Jersey), but it's only because they're the ones who give our state a bad name. This love/hate relationship seems pretty standard for almost all college-aged New Jerseyan friends, at least the ones from Vassar. Learning to love New Jersey, it seems, is a rite of passage, and once we reach it, we won't shut up about it.

This way of thinking is also completely embedded in our music scene. As this NYT article puts it: “Every great song about New Jersey has always been pretty much about getting out of there,” said Mr. Stickles, a native of Glen Rock, in a telephone interview on Tuesday, the day of the album’s release on the XL label. “The Monitor,” a glorious, rambunctious, unsettling album, has a more complicated proposition. Its protagonist starts out escaping to Boston, but comes to realize that hiding is folly: his home state is embedded in him. By the end of the album, he’s headed back, doing the things he hoped he would stop, becoming the person he’s tried to avoid becoming, even though he was that person all along.

People who write about childhoods/life in New Jersey seem to have the sense that they are not just writing a narrative that happens to take place in New Jersey. They are writing about a specific type of life or childhood that can only take place in New Jersey. Is this true? Probably not. If someone had a similar family to mine, was pushed into similar activities, had a somewhat similar personality, I'm sure our lives could be roughly described the same way, even if they grew up in a South Orange-sized town in Nebraska or Wyoming. And being from New Jersey is not necessarily more meaningful than being from anywhere else. New Jersey stands for something in the outside world, but so does New York, or California, or Massachusetts. Or even Maine or Idaho.

It's difficult to separate a location from its meaning, but New Jerseyans seem to have a particularly hard time with this. I know plenty of people who enjoy Ted Leo's music who are not from New Jersey. They understand the tropes of childhood, of growing up, of everything else he writes about. He could easily be writing about their lives, but I know better. I know he's writing about the singular New Jersey experience, and while specific components of that experience can be generalized, as a whole, other people just can't understand it. (Note: this is clearly an exaggeration of how I actually feel).

Or maybe not. Maybe New Jerseyans are all just self-centered tools (because God knows we have a lot of those in our state), who try too hard to own the few things we're proud of when the rest of the country calls us the armpit of America. But I will take my Springsteen, Lauryn Hill and Ted Leo albums, watch Garden State (incidentally about my town in particular, although not a very good movie) and Kevin Smith movies, and use my New Jersey tote bag no matter how far from home I move. Because no matter where I end up, I will never really leave New Jersey, and I will always be proud of that.

No comments:

Post a Comment