New Jersey’s governor welcomed this week’s announcement that the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards will be held in Newark by boasting that the Garden State gave the world artists like Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston, and Bruce Springsteen. Twitter took this harmless bit of gubernatorial boosterism and did what it does best: transform it into an overblown, viral social media debate.
We’re here to settle the matter. Which state truly has the greatest Mount Rushmore of homegrown musicians? You can probably guess our answer.
I COULD GO ON https://t.co/BUnzMaykQC
— Sam Sanders (@samsanders) May 7, 2019
NPR host Sam Sanders made a strong case for Texas all by himself. Beyoncé, Selena, Willie, Buddy Holly, Bun B, and DJ Screw represent genre-defining talent. And it’s true that one could easily rattle off other contenders—George Strait, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bob Wills, Leadbelly, Ornette Coleman, Erykah Badu, Roy Orbison, Flaco Jimenez, Janis Joplin, the Dixie Chicks, and ZZ Top—it’s a deep bench. More recent superstars like Miranda Lambert, Travis Scott, Kacey Musgraves, St. Vincent, Khalid, and Solange are all artists who could make the cut in lesser states. If you wanted to mix in a highly influential cult artist, there’s Roky Erickson, Dimebag Darrell, Townes Van Zandt, Robert Glasper, and the fellas from At the Drive-In.
Meanwhile, New Jersey has been forced to round out its roster with Jon Bon friggin’ Jovi.
Some other states can put together top-heavy lists. Minnesota has Prince and Bob Dylan, but things drop off considerably after that. Indiana can claim Michael Jackson and Cole Porter, but before long Hoosiers are stuck pretending John Mellencamp is anything other than the Hill Country Fare version of Springsteen. Washington’s got Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Pearl Jam, but then they’d end up pushing a one-hit wonder like Macklemore. California also comes up surprisingly short: N.W.A, the Beach Boys, and the Grateful Dead are all natives, but Tupac Shakur, the Eagles, Gram Parsons, Van Halen, and other artists famously associated with the state are transplants (“Weird Al” Yankovic is a Golden Stater, though). New York fares better; it’s easy to put together a roster with Billie Holiday, Biggie, Run-DMC, and the Ramones, while still leaving room for Jay Z, Patti Smith, Billy Joel, and Lou Reed on the bench.
Texas and New York are virtual locks for a Final Four of music Mount Rushmores, in other words. The other finalists have considerably smaller populations that have long punched above their weight musically. Michigan, obviously, is in: Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Jack White, and Diana Ross can compete with anyone, and they’d be fending off competition with Alice Cooper, Eminem, Smokey Robinson, Iggy Pop, J Dilla, Don Was, Anita Baker, and the MC5. Georgia, too, has a strong claim: Ray Charles, James Brown, Little Richard, and Outkast are competitive anywhere, and that’s before you get to Otis Redding, CeeLo Green, TLC, Childish Gambino, Alan Jackson, Gladys Knight, R.E.M., or the slew of contemporary country acts (Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, Brantley Gilbert) from the state.
Since we’re looking at this as a Mount Rushmore situation, the depth of the bench doesn’t matter. (It’s not like there’s a mountain big enough to fit all of the faces of Texas who’ve helped define music history.) If we settle on a lineup that goes Beyoncé, Selena, Willie Nelson, and Buddy Holly, here’s what we have:
- An artist who’s been one of the most relevant and important musicians in the world for two decades and counting
- A singer who single-handedly introduced an entire genre of music to the rest of the world and whose legacy continues to loom decades after her death
- An icon who both wrote a number of the greatest songs in country music history and radicalized the genre, with unparalleled career longevity (his 69th album is out next month!)
- One of the most influential artists of all time, who in a brief lifetime helped define what rock and roll would sound like, both in terms of production and arrangements, while also recording some of the genre’s most enduring hits
Two of them go by just their first names; the other two easily could. Individually, each represents a foundational voice from the unparalleled diversity of genres to which Texas music has significantly contributed. Few names mean more to the intersection of pop and hip-hop over the last twenty years than Beyoncé, virtually no one means more to country music than Willie, and it’s impossible to overstate the importance of Selena and Buddy on Tejano and rock and roll, respectively.
Texas’s musical strength is that it’s impossible to pin down. “Texas music” almost doesn’t mean anything at all, except that it’s made by some of the greatest artists to work in every conceivable genre. Other states have produced incredible artists, but Texas comprises a full-blown musical ecosystem unto itself.
Though Michigan has been home to some of the greatest musicians ever to enter a recording studio, the state’s artists are less transformative outside of the genres of Motown and garage rock. New York invented hip-hop and introduced the earliest forms of punk rock, but the jazz greats who called the state home were mostly transplants, and you’d be hard-pressed to identify a New Yorker’s impact on country music. Georgia has birthed titans of early rock and roll and soul music, and its impact on hip-hop can’t be overstated, but outside of R.E.M. and some cult indie bands, its impact on guitar rock has been minimal.
This sort of thing is a fun game—we’ll play “our state beats your state” any chance we get. Mostly, though, it serves as an opportunity to recognize what makes Texas music so remarkable, which is that you can effectively trace the entire history of popular music through the acts that come from this state.
We can be rightly proud of our hypothetical monument and all that it represents. Willie, Beyoncé, Buddy, and Selena—artists whose careers collectively span the early days of fifties rock and roll, the country sounds of the sixties, seventies, and eighties, the Tejano boom of the nineties, and the pop and hip-hop domination of the aughts and 2010s—stand for countless others who’ve made beautiful music in Texas.