On Music in New Jersey

Written By CS

When Joe Steinfeld’s humorous take on the Garden State went viral a few weeks ago, it reignited NJ’s tribal bickering. One particular section, portions of Monmouth and Ocean County, is allegedly made up of working class folks along the shore in “Springsteen Country.” Steinfeld likely claimed this area for The Boss because of his songs’ images culled from the locale’s abundance of sand, surf, ordinary folks, and the tiny clubs that dot, or at least dotted, places like Asbury Park and Red Bank.

Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny Springsteen’s position as NJ’s (pop music’s) poet laureate, but he’s certainly not the only guy making music in the state. It’s also fair to say Springsteen’s heyday has come and gone. As 2011 comes to a close, what exactly is New Jersey’s sound?

If you’re a Pitchfork.com adherent, you might say North Jersey is captured in two up-and-coming indie rock acts. Titus Andronicus‘s loud anthems or Real Estate’s hazy suburban tunes. Both hail from Morris/Bergen County upper-middle class enclaves and both recall trips “down the shore,” 19th century main street shopping districts, and strip malls on Routes 46 and 17.

Get a little closer to New York City, and Hoboken’s longtime indie rock heroes Yo La Tengo come to mind. Their combination of quiet pop songs and ten-minute-plus noise freakouts certainly seem evocative of East Orange’s WFMU, the Birthplace of Baseball’s notorious claustrophobia, and the Lower East Side underground across the Hudson.

If you like terrible music, you might say bring up Bon Jovi, but you like terrible music, so your opinion doesn’t matter.

As you shoot down the Turnpike or Parkway, it gets harder to point to a specific sound. Central Jersey’s New Brunswick is famous for its vibrant local scene built on basement shows and the Court Tavern. Variety has long been New Brunswick’s staple: emo/post-hardcore act Thursday started there, as did pub-rockers The Gaslight Anthem and ska legends Catch 22/Streetlight Manifesto. Pavement played their first show in NB, and Screaming Females are on the rise.

Drive down further into the Pine Barrens and it gets harder to find big names. South Jersey has always been dotted with (very different) punk, hardcore, and metal scenes, but it is (regrettably,) likely most known for cover bands in beach bars. As an Atlantic County native myself, I can say that with a bit of confidence. Of course, if you’re on this page, you know about Elephant Talk and what has happened around the Boneyard and Le Grand Fromage in Atlantic City. I wouldn’t count South Jersey out just yet, and while you’re on this page, check out Bill Ridenour and Juggernaught Drunk if you’d like a dose of America’s Favorite Playground.

If you ask me, the heart of New Jersey’s sound is its DIY ethic. It has always been the scores of unsigned, unknown bands playing the barns, VFWs, and fire halls that have defined the state’s audio landscape. Punk, ska, hardcore, and metal bands of all 21 counties are playing shows right now, guaranteed. These local shows never pick up the sort of momentum that brings bloggers and media coverage because, well, NJ is a pretty tribal place. We’re not exactly willing to entertain strangers. Whether you use the pork roll/Taylor ham divide, the Birds/Giants line, the Driscoll Bridge, or the cross-county/crosstown rivalries common to our state, most of us find a reason to exclude our neighbors in music and culture.

It’s not a criticism and it’s all in good fun. In fact, I can almost guarantee commentary on this article that flatly denies much of what I’ve said, accusations of forgetting so-and-so, and my obvious indie-rock bias. So be it. If nothing else, Jersey’s got heart.

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About elephanttalkindie

Elephant Talk: The Music Memory
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