Last week, the Boston Globe published an article that set local music Twitter abuzz — and not in a good way. The piece was titled “Aerosmith, the Cars, the Pixies — Boston used to be a rock ‘n’ roll capital. Where has all the music gone?”. It's not hard to grasp why the deliberately provocative headline offended so many of the city’s musicians, who definitely exist.
But the headline is frustrating beyond its implication that the city contains no good music — an argument the article itself doesn't actually make. Rather, it evokes a commonly-held belief among Bostonians, especially the media, about the primacy of rock music in the city’s cultural history. Call it the “Aerosmith theory of Boston music” — an idea that seeks to codify Boston’s identity as a Once Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Town. The theory centers rock bands from the ‘70s, ‘80s and '90s to make its case, and identifies Aerosmith as the apex of Boston’s musical clout, if not artistry; in this paradigm, Aerosmith is simply the most widely-understood signifier, the most Boston of Boston bands.
This way of thinking is rooted, at least partly, in a desire to promote Boston’s underappreciated influence on modern rock ‘n’ roll — a worthy cause in itself. But when you frame an argument around the Aerosmith theory of Boston music, funny things happen. Hip-hop and jazz are all but erased. Some of the region’s most recognizable names, like New Kids on the Block and Bobby Brown, receive mere lip service — a missed opportunity to tell a bigger story about Boston's imprint on R&B and pop. Examples of more recent successes, like the Dresden Dolls, appear without context, eliding their distinctive cultural impact. Women only bear mentioning if they are in rock bands; more feminine-coded genres are ignored, rendering invisible the area’s revered folk scene and its legions of guitar-toting women. An artist like Clairo — arguably the region’s biggest breakout in recent years — is introduced by way of an opening stint for another singer, rather than as the architect of a woozy, lo-fi brand of bedroom pop whose influence is felt in the catalogues of Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift.
Clairo, of course, found her audience on the internet, rather than the dingy rock clubs of old. Same for the Worcester rapper Joyner Lucas, who earned a Grammy nod in 2018 for a viral music video, and the RCA-signed rapper Cousin Stizz, who broke out in 2015 with his mixtape “Suffolk County,” and the buzzy Boston-born Soundcloud artist TeaMarrr. In other words, it’s easy enough to find contemporary examples of nationally known Massachusetts acts if you look beyond white, predominantly male rock and widen your aperture to encompass the quirky, fractured world of internet streaming platforms and apps. What the musicians who move in these spaces don’t necessarily share is some distinctive, regional sound. Nor have they always built their audiences locally; the internet can sometimes launch an artist past regional popularity and into the national spotlight.
It’s easy enough to find contemporary examples of nationally known Massachusetts acts if you look beyond white, predominantly male rock and widen your aperture to encompass the quirky, fractured world of internet streaming platforms and apps.
But Soundcloud fame doesn’t render a musician contextless, either. Increasingly, the Boston-area artists getting national attention are hip-hop acts. This is partly a function of the genre’s dominance on the charts, which also helps explain Boston rock's retreat from the national consciousness. But it's equally the result of an energetic crop of creative, social media-savvy hip-hop artists, who move fluidly through the liminal realms of the internet even as they participate in a distinctly regional hip-hop ecosystem.
In a rock-centric universe, what little is said about Black music speaks volumes. The seminal R&B outfit New Edition is featured prominently in the Globe article’s title image, but receives only a passing mention in the text; nevermind that the influential Roxbury group is frequently cited as a counterpoint to the whole Boston rock theory. Even more curiously, the author chooses a rapper, Cliff Notez, to represent Boston’s new generation of artists, in the same sentence as the city is deemed “not ... a hip-hop hub.” No mention of why that might be. For decades, rappers have talked about the prejudice they encounter in the city's clubs and bars. (I reported on the problem in this publication.) But, even as energy around Boston-area hip-hop grows, and despite valiant efforts to reclaim its early rap history, Boston resists incorporating hip-hop into its story. The rock ‘n’ roll mythology is as stubborn as it is mythical.
Whenever I think about which musicians Boston chooses to claim, and who it habitually overlooks, I think of Tracy Chapman. In 1988, Chapman was a recent graduate of Tufts University and a regular on the local folk circuit when her hit single “Fast Car” launched her onto the “Billboard” Top 100 and permanently into the public consciousness. Her debut album “Tracy Chapman” won the folk singer three Boston Music Awards the same year it earned her as many Grammys, and is among the best-selling albums of all time — a Boston breakout if there ever was one.
So why don’t we claim Tracy Chapman with the same fervor that we do Boston's rock heroes?
More than 30 years later, “Tracy Chapman” is as relevant and revelatory as ever, a finely-wrought portrait of working-class struggle rooted in feminist and Black revolutionary politics. So why don’t we claim Tracy Chapman with the same fervor that we do Boston's rock heroes? Certainly she hasn’t been as visible in recent years. Nor did she stick around the area, though few mainstream stars do. The answer, I think, has more to do with who Chapman is and what she represents than anything else. An androgynous Black woman folksinger doesn’t fit into the story Boston tells itself about the rock ‘n’ roll days of yore. In fact, Chapman is rarely claimed by the area’s venerated folk scene — her Blackness, it seems, precludes her from even that.
Though critics gushed over Chapman's debut, she was almost immediately held to different standards than other musicians of her ilk. Again and again, the singer was asked to answer for her appeal among white liberals — most famously in an interview with Chuck D of Public Enemy, who said, "Black people cannot feel Tracy Chapman, if they got beat over the head with it 35,000 times." Even positive reviews puzzled over Chapman's appearance and demeanor, calling her "dour" and "shy."
Chapman's ties to Tufts and the Cambridge-Boston folk scene are always mentioned in early press coverage of the musician — they're part of her origin story. But as time goes on, bands like the Pixies and the Cars move more clearly into focus, the beneficiaries of a relentless campaign to anoint Boston a rock ‘n’ roll capital. Meanwhile, Chapman’s imprint on the city fades, even as her ubiquity on coffee shop playlists remains. She’s everywhere, and yet no one wants to claim her as their own.
The same might be said for many others. Why doesn't Boston celebrate the hip-hop trailblazer Guru, who made his first mixtapes in Roxbury, with the same zeal as it does Steven Tyler? Why isn’t Aimee Mann mentioned with the same frequency as the Pixies? Why, for that matter, isn’t there a Donna Summer memorial in Boston?
Inside the Globe’s paean to white Boston rock is another, better article. Remove the nostalgic framing of Boston as a mythical rock ‘n’ roll Atlantis, and you have a deeply reported story about the downfall of regional music across the country: a story about the tightening of belts at labels as file sharing cut into profits, the increasing burden of rising rents on both musicians and small venues, the shift from scouting talent in bars to making discoveries online, the diminishing influence of college radio. These are all trends the article quite rightly identifies as reasons for Boston’s recession from the national stage.
The story could easily have been framed around the city’s decreasing affordability for artists trying to get their start. It might have linked Cliff Notez to Boston’s rich hip-hop legacy, or drawn a line from Chapman to Anjimile, another Black, queer singer-songwriter on the cusp of a national breakthrough. It might even have framed the struggle of Boston musicians as a failure on the part of local media outlets, which, faced with the void left by the demise of alt-weeklies like the Boston Phoenix, fail to cover regional music with as much vigor. Instead, they publish misplaced eulogies for rock ‘n’ roll at the expense of a more equitable historical narrative and a deeper appreciation for Boston's music scene as it exists today: tested but resilient, and still very much alive.
Correction: An earlier photo caption misidentified the year Tracy Chapman graduated from Tufts University. She graduated in 1986, not 1987. We have updated the caption.
This article was originally published on August 20, 2020.