Suck it up, Milwaukee: Did Justin Vernon diss us, or are we a bunch of drunken babies?
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Let me preface this piece by saying how much I adore Milwaukee. I’ve lived here for nearly half my life, and have loved every minute scrapping and yelling and mixing it up with this damn crew. But if there’s one thing that makes my skin crawl, it’s blind civic pride. Even worse? Knee-jerk outrage any time someone suggests that Milwaukee may not be the coolest, most happening city in the whole wide world.
Case in point: On Friday, Evan Rytlewski of the Shepherd Express posted a blog entitled “Justin Vernon has an odd view of Milwaukee.” The post concerns a “rather bleak” reference to Milwaukee found on the Eau Claire musician’s new self-titled Bon Iver album. Prepare your flannel and beard jokes now:
Though it probably won’t stop the sold-out crowds at Bon Iver’s upcoming Riverside Theater concerts next month from cheering wildly at the mention of their hometown, a standout track from the upcoming Bon Iver record makes a rather bleak reference to Milwaukee. On “Holocene,” Justin Vernon sings “You’re laying waste to Halloween. / You fucked it friend, it’s on its head, it struck the street. / You’re in Milwaukee, off your feet.”
Hey, Milwaukee made it onto the new Bon Iver album! Neat! Not so fast. Rytlewski goes on to reprint a quote from Vernon’s recent interview with Pitchfork, in which the singer explains the cryptic reference:
“I set that verse in Milwaukee because it’s a dark, beer-drunk place. Even though I didn’t spend a lot of time there, it’s a good metaphor for those darker times. And guess what adults do on Halloween in Milwaukee? They get blind drunk and try to forget about their childhoods.”
“Dark” and “beer-drunk”? Huh. For his part, Rytlewski more or less shrugs off Vernon’s comments (“Milwaukee has a pretty thick skin about perceptions of its drinking habits, but that Halloween statement must rank as one of the oddest generalizations about the city,”) but others weren’t so forgiving. On Twitter, I spotted more than a couple of folks crying foul over Vernon’s “insult.” The words “douche,” “pretentious,” and “smug asshole” started popping up (even more than usual when it comes to Bon Iver), and one irate Tweeter even suggested Vernon had thrown his Milwaukee fans “completely under the bus.” All because of his controversial suggestion that maybe—just maybe—we like to knock back a few beers. On Halloween!
Vernon’s comments don’t really interest me. I didn’t catch the Milwaukee reference during my first few listens of Bon Iver, and when I originally read the Pitchfork quote, I remember thinking, “Heh, that’s kind of funny,” and promptly yawned and got on with my life. (I’ll admit that the “try to forget about their childhoods” bit is indeed pretentious and douche-y.) Say what you will about the man and his music—as I’m sure many of you will in the comments section—but you have to admit: The dude’s kind of got a point.
But like I said, no big whoop. No, what really interests me is how easily Milwaukee’s ego seems to get bruised these days. It’s not limited to “Vernon-gate,” of course: Think of all the wailing and gnashing of teeth every time another dopey study claims that Milwaukee is a “city you don’t want to live in...yet.” Think of all the indignation over that Willem Dafoe/Jim Bean ad, or the outcry over an unflattering article following the disastrous 2002 All-Star Game. How could these “smug assholes” possibly suggest Milwaukee is anything but amazing? Don’t they know we have a world-class art museum and some really neat restaurants?
That’s just the thing: A lot of times, these potshots contain a kernel of truth. Milwaukee probably isn’t a place most people would want to live in, and it sure as hell isn’t the best place on Earth for a struggling actor. Like I said, I adore this city, but even I have to admit that the 2002 All-Star Game chomped the big one.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t stick up for our city, or that we should simply roll over any time someone gives us shit. What I am suggesting is that there’s a proper time and place for outrage, and we should take negative criticism with a grain of salt and a moment of self-reflection. Because Milwaukee isn’t perfect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be proud of our city, but it does mean we shouldn’t act like a bunch of hurt children every time someone takes a swipe at us. We’re better than that.
Loving this city—any city—requires recognizing its selling points as well as its flaws. Empty cheerleading isn’t civic pride; it’s petty and small. So the next time a flannel-clad folkie makes a left-field generalization about our city, chuckle and give the “insult” the proper attention it deserves: none. Suck it up, Milwaukee. We can take it.