Magazines love lists. Nothing gets readers lathered up more than a rundown of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time (Jeff Beck over Van Halen? What are you smoking?) or America’s fattest cities (thankfully we’re just outside the top 10 for a change). We should know better than to take these rankings too seriously, but we can’t help ourselves—otherwise, magazines would stop making lists. So when I heard The Atlantic ranked the top music scenes in the U.S., I was curious. When I read Philadelphia placed 45th, I could feel myself getting pulled into yet another debate; in this case, over how bogus this story must be.
This comes on the heels of another recent Atlantic music feature that was solidly in my wheelhouse—a thinky essay about how heavy metal isn’t so far removed from new age (my expertise lies in the former). My first thought was, “I can’t believe they just referenced Deicide and Dungeons & Dragons.” But the author lost me when he said metal is more about “starry-eyed transcendent murmurings” than “belief in the self.” I won’t bore you with a breakdown of headbanging philosophies, but that theory was an example of a writer reaching for a point that sounds smart, but in the end, isn’t accurate.
So I was already skeptical when I saw the magazine decided to chart “America’s leading centers for musicians and the music industry.” The list had a few no-brainers—Nashville, New York and Los Angeles as the top three, respectively—but plenty of puzzling picks. Perhaps the most absurd is Kalamazoo, Michigan at number eight, which gets credit for the Gibson guitar factory, which isn’t even there anymore. I checked in with an old high-school buddy of mine who lives in the ‘Zoo for his take, not only as a local, but as someone who’s obsessed with both music and debating lists like this one. He said Western Michigan University has a strong music program and there’s one “Trocadero-like” venue in town. He also taught his daughter some Clapton songs on guitar, and I’m pretty sure he forces his kids to back him up on the Rock Band video game, so perhaps they’re considered semi-pros. “There is a Guitar Center, too,” he added. “Maybe that counts.”
A look at the article’s methodology sheds some light on the odd results. The author focused on two categories: the concentration of musicians, based on Bureau of Labor figures, and stats on “music and recording industry business establishments” (so maybe that Guitar Center really did help). Also factoring in is a “huge amount of data culled from MySpace,” whatever that means. Perhaps the lesson for Philadelphia is that locally bred Man Man, Santigold and Chiddy Bang aren’t keeping up with their social media (though Questlove’s Twitter account alone should be enough to put Philly in the top 20, at least).
The author stressses that he’s not considering “the vibrancy or impact or quality of artists” from any of these scenes. But since this story has to be, like, a story, and not just a rundown of government statistics (so not rock-n-roll), that’s exactly what he uses as reference points for each town. Washington D.C. ranks 26th and, we’re told, gave us Fugazi—whose last album was 12 years ago. Dallas gets credit as Meatloaf’s “home town.” And if Gloria Estefan is your proof that Miami is a music hub, you probably think the cops there wear pastel suits and everyone cruises around in cigarette boats listening to Glenn Frey tunes.
I wonder how it’s possible that the Philadelphia metro area doesn’t rank higher based on cover bands alone. On any given weekend at the Jersey Shore, there has to be at least 20 different groups cranking out Black Eyed Peas songs or one-hit wonders for the drunken masses. What bugged me the most about this list is that while music hotbeds like Eugene, Oregon get shout-outs (“home town of Tim Hardin”—they’re scoring points for dead people!), Philly is mentioned only as evidence that music has shifted away from some major markets. Meanwhile, there’s been a resurgence of small venues like Johnny Brenda’s, Kung-Fu Necktie and Milkboy that support local bands, along with artists that are still breathing and making a national impact (Taylor Swift, Pink, The Roots, and Diplo, to name just a few).
Of course, this is exactly what The Atlantic wanted—people who would read their story and react. Philly’s low score seems misguided, but so does the idea of rating music scenes without considering artistry and relevance. Fool me once, magazine editors, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me—and maybe it’s time to write a “Worst Lists” list.