Picking a ‘state song’ is just another way to stoke the culture wars

A bill in the Legislature (SB 105) would establish “My 603” by Candia country musician Nicole Knox Murphy as the official New Hampshire state song. By law. 

Don’t like the song? Too bad. Think another song better represents New Hampshire? Too bad. Legislators would decree that this song is the best of all possible New Hampshire songs, and no other is worthy of the title of New Hampshire State Song.

Silly, isn’t it? Yes, but divisive and culturally harmful too. 

Without opining on the merits of “My 603,” which you can listen to here, this is a great opportunity to review the reasons why government meddling in the arts is like poking a hornet’s nest with a drum stick. 

To start, art is inherently subjective. Music is an art. What music you like is a matter of personal taste, shaped by the culture in which you were raised. 

Beatles or Stones? Aerosmith or Van Halen? West Coast rap or East Coast? Baroque or Classical? Late Romantic or Early Romantic? Bop or Cool or Swing or Dixieland? Chicago or Delta? Honky Tonk or Bakersfield? Outlaw Country or Country Rock? The divisions are endless. 

Music, even the most sophisticated, affects human beings in elemental, primitive ways. It elicits emotion, not reason. 

Designating an official state song has the same effect. The point is to make people feel, not think. And it works. 

Because we live in a highly pluralistic culture, finding a song that resonates equally with everyone is a challenge, even in a state as small and ethnically homogenous as New Hampshire. 

A possible exception would be the selection of an old, widely cherished song that has been woven into the broader culture. But even there, lyrics are scrutinized, rivals debated. 

New Hampshire has had its share of talented musicians, but no song about the state has attained cultural currency. The closest is a (truly great) parody song, Granite State of Mind. 

“New Hampshire” by Sonic Youth, which seems to reference Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, resonates with grungy children of the ‘90s, but its charms are probably lost on everyone else. 

The song that most unites Granite Staters is arguably “Sweet Caroline,” but not for reasons that have anything to do with the greatness of the Granite State. Lyrically, it’s no New Hampshire anthem. 

Well-known songs that might capture the spirit of New Hampshire — “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty (The choice of NH Journal’s Michael Graham), “You Are (The Government) by Bad Religion, “I’m The Boss” by The Vandals, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister, “I’m Free” by The Who — aren’t about the state and would divide people along lines of age and taste. 

Even in a state famous for its wealth of musical talent and single, dominant genre of music — Tennessee — settling on a state song has been a nearly century-long headache.

Tennessee has nine state songs. NINE! 

The first official State Song of Tennessee was “My Homeland, Tennessee,” adopted in 1925. But that didn’t satisfy everyone. Only a decade later, the state adopted another official song. Every few decades, politicians would add another to the list. The last was added in 2012. 

In 1996, politicians felt the need to designate an official state rap song. So they chose something called “A Tennessee Bicentennial Rap: 1796-1996.” (Listen at your own risk.)

This was four years after alternative hip-hop group Arrested Development scored a No. 1 hit with a song called “Tennessee” (about longing to go home to that state), which won a Grammy. 

Tennessee’s politicians determined that a hugely popular and artistically celebrated rap song about nostalgic longing to live in their state was less suitable for governmental recognition than an unlistenable novelty song. 

Ah, politics.

Back to New Hampshire, the bill to designate New Hampshire’s state song is sponsored by Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester. That city is home to (quite talented) country singer Jimmy Lehoux, who for decades has performed a popular song called “White Mountain Fever.”

Sen. Cavanaugh’s bill raises the obvious question: Why is a Candia country singer’s song more worthy of becoming the official state song than one written by a Manchester country singer?

These are the emotional, divisive discussions inevitably created by the injection of politics into art and culture. 

And they’re entirely unnecessary. When politicians do these silly designations, they create arguments where none existed before. They intrude upon a previously peaceful realm and render it with divisions. 

The appropriation of private works of art as official government symbols and icons is an unmerited intrusion into areas where government has no business meddling. We should stop encouraging it.