The United States of Pop Music

Pop music is an interesting animal, in that it’s a genre that is defined to exist without a solid stylistic definition.  Certainly, much pop music has common threads, such as relatively simple tonal and harmonic properties, in some cases a beat for dancing, and nearly always, a “catchy-ness” that allows a song to get stuck in one’s head ad infinitum.  Indeed, the genre of pop music is at least partially defined by the term from where the genre’s title originated: popular.  We’re looking at music that is the most popular.

How do we measure if music is popular?  Album sales is a pretty easy one to use, because that provides some quantitative data that we can use as a basis for solid comparison.  Sure, using album sales has its flaws — no input for Youtube views, Pandora plays, radio airtime, pirated copies, casual radio fanhood, or even concert attendance — but it gives us a place to start.  Another unfortunate flaw is that it tends to prioritize older, or at least, long-established artists in two ways.  First, today’s album sales aren’t what they used to be, according to the RIAA and it’s obnoxious vendetta against pirates.  Second, and perhaps most crucial, it takes a while for any artist to catch up with the best-seller in their state.  I mean, Lady Gaga, for all of her success (11 million albums sold in the US), has a long way to go before catching Billy Joel (80 million), but Mr. Joel has had a few more decades to sell.  Lady Gaga is hopelessly unlucky there; if she’d been from Alaska, for instance, she’d been on top long ago.

Now, how do we determine what state an act represents?  For solo artists, birthplaces, childhood homes, where they spent formative years, places they lived are all considerations.  For bands and groups, place of formation is the biggest one, followed by places of other important milestones, and birthplaces of members. It may not be the best set of criteria, but it’s something with solid information on which to base the location.

Does taste have anything to do with this map?  Yes, and no.  Not my tastes, per se; I certainly wouldn’t have chosen a number of these artists if my personal tastes were the method for choosing pop artists to represent each state.  But in a way, it does represent, to a point, tastes of the wider public as represented through album sales.  Now, of course, these aren’t the 50 (er, 52…) most popular artists in U.S. history.  I mean, look at Michigan… Madonna’s commercial success outranks the entirety of amazing Motown groups, which in the opinions of many (including myself) are musically superior to The Material Girl.  She also wipes out Eminem, whose album sales would have outranked the representative artists of some 31 other states, if only he’d been from there.

  • Alabama – The band Alabama was formed in Fort Payne.
  • Alaska – 36 Crazyfists* is a metal band formed in Kenai.
  • Arizona – Linda Ronstadt was born and raised in Tucson.
  • Arkansas – Johnny Cash was born and raised in Kingsland.
  • California – The Eagles formed in Los Angeles.
  • Colorado – India.Arie is from Denver.
  • Connecticut – Michael Bolton was born and raised in New Haven.
  • Delaware – George Thorogood was born in Wilmington.
  • District of Columbia – Marvin Gaye started his career in Washington.
  • Florida – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers formed in Gainesville.
  • Georgia – Alan Jackson was born and raised in Newnan.
  • Hawaii – Bette Midler was born in Honolulu.
  • Idaho – Built to Spill was formed in Boise.
  • Illinois – The band Chicago formed in the city of Chicago on the campus of DePaul University.
  • Indiana – Michael Jackson was born and raised in Gary.
  • Iowa – Andy Williams was born in Wall Lake.
  • Kansas – The band Kansas originated in Topeka.
  • Kentucky – John Michael Montgomery was born and raised in Danville.
  • Louisiana – Tim McGraw was born and raised in Delhi.
  • Maine – Dan Fogelberg maintained a residence through much of his later life in Deer Isle.
  • Maryland – Tupac Shakur spent his teenage years in Baltimore.
  • Massachusetts – Aerosmith formed in Boston.
  • Michigan – Madonna was born and raised in Bay City.
  • Minnesota – Prince, born raised and still lives in Minneapolis.
  • Mississippi – Britney Spears was born and attended high school in McComb.
  • Missouri – Tina Turner attended high school in St. Louis and got her musical career started in clubs there.
  • Montana – Several members of The Decemberists were born and raised in Montana.
  • Nebraska – 311 formed in Omaha.
  • Nevada – Frank Sinatra was in residence in Las Vegas for a good part of the 1950s and 1960s.
  • New Hampshire – The Queers*, a pop-punk band, were formed in Portsmouth.
  • New Jersey – Do I have to explain this one?
  • New Mexico – John Devner was born in Roswell.
  • New York – Billy Joel was born and raised in New York City.
  • North Carolina – Randy Travis was born and raised in Marshville.
  • North Dakota – Lawrence Welk was born and raised in Strasborg.
  • Ohio – Rascal Flatts was formed in Columbus.
  • Oklahoma – Garth Brooks was born and raised in Tulsa and started his music career in Stillwater.
  • Oregon – Elliot Smith* lived most of his life in Portland.
  • Pennsylvania – Boyz II Men was formed in Philadelphia.
  • Puerto Rico – Ricky Martin is originally from San Juan.
  • Rhode Island – Several members of Talking Heads met in college at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
  • South Carolina – Hootie and the Blowfish formed in Columbia.
  • South Dakota – Indigenous is a Native American blues band based in the town of Marty.
  • Tennessee – Elvis Presley had a longtime home in Graceland
  • Texas – George Strait was born and raised in Houston.
  • Utah – Jewel was born and raised in Payson.
  • Vermont – Drowningman*, a hardcore punk band, was formed in Burlington.
  • Virginia – Dave Matthews Band was formed in Charlottesville.
  • Washington – Too ironic, this one.  Home of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but the best-selling artist from Washington?  None other than Kenny G, who was born and raised in Seattle.
  • West Virginia – Michael W. Smith was born and raised in Kenova.
  • Wisconsin – Violent Femmes formed in Milwaukee.
  • Wyoming – Spencer Bohren* was born and raised in Casper.

*- means that hard albums sales data was not available, top-selling status uncertain but inferred from artist discography and other online resources.

So, do you like your state’s representation?  Are you embarrassed by it?  (I’m looking at you, Misssissippi!)  What do you think?

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

23 thoughts on “The United States of Pop Music”

  1. I would rather have my homestate represented by Jewel (her poetry changed my life), but in Utah The Osmonds are king. It is sad, but true.

  2. I’m mid-thirties, from Seattle and wear flannel. I guess it’s time to go buy a Pearl Jam album or two so this doesn’t happen again.

    1. Agreed!!!! But then again, Kenny G has a 16.5 million album lead — he’s sold 48 million! — on Pearl Jam (only 31.5 million). What does that say about America?

      1. It says that Kenny G has nearly 30 albums (for comparison, Pearl Jam has 9, plus 3 or 4 live albums. Soundgarden has 5). Perhaps the math would work better if you calculated (copies of albums sold)/(albums released).

        Also: It’s a pretty broad definition of “pop” that includes Kenny G.

        1. That’s a decent idea in terms of methodology, except that people (who???? I’m not sure if I want to know!) are still buying his albums, all 30 of them.

          I may adjust that for an updated map, just to see what the differences would be. Wouldn’t that, though, privilege one-hit wonders and musicians with shorter, brighter careers? I honestly am not sure what the consequences would be without recreating the map.

          1. I wondered the same thing… too many albums that don’t sell as well as the “hits” would drag an artist down… but I think that a one-hit wonder would be hard-pressed to compete with a consistent selling discography.

            On the other hand, its probable that some additional math could factor in career-longevity, though I have no ideas what that would look like.

  3. Being from VA and currently living in NC, you were right on target with our representation. However, I was from near Charlottesville (DMB country), and currently live in Concord, which isn’t that far from Marshville(Randy Travis’ hometown), so my views may be a little skewed.

  4. I respect Elvis as your choice for Tennessee because he lived and recorded throughout his prime in Memphis at Graceland, but he was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, not Tennessee.

    p.s. Take Kenny G. off your map and replace it with Pearl Jam immediately. G’s musak is played in elevators. Pearl Jam’s music was the soundtrack for and the soul of a geographically-unique cultural revolution. Maybe ‘strength of geographic association’ should be added as a criteria, albiet a very subjective one.

    1. Re: Elvis, you’re right… I goofed. But then, I think Tennessee is the strongest association we have with Elvis because of his career there.

      Re: Kenny G, it hurt my soul to label the map that way, trust me. I tried to avoid subjectivity as much as possible with this map as a bit of an experiment. I may well put out a more subjective map in a little bit of time.

  5. I have a bit of a beef with your criteria. To be born or have started your career in a state is different from being identified with it. In other words, Talking Heads is a quintessential NY band, despite having met at RISD. Jewel is closely identified with Alaska not Utah. And so forth. Sorry, but for us music geeks this is a sticky point, my friend.

    1. That’s a fair critique. I was clear with the methods so that no doubt about the criteria would exist, and used such a blunt criteria as an experiment of my own… An attempt to gauge taste without actually gauging taste. I might eventually create a separate map focusing on cultural connections as a criteria later on.

      And, let’s be honest, most people who enjoy music don’t enjoy most of the names on this map anyway…. myself included.

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