Tell 'Em Where You're From: The Regional Anthems That Move Us
Across the United States, you'll find regional phrases, dishes, customs and quirks, as well as people eager to defend them. In its American Anthem series, NPR has been exploring songs that tap into collective emotions — and there are few more dramatic sights than a crowd shouting the same song in unison in an expression of hometown pride.
This week, the staff of NPR Music lends our hearts and hands to write about the songs that light up our home regions. Some, like "California Love" and "New York, New York," wear their allegiances on their sleeves. Others are spiritual cousins, embraced across state lines by communities who see and hear themselves in the music. As with all the songs in this series, the soul of an anthem isn't in who writes it, but who claims it as their own.
"No Mo Play In GA" by Pastor Troy
We get. Buck. Crunk. Turnt. Lit. In regional parlance, they're all variations on the same theme. And in Atlanta, we embody them all. But hip-hop's capital outpost hasn't always occupied the center of rap's sphere of influence. Even with OutKast ascending toward the stratosphere by the late '90s, we were still some underdogs down south. Like battle hymns of ill repute, our songs bore out that truth. We tended to wear our pride on our sleeve.
It's a fitting narrative for a city whose professional sports teams were perennial losers, even as our musical heirs provided the winning score of the aughts. Needless to say, we have more anthems than you can shake a stick at (a recent episode of the podcast The Nod highlighted the resilience of Crime Mob's "Knuck If You Buck"). But the most spirited Atlanta anthem is not by such usual suspects as OutKast, T.I. or Lil Jon – though the King of Crunk definitely has his fair share. Neither is it produced by Jermaine Dupri, Zaytoven or any other super-producer praised, past or present, for shepherding the sound of Atlanta to international appeal. That honor belongs to one Pastor Troy: His regional hit "No Mo Play In GA" may have never made a dent beyond the Mason-Dixon, but it's been the heartbeat of The Peach State for the past 20 years.
Released independently in 1998, it resembled an indigenous war chant more than a potential party starter. The end of the millennium was closing in and the apocalypse sounded like this: ominous piano licks, automatic gun spray and the pastor's rabid, drill-instructor ad-libs. Instead of the warm, rumbling 808-bass now synonymous with Atlanta, this was low-budget handiwork: a taunting, skeletal track constructed around breathless Southern aggression.
Troy wasn't a pastor in the theological sense, though his father was. Yet Troy pioneered a newfangled fire-and-brimstone tradition when he erupted onto the scene. Originally aimed at Master P's No Limit tank over in New Orleans, the single made its earliest waves in Augusta, Ga. — where Troy was enrolled at Paine College — before spreading statewide, from high school pep rallies to Atlanta Falcons crusades under the old Georgia Dome, with crowds chanting, "We ready! We ready!"
Buried beneath Pastor Troy's paean is a whole heap of pain. Us Georgia boys were tired of being skipped over by rap's bicoastal feuds and industry bias. We were ready to come up, and we spent the last two decades proving out Troy's battle cry, all the way to the top of the Billboard charts. Three years after Andre 3000 infamously proclaimed "the South got something to say" at the 1995 Source Awards, Pastor Troy incited a riot with "No Mo Play In GA." The church has been screaming amen ever since. — Rodney Carmichael
"Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond
The unofficial anthem of Boston's Fenway Park has nothing to do with the hometown Red Sox, the city of Boston or even baseball in general. Which, in some ways, is the key to its 16-year run as the soundtrack to the middle of the eighth inning at the nation's most charming ballpark. Fenway has become a destination in and of itself, appealing to fans of all persuasions — and when you're trying to unite 30,000 people behind a common cause, the less specific the theme, the better. Look no further than the sing-along refrains: "Ba, ba, baaa" and, "So good! So good!" No matter where you're from or which team you're rooting for, it's easy to get wrapped up in the communal experience (unless, you know, you can't stand Neil Diamond). — Otis Hart
"California Love" by 2Pac feat. Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman
As a California native — born in Fresno, raised in Sacramento, came of age in the Bay Area and finally settled in Los Angeles — from the "hip-hop generation," I am confident in my choice of "California Love" as the Golden State's anthem.
Dr. Dre and 2Pac's 1995 hit was a triumph because it united this massive state from north to south and east to west, which is no easy feat. The minute that robotic "California love" hits your ears, your hand is in the air — whether you're stuck in traffic on the 405, sitting in the nosebleeds at a Warriors game or grilling carne asada with your fam at a local park. More than two decades later, "California Love" reminds us to celebrate life because it's short (rest in peace, 2Pac) and because we're damn good at it: California knows how to party. My husband, who's from east San Jose, and I, chose "California Love" for our entrance song when we got married. We couldn't think of a better way to start our lives together: dubs raised, waiting for the beat to drop so we could shake, shake it, baby. — Shereen Marisol Meraji
"Cleveland Rocks" by Ian Hunter
When Ian Hunter released "Cleveland Rocks" on his 1979 solo album You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, Cleveland was the butt of late-night comedians' jokes. The city had defaulted on its financial obligations the year before, unemployment was high and lake and river pollution seemed unsolvable. And there wasn't much to celebrate in sports, often the breeding ground of city anthems: The Cavaliers, Indians and Browns could not bring home championships.
But Hunter knew from back in his days with Mott the Hoople that Clevelanders were passionate about rock and roll, passion he describes in the song as "all this energy calling me." Mott, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen built big audiences in Cleveland before the rest of the country caught on, and Clevelanders were (and are) proud of the radio stations and clubs of the '70s.
Opening with an air check from WJW disc jockey Alan Freed, who played R&B records for white listeners and staged the first rock and roll shows in the city, the song hits paydirt in the chorus, repeating "Cleveland rocks" over and over and over again. If you listened to FM radio in the '70s and early '80s anywhere in the country, "Cleveland Rocks" made the city seem like the coolest place in the world. In the '90s, Cleveland native Drew Carey used a version by The Presidents Of The United States Of America to open The Drew Carey Show, bringing it into the mainstream. You'll hear it chanted at all sports victories; you'll see it printed on T-shirts and hats. Cleveland has experimented with other city slogans over the last few decades of renewal ("Cleveland's a Plum"), but "Cleveland Rocks" is one that will always stick. — Lauren Onkey
"Margaritaville" by Jimmy Buffett
Whether we like it or not, an out-of-towner wrote the most Florida song of all time. Mississippi native Jimmy Buffett built his musical (and culinary) empire on the vision of a place where people drink cocktails all day and find their courage in lost shakers of salt.
Like the song, that phenomenon has a dark side. About a year ago, I searched city forums for "Keys disease," the phenomenon of substance abuse, mental illness and poverty that sometimes afflicts those who come to South Florida in search of paradise. "If you can't be happy in 'paradise,' the problem must be YOU, right?" a user named StarfishKey wrote to me. "Because everybody else seems so happy, and their lives so easy, and they have so much money ... and you can't even afford a small boat to ever see the water, nor keep a job or place to live, and there is no one to be close to but plenty of people to gossip about you."
Whether its Buffett's beach refuge or Henry Flagler's railroad into the sea, Florida has always been a canvas for escapism. So many you meet are perma-vacationers, snowbirds, retirees; others of us come from the reaches of Cuba, Haiti or Latin America. All come in search of something better, or lost. — Stefanie Fernández
"Friends in Low Places" by Garth Brooks (Not available for streaming)
Garth Brooks may not be from Kansas City, but the Tulsa, Okla.-born country icon's deep connections might as well make him an honorary resident. After Brooks performed eight consecutive sold-out concerts at the newly-opened Sprint Center in 2007, the Kansas City Royals installed "Friends in Low Places," the chart-topping single from his 1990 album No Fences, as the traditional sing-along at Kauffman Stadium, complete with video intros by Brooks himself. When he returned for another seven shows in 2017, Royals players joined him onstage to dance to the song as T-shirt and confetti cannons fired into the crowd. Already a signature number for the artist, the song has now become an unofficial anthem for the city — so much so that when Kauffman briefly replaced it, fans lost their minds and it was brought back.
On its surface, "Friends in Low Places" is about a drunk guy crashing his ex's wedding reception and making complete fool of himself in front of fancy guests. In any other ballad, that premise could be a rote lament, yet "Friends" is raucous and celebratory, touching on the familiar country trope of sticking up for humble roots. Brooks' narrator finds authenticity in his working class ethic, cowboy boots and dive bars rather than champagne toasts at black tie affairs, singing: "'Cause I've got friends in low places / Where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases my blues away / And I'll be okay." — Mike Katzif
New York City
"Theme from New York, New York" by Frank Sinatra
In the mind of this Manhattan-bred '80s baby, there's never been a time when Yankees games and New Year's Rockin' Eve celebrations were not legally obligated to play "New York, New York" before calling it a night. In reality, Sinatra's version is only a few years older than I am, but its swaggering horns arrive with enough confidence to remind you that the best American success stories are also revisionist histories, so burnished by glory that they come to feel inevitable. Never mind that this song's true originator is Liza Minnelli, who had the honor of performing it as the title theme in one of Martin Scorsese's worst films. Never mind that a song with the exact same name and premise, also famously sung by Frank Sinatra, predates it by three decades. Certainly don't mind that by the time he released Trilogy: Past Present Future in 1980, Sinatra was retirement-aged, well into his Vegas phase, and by rights should never have seen another hit.
In hindsight, it all just works, regardless of context — enough that no matter wherever its words resurface, be they quoted in a song about a drug dealer's American dream or sung by a scaly puppet in Gremlins 2 (a true New York movie, all jokes aside), we accept it without question. The old-time glamour and schmaltz of this song do not reward up-close scrutiny; rather, it's the kind of thing best viewed from a distance, its light refracted through a haze of expectation that lets it represent whatever you want it to. Kind of like New York. — Daoud Tyler-Ameen
"Cupid Shuffle" by Cupid and "Wobble" by V.I.C.
When you live in Tuscaloosa for more than five years, as I did, you can get awfully sick of "Sweet Home Alabama": The song's infernal catchiness and the complexities reflected in its long lifespan (cf. the Drive-By Truckers) can't erase the racist politics at its core. "Sweet Home Alabama" has faced a few equally questionable contenders for its crown as unofficial anthem, including a date-rapey rewrite of the band Alabama's "Dixieland Delight." For a few years in the past decade, though, two songs — or, really, dances — emerged to make mob singalongs bearable, even vaguely utopian, in the Yellowhammer State. Both came from bordering states and remain regional favorites. In Tuscaloosa, they felt especially necessary, replacing bellowed choruses with swaying hips, aggressiveness with finesse.
Are "Cupid Shuffle" and "Wobble" anthems, exactly? I say yes, as they build the kind of trust and harmony — if only for a moment — that serves as an antidote to Alabama's rough legacies."Down, down, do your dance!" goes the chorus of "Cupid Shuffle," by Louisiana's Cupid, a one-time The Voice contestant and Guinness World Record holder (for largest line dance assembled). The track's snap beat got people moving left and right, forward and back, all waiting for that busting-loose moment when Cupid sings, "Now, walk it by yourself!" The appeal of Georgia rapper V.I.C.'s "Wobble" is a little different: It's all about that rump-shaking move, foundation of the African dance diaspora.
When "Wobble" and "Cupid Shuffle" overtook the South, weddings, school dances, community board meetings and tailgate parties found a new engine for communal joy, one grounded in African-American street culture and hip-hop entrepreneurship. And so did the Crimson Tide, when the legendary coach Nick Saban himself did the dances to snare some promising recruits (both Eddie Smith and Jared Mayden signed for the Tide). Do your dance, Alabama, into the future. Those old songs still echo, but these new anthems aren't fading away. — Ann Powers
"Bustin' Loose" by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers
This August, Washington, D.C., landmark Ben's Chili Bowl will celebrate its 60th anniversary. The restaurant is known not only for its savory half-smokes (the District's special sausage dish) but its historic place on U Street, once known as Black Broadway, with scores of other prosperous black-owned businesses. On an alley-facing wall of the building's exterior, a colorful mural features VIPs and luminaries, among them Barack and Michelle Obama, Dave Chappelle, Prince — and hometown hero Chuck Brown. Brown was the celebrated godfather of go-go, a distinctive subgenre of funk he pioneered in the early 1970s. Hypnotic and syncopated, it's like a super-slowed-down disco groove, dominated by heavy percussion and interspersed with rhythmic talking and singing.
In 1979, Brown's biggest hit, "Bustin' Loose," sat at the top of the charts for weeks. It was the first go-go track to receive national recognition, and arguably remains the style's best-known song; D.C. residents heard it for years every time the Washington Nationals scored a home run. But more importantly, this song was and continues to be a symbol of the District's rich African-American cultural legacy. Brown died in 2012, but his website reminds us that go-go is "the only form of expressive culture to originate in the District of Columbia." Almost 40 years later, "Bustin' Loose" is the theme song that keeps the tradition going. — Suraya Mohamed
Web intern Emily Abshire contributed to this story.