I Do Know Jack. That’s the Whole Problem!

Like so many residents of Washington, DC, I am originally from elsewhere — Boston, specifically. Earlier this summer, I took the opportunity to ship up to Boston to attend the wedding of one my closest friends. The date that he chose for the ceremony, June 12th, was a significant one because it fell during the twelfth meeting of the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. At the time of the ceremony, the series was tied 2-2.

I suppose that I should make it clear early on in this posting that I am neither a sports analyst nor a sports historian — and I am probably not much of a sports writer, either. Nevertheless, as I look back on the glorious wedding reception that followed my friend’s ceremony, I’m startled by how relevant the “storied” Boston-LA rivalry was to one particular song that the DJ played that evening.

About halfway through the reception, just as the party was moving from stately to unruly, the entire room was propelled onto the dance floor care of the opening one-two stomp of “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys. I mean that, too. The. Entire. Room. Fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, grandmothers and grandfathers all jumping, dancing, and shouting the lyrics (or at least the “wah, oh-oh’s” backing each chorus). It was probably the most intense three minutes of the night, and the dance floor will never be quite the same as a result.

At the time, I found the moment quite odd—and not because I’m some kind of stuffy rockist jerk. Most of my close friends played in hardcore bands when we were in high school, so I’ve actually become quite fond of the culture (I now live in DC, don’t I?). No, what I found so unexpected about seeing the Dropkick Murphys celebrated so openly was knowing that, these days, most people think of “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” as the theme song to Martin Scorsese’s film The Departed (2006). Yes, I know that the Celtics and the Boston Red Sox have taken to playing snippets of the track at their home games, but given the price both teams charge for admission, I’d wager that most people at my friend’s reception see Jack Nicholson’s face and hear his affected Boston accent when they hear the song.

Which brings me to my point. This is the Jack Nicholson all of us Bostonians got to know so well over the course of the most recent Boston-LA series:

On the, um, face of it, there’s really no argument to be had here. I’m talking about music and movies, musicians and actors. Apples and oranges, right? Perhaps. Yet, it seems to me that the image of a bunch of very faithful Boston sports fans dancing full throttle to a song made most famous by its role in a movie starring an actor who hangs with the Laker Girls would strike most people as a bit contradictory. At least it did to me.

Over time, however, I came to realize that, in many ways, the three minutes of communal dancing that the Dropkick Murphys inspired at my friend’s wedding reception represent the best and the worst of what music fandom—or any fandom, really—entails. On the one hand, there’s that adrenaline rush that accompanies those listening experiences when, to cite Kerouac, we feel IT—when the visceral power of music shatters the boundaries of time, space, and age to the point where even my mother (and perhaps yours as well) can feel comfortable doing a herky-jerky jig in front of complete strangers. On the other hand, there’s that bullheaded provincialism that bolsters so many music scenes—that stubborn belief that this song, this band, this album is ours and that none of you can ever or should ever rob it of its rightful home, which is clearly the position that I took that night. Jack might have played a Bostonian in a movie, but we all know he was dancing in the streets of L.A. this past June.

The reality, thankfully, is much more complex than those tired oppositions. For starters, the Dropkick Murphys are native Bostonians. Why shouldn’t their music be used as the score for a major motion picture? Realism, local color, and context all benefit from “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”‘s inclusion in The Departed.

More significantly, though, is the basic fact that what makes music (and film, arguably) accessible in the first place is its ability to be both of a place and out of place. Fans needn’t be from Boston to be fans of the Dropkick Murphys or Mission of Burma or Aerosmith any more so than they would need to be from California to adore the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Black Flag or BlowUpDollz. And as much as us critics who historicize music scenes try to contain them within certain cultural and geographical contexts—Interpol personify New York City; R.E.M., Athens; the Replacements, blue-collar Minneapolis, etc.—those contexts rarely matter in the passion of the moment, be it on the dance floor, in the mosh pit, or on the lawn at your favorite pavilion.

Sure, music can be incredibly divisive, sometimes deliberately so. But in an age when so many of us rip music in order to store it on various mobile devices that can be transported anywhere and everywhere, policing entrenched (sub)cultural boundaries seems, well, a bit controversial, if not entirely outdated.

To put all of this back in sports terms, the Celtics’ Paul Pierce grew up in California and used to hate the Celtics. Now, of course, Boston loves him. That narrative, as much as it is a sports story, is not just a sports story, and it should not be boxed out of discussions of other media forms. Rather, it should be acknowledged for revealing an important truth—The Truth?—of our contemporary cultural moment, a moment that is increasingly mobile and fluid and that should find us fans of pop culture everywhere becoming less and less provincial, even as we remain faithful to all the places we departed.