The State of Cool

How the middle of nowhere became the center of everything.

Look at you. Supping on sushi, sipping pisco sours (and only one at a time!), critiquing architecture as though blueprints were beach reading.

A few years ago, you would’ve thought a YBA was a degree in yo-yoing; now you’re namedropping every Young British Artist who crosses the pond.

But whatever. We’re all cool here now, as of roughly ï¬ve minutes ago. It doesn’t matter that I prefer the tunes of Frankie “Polka King” Yankovic to the art of Frank Stella, or that I once declared my favorite music to be anything that gets faster as it goes along, like “Hava Nagila” or the “Chicken Dance.” It doesn’t matter that our state mascots are a bucktoothed rodent and a bird that takes off like a rubber chicken from a slingshot. The Twin Cities have reached critical coolness, and no amount of Cracker Barrels or jean shorts can take that away from us.

How did this happen? One day we’re downing mushy peas at Pearson’s, the next we’re slicing through slabs of Wagyu beef. Our chefs won’t cook anything now that wasn’t sunbathing an hour ago at an organic farm within 40 miles. And what of our nightlife? You realize the song “Funkytown” is ironic, right? That our mainstream club scene was so milquetoast in 1979we wouldn’t have known a backbeat if it booted us off our tractors? Now there’s enough velvet rope in downtown Minneapolis to keep an army of square dancers at bay.

If TIME magazine was right in 1973, when it suggested that to search for Saturday evening entertainment in Minneapolis “is to be conscious that nights are for sleeping,” then the times they have a-changed. But they haven’t changed everywhere; Cleveland, St. Louis, Detroit are not cool the way the Twin Cities are now. No one’s hailing those cities for their architecture, the way Newsweek declared Minneapolis “design city” last year. Or for their arts scene, the way USA Today lauded Minneapolis. To visit even much larger metropolises—from Houston to San Diego to Philadelphia—is to be conscious that size does not matter.

Something happened here, and no single phenomenon accounts for it. Not our famous philanthropy or our many Fortune 500 headquarters or even all those foreign dudes who designed the new Walker Art Center, the new Guthrie Theater, and the new downtown Minneapolis library. Rather, we owe our distinction to the way myriad things, and not a little luck, have come together—a perfect storm of coolness. If it had not happened exactly this way—if we had tried to imitate New York, if the Daytons had lived somewhere else—we might be merely cold instead of cool.

We were cool once before, actually. It was 1984. Prince had the number one song in the country from his hit soundtrack to his hit movie, Purple Rain. The Replacements, a band that could sing eloquently of wasted youth despite being wasted, released the album Let It Be, defining the alternative-music scene. And the local ad agency then known as Fallon McElligott Rice stole the One Show in New York, winning six gold awards on advertising’s biggest night. They would later be named agency of the year by Advertising Age magazine, the first midsize firm accorded the honor. For once, we smelled like roses instead of lutefisk.

Trouble was, no one noticed. You almost had to be related to The Replacements members, or at least relate to them, to know about their underground music. You had to read Ad Age to care about Fallon. And even if Prince’s domain was popular culture, most Minnesotans weren’t about to bow before a man with ruffled shirts and a thing for raspberry berets. If 1984 looks like a watershed year today, Twin Citians at the time could be forgiven for acting like nothing had happened, plodding to their jobs at 3M and polka dancing at Nye’s (and not ironically).

What we had in the ’80s and early ’90s was an exclusive kind of cool, appreciable only to those with the right magazine subscriptions. I should know—I was one of them. As a student of ad copywriting at the University of Minnesota, I dutifully bowed before the work of Fallon McElligott, and when I talked Pat Fallon into addressing my classmates, at least one kid literally bowed before me.

This was arguably the asshole age of advertising, when creative directors strutted like gods, as though they had created the moon, not a Wheaties ad. Firms like Fallon could get away with such scandals as the so-called Dinka Incident: When the director of the Women’s Center at Minnesota State University—Mankato complained about the agency’s “male gonad” style, specifically its ad for the TV show Dynasty, in which three female characters appeared under the headline “Bitch, Bitch, Bitch,” a Fallon employee mailed her a picture of an African tribesman pressing his face to a cow’s rear and suggested she address that deviant behavior instead. Later, the company sent her a pith helmet and offered to buy her a one-way ticket to Africa. Well, they did lose some $22 million in business. But kids like me still did almost anything to impress these agencies. One of my classmates sent more than a hundred fortune cookies to a firm, including one giant cookie with the message “hire me.” Another delivered a live dog, bearing a similar message. We were only slightly less obnoxious than the ads.

But this clubbiness isn’t sustainable, of course—there’s always going to be someone cooler than you. It can even be masochistic. At the old Loring Café, likely the hippest hangout in Minneapolis during the ’90s, I never rated the attention of the aloof waitresses and once received the worst service of my life. Sitting outside on a hot day, I asked for ice cream; about half an hour later I was brought three tiny scoops and no spoon. After another 20 minutes, the waitress brought a utensil for me—a fork, and to the wrong table. Not that it mattered much—my ice cream had melted.

This kind of cool isn’t terribly unique, either—every good-sized city has an exclusive enclave of hipsters. Nor is it very Minnesotan. In fact, it’s very New York. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. In The Mad Monks’ Guide to New York City, an irreverent travel tome, authors James Crotty and Michael Lane (a.k.a. the Monks) take aim at the city’s avant-garde. Its “sleek and empty” aesthetic, they say, has distorted New York’s bighearted spirit into something narrower and less accessible, and for this the authors blame Andy Warhol, “the cold, distant, disingenuous face of popism.” True coolness, they argue, “is inclusive, not exclusive.”

It’s a good thing, then, that Minnesotans in general are almost preternaturally inclusive, if initially shy. Our niceness, sappy as it sounds, is what eventually made us cool. It just took us awhile to stop acting like everyone else.


Truth be told, we didn’t deserve to be cool in 1984. What passed for ethnic food here was spaghetti. Our diversity, on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being a Benetton ad, 1 being Aryan Nations) was about a 2 (Hootie & the Blowfish). Our museums, as implied by the fortress-like 1970s additions to the Walker and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, were stuffy and forbidding. Even there, you had to be in with the “in crowd”; teenagers were about as welcome as wildlife art.

And then, hesitantly, we began to throw open our doors. In 1988, the MIA became one of the first museums in the country to offer free admission, something many New York museum directors still can’t bring themselves to endorse. In 1991, the Walker began offering Free First Saturdays, and later Free Thursday Nights. And in 1996, the Walker became the nation’s first museum to devote full-time staff to teen programs.

At the same time, people with last names not ending in “son” began flooding in: Minnesota’s foreign-born population more than doubled during the 1990s; 1 in 10 Minnesotans are immigrants or children of immigrants now—the sixth-highest percentage in the country. Which frankly makes our state more appealing to people who may want to move here but don’t know what an “uff da” is and don’t care to.

Sure, there are some fluky reasons for our distinctive quality of life: a diverse economy, good health care, water. We owe a lot, in fact, to a man with a pencil-thin mustache and a dislike for socks: Sir Tyrone Guthrie, the man architect Ralph Rapson called “an exciting, invigorating, dynamic, arrogant, obnoxious bastard,” who chose Minneapolis for his world-class theater. Among the other contenders? Milwaukee and Detroit. We now have one of the country’s most vibrant theater scenes; they have light beer and Oldsmobiles.

But mostly we’ve become cool not because of our blessings but because of what we’ve done with them—shared. Minnesotans, like most pioneer peoples, are hardly clubby, preferring open spaces, open government, heck, even open-faced sandwiches. We’re all in this Jell-O salad together. It’s a particularly Midwestern thing. I was once in a Kansas City store (okay, a hip underwear boutique) for no more than 10 minutes when the owner asked me what I was doing at 1:30 a.m.; a funky theater troupe would be performing then down the street. Could you imagine a New Yorker asking that of a tourist?

What’s more, we Midwesterners even kinda like each other. The Twin Cities, in particular, have what Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam calls high social capital—about the highest in the country—and it’s why Putnam recently suggested that if Hurricane Katrina had struck here instead of New Orleans (the capital of low social capital), the response would have been different. “The folks in St. Paul wouldn’t have been standing with guns on the bridges across the Mississippi up there,” he said, “trying to keep the people who were trying to flee devastated Minneapolis from getting into St. Paul.” To say the least.

We take this generosity for granted. But the Dayton Hudson Corp., whose heirs have kept our cultural institutions going for decades, was only the second American company to give a portion of profits to charity. As late as 1974, only 6 percent of American companies gave away more than $500 a year. In the 1973 TIME article on Minnesota, the author seems downright baffled by the altruism of local firms, marveling that most of them devoted a section of their annual reports to “ ‘social concerns’ or some such.”

All of that generosity really started paying off in the last decade, when some $500 million in capital campaigns built these cultural facilities the rest of the country now envies—the new Walker, the new Guthrie—and kept them accessible to visitors. By contrast, the Museum of Modern Art in New York charges $20 (though coincidentally its Free Friday Nights are sponsored by Target). The Metropolitan Museum of Art also asks for $20, even if it’s a suggested donation. “What is it about art,” sniffed the Met’s director recently, “that it shouldn’t be paid for?”

Point being, I might never be cool anywhere but here. As a person of modest means, with a modest haircut and a modest awareness of trends—someone who was never invited to raves in the ’90s or even slumber parties, really, in the ’80s—I could be cool in New York for maybe three months before I was demoted to a karaoke bar in Jersey. I couldn’t afford to be cool, and New York, frankly, couldn’t afford for someone like me to be considered cool. In a recent New Yorker piece on Harry Reasoner, who began his journalism career in Minneapolis before working at CBS News, the broadcaster was said to have struck the right balance between “Midwesternness and sophistication,” as though the qualities were mutually exclusive.

And maybe that’s just about right. The Twin Cities are cool not because they are the same as the world’s most sophisticated places—but because they are different. Let others make distinctions, erect barriers, draw lines. We want you to be cool here. And we don’t care if you know the Replacements’ original band name or where Tom McElligott labored as a copywriter before joining Fallon. Though just in case you find yourself far from home, that’d be Dogbreath and Dayton’s, respectively.

Tim Gihring is senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.

Cool in Theory

Things we’re supposed to love, but can’t

~ Nicollet Mall
~ Trader Joe’s
~ street food
~ light rail
~ Parisian-style condos
~ Happy Apple
~ Surly beer
~ Midtown Global Market
~ pronto pups
~ North Loop
~ Riverplace
~ burlesque
~ local wine
~ lacrosse
~ dog parks
~ Josh Hartnett
~ New Urbanism
~ charter schools
~ Voyageurs National Park
~ third parties
~ yoga
~ Robot Love
~ Tapes ‘n Tapes
~ winter
~ RollerGirls
~ Community Supported Agriculture
~parking-meter cards
~downtown Minneapolis Target store
~ prairies
~ Canada
~ lists
~ flash-seared food
~ magazine theme issues