Is there another city in the United States that lusts after Styx as much as Pittsburgh seems to?

For anyone whose musical taste wasn't forged in the mid- to late-1970s, Styx is a rock 'n' roll band that generated a string of albums and hits in that era. As someone whose musical taste was largely formed in that decade, I was and remain mostly dismissive of the quality of the music; I've long lumped Styx with Kansas, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, and Journey as practitioners of the power ballad: intricate keyboards, screaming guitar licks, and vocal schmaltz. And that despite the fact that I bought the Grand Illusion album and listened over and over again to "Fooling Yourself." In 1979 I moved eastward and discovered the Talking Heads, the B-52s, and REM; Styx was a bad high school memory.

But not in Pittsburgh or for Pittsburghers. The rest of the country jumped on 80s and 90s musical bandwagons, but in Pittsburgh, Styx remains a vital part of the city's cultural identity, for reasons that I can't completely decode -- except for the fact that much of the city's current self-image derives not from the steel-driven successes of the first-half of the 20th century, but from the demise of steel and the emergence of its successor in the 1970s. Steel put Pittsburgh on the international map. As steel died, professional sports kept it there and have kept it there ever since. Styx holds that narrative together.

Styx isn't really the glue itself; Styx is only a symbol. Styx = 1970s anthem rock. Pittsburgh Steelers = leading emblem of the 1970s City of Champions. Pittsburgh Steelers today = Working to recapture the magic of the Steel Curtain. Steelers and fans borrow Styx nostalgia to stoke the idea that today's team -- and by extension, I suspect, the city -- is the 1970s Steelers reborn, rather than a new team/city, with new leadership on and off the field. I was reminded again of the symbolism during last Sunday's Steelers/Browns game, when "Renegade," a Styx song that became an unofficial Steelers' anthem about five or six years ago, came on the Heinz Field PA system. I wasn't at the game. I was watching at home (and listening to Hillgrove et al., of course). The noise in the stadium must have been defeaning, since I could almost feel the stadium rocking to the music and the accompanying video.

What does this mean? I certainly don't advocate that the Steelers or the city should abandon its affection for the song or for the band. I don't advocate that the team or the city should aspire to be something other than what it is. But "what it is" -- and I'm tempting Gene Collier's wrath, perhaps, or at least a mention in his annual Trite Trophy competition -- is only gradually becoming clear. Steel, Steelers, and Styx aren't Pittsburgh culture itself. They are metaphors, emblems of our defining values and essential nostalgia. "Renegade" is a particularly and peculiarly iconic song, because "renegade" is one thing that Pittsburgh most definitely is not. Pittsburgh is an establishment town, proud to a fault of succeeding by playing by the rules. Pittsburgh is fixated on the sporting successes of the 1970s in large part, I suspect, because those victories were fairly earned. Adopting "Renegade" is partly a way of making a comparable claim of authenticity for the last several years' worth of Steelers (so long Neil! so long Kordell!) -- and because the Steelers represent Pittsburgh to the world, for the city as a whole (so long Tom!). But Renegade, like Pittsburgh, is loud and angry, defiant in a world that often no longer plays by the rules or rewards Pittsburgh's type of success. I wonder whether Dan Marino and Bill Fralic are Styx fans.

If you couldn't tell, I've been trying to get my head back into Pittsblog blogging. I'm not quite there yet, and if local Styx fans find this post, I've probably bought myself some unwanted criticism. Sorry; it's not intended, but then as you all know, I didn't grow up here. (I'll defend myself on grounds that should appeal to a related segment of Pittsburghers: In high school, I was a huge Lynyrd Skynyrd fan. IMHO, Free Bird is the greatest rock 'n' roll song of all time.) Still, I wonder what would happen if the Steelers - or Pirates - or Penguins - played Girl Talk or Jero during a home game. Would that be the end of civilization as Pittsburghers know it? Or the dawn of a new era? The questions seem appropriate as 2009 dawns. Happy new year, everyone.


9 Responses to "Styx"

Mme. Trois-Rivieres said... 12/31/2008 7:26 AM

[Slowly waves lighter]

Brett said... 12/31/2008 8:58 AM

First off--it's great to have you back, Mike!

Second, Journey is vastly superior to Styx in all respects, with possibly the exception of Renegade...I'm sure that statement won't spark the kind if discussion you were hoping for in this post!

Now I'm going to take a shot at being a music/societal critic, something which I'm extremely unqualified for. I agree with you about playing by the rules being Pittsburgh's MO, and how that's not so hot a commodity these days. But...when there's a group of people that is playing by the rules and keeps getting put down, those people start banding together and building at the grassroots level. Think of the rise of unions here.

Musically, what does that mean? Maybe Pittsburgh is ready for some kind of folk/garage rock music explosion? While the B52's don't really match the Pittsburgh/Steelers persona, maybe something a little more gritty and raw would?

Schultz said... 12/31/2008 11:16 AM

I was thinking along similar lines the other day but it was regarding Steelers fans, particularly how fickle and how tough they are on their coach. What I want to see from Steelers fans, which seem to be everyone in Pittsburgh besides myself and Madison, is that I wish more of them would be at least half as tough on their local politicians, particularly the mayor of Pittsburgh, who is not even qualified to run Wasilla let alone the former industrial capital of the world. I'm not asking that everyone care as much about politics as I do, but if they vote, at least vote for the guy who is best qualified to run the city, not the guy who annointed "the chosen one" by some committee. In 2008 I saw so many Pittsburghers of different ages, races, and religions become engaged in politics during the Pennsylvania Primary and general election than I did in 2007 or any other year since I moved here in '96. The level of participation during the Presidential election will be difficult to replicate at the local level, because we do not have anyone close to as charismatic or intelligent as a Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in local government, and I still think that most Pittsburghers do not believe that change can happen at the local level. Happy new year. I will see you in the funny pages. :)

Eric from Mentor, Ohio said... 12/31/2008 4:00 PM

Not only do I LOVE da Steelers, but STYX is my favorite group! I was very surprised a few years back to learn that "Renegade" was the "unofficial" song of the team, although it has been embraced outright.

The rise of the Steelers in the 1970s to their fall during the 1980s echoes STYX' with the huge hits during the 1970s and then bottoming out after 1983's "Kilroy was Here" album (my first album, by the way). STYX, for those who haven't witnessed the rebirth since Dennis DeYoung was let go from the roster, is an awesome band with so much more to say. They ROCK now more than ever -- sadly, I love DeYoung, but his songs dragged the band down in concert. Their shows are all upbeat, and friendly to the family, also.

Go Steelers! Keep it up STYX!

Brandon said... 12/31/2008 5:48 PM

(First of all: I really love posts like this, because these are the kind of issues that I'm obsessed with.)

I think that popular music, what's on the radio at any given time, is tightly entwined with the era in which it appears. Unlike "high" art, pop music doesn't have much of a long shelf life, so new eras will almost always have a new soundtrack. In this regard, you were right: Pittsburghers (the seeming majority, anyway) have an affection for 70s arena rock because it reminds them of the period in which things were exciting and good. Once again, nostalgia is the driving emotion for the region; a rose-colored rearview mirror is the favored accessory.

It's highly possible that this isn't a Pittsburgh issue, though, since every generation tends to fixate on the music that they came of age to. I didn't think that when my grandfather listened to Perry Como there was any other nostalgia at work than the nostalgia of being a child or a teenager. We tend to extrapolate on nostalgia fixations in Pittsburgh because that seems to be the blanket-and-pacifier of the region, and because nostalgia here is so poisonous and pervasive a force. It's what convinces us that we're still "special" because we once might have been (and therefore we shouldn't try to change too much), even though we're basically like any other Rust Belt or Midwestern city at this point. It's what keeps keeps us convinced that the bizarre, fragmented political boundaries of Allegheny County are just parts of our treasured past, rather than a old scheme cooked up by robber barons to ensure that power was widely dispersed and diluted, and that workers, therefore, were politically impotent.

This city was basically built to be nothing more than a facility, and you're correct to notice that we, as a culture, are far from prizing the renegade. Our population is basically a culture of an abandoned peasantry, and "peasant virtues," while at best valuing a healthy egalitarianism, seem to trend toward obedience and conformity. It makes it difficult to mix things up when the innovator who rises above is usually seen in his or her community of origin as someone who's getting too big for his or her britches. It would be cynical to suggest that the peasant-descended need another "boss man" from somewhere else to come in and give orders, but our homegrown leaders don't seem to be doing much more than the bare minimum.

I will say this: at Penguins games, you can often hear a mix of very new indie music with the standard arena rock fare. There's hope.

As far as what's next for Pittsburgh music, I think I'm going to have to disagree with Brett's post and say that we should look beyond folk or garage rock as the "Pittsburgh sound." If there's one thing I hate more than 70s arena rock, it's this romanticized, vaporous "gritty" character often attributed to Pittsburgh. That's not going to do anything for this place. Grittiness is still popular among young people, but only when it's mixed with cosmopolitanism. The end result is bohemianism, which is also poseurish, but it's certainly what keeps people moving to places like New York and San Francisco in droves.

audrey said... 1/01/2009 4:11 PM

Thrilled that you are back. We need your voice 'round these parts.

Free Bird it is. I have to agree.

Rock on 2009.


Ross said... 1/01/2009 6:52 PM

While the whole "Renegade"/Steelers thing fits a nice narrative, I don't think its popularity says a whole lot about Pittsburgh and its paralyzing sense of nostalgia for the good old days. Go to a Red Sox game and they all sing along to "Sweet Caroline," which isn't exactly new, in a similar fashion. And beyond sports, go to any wedding anywhere in the country nowadays and the moment people get most excited about is when either "Sweet Caroline" or "Don't Stop Believin" or "Livin' On a Prayer" (or all three) is played. The death of the music industry, combined with the slow expiration of rock music as an innovative form of popular music is more responsible for something like the "Renegade" phenomenon than anything else. Since there aren't really any new mainstream rocks songs capable of unifying the masses anymore, people have no choice but to sing along to the older stuff.

Mike Madison said... 1/01/2009 8:01 PM

Anywhere in the country covers a lot of ground!

They were singing Sweet Caroline in Boston long before the mainstream music industry started its transformation. There is no known nostalgic connection between the City of Boston and that song, or Neil Diamond. (See here for an explanation.) I lived in Boston before I moved to Pittsburgh, and the musical identity of that city is far deeper and richer than Pittsburgh's. Styx would get you laughed out of Beantown.

Moreover, the music industry hasn't died; it just stopped making music and started making music products. The time has never been better for a current artist and a song to become the officially licensed soundtrack of a professional sports team.

I've been to a lot of weddings -- West Coast, East Coast, Middle West -- and I've never heard Sweet Caroline, Livin' on a Prayer, or Don't Stop Believing at any of them. Ever. (I wouldn't mind hearing Sweet Caroline; I can't imagine what the others would have to do with a marriage, unless the bride is fixated on Jon Bon Jovi or Steve Perry.) I have heard YMCA all over the country (the lack of irony evident in the mass hetero adoption of that song that would be a post in itself). I had never heard the Chicken Dance until I moved to Pittsburgh.

"Renegade" isn't my only Pittsburgh/Styx anecdote, but it does fit the narrative especially well. Here's another: Years ago, I kidded a student of mine who walked into my classroom wearing a Styx t-shirt. My tone was mocking; here was a 25-year-old in the 21st century celebrating the band of the year from 1977. A native Pittsburgher, he was deeply and seriously offended, and I learned a lesson about Pittsburgh. Until that time, I had never listened to WDVE. Now I do, once in a while, just to ensure that Pittsburgh's AOR taste remains anchored to the 70s.

Jim said... 1/11/2009 12:09 PM

Renegade IS Pittsburgh..STYX Rocks.
Always a HUGE concert attraction in the steel city...
this is the tough side of STYX.

Tommy Shaw's unique and powerful song is connected to the Steelers because it is rough, tough and timeless.

Long live STYX & Steelers together!!

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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