Music in American Popular Culture (2023)

Music in American Popular Culture (1)

Place has become an important ingredient for numerous musicians as they discuss their cultures or frames of reference through their musical styles or lyrical content. According to G. Philipsen in Speaking Culturally, place is a "position in a social hierarchy, a physical setting, or niche occupied by a thing, person, or idea." For example, musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and Bob Seger have written about their respective hometowns or states and have been met with audience acceptance.

However, it must be noted, not all music about a musician’s culture is accepted by mainstream audiences. Such was the case for Michael Stanley, a singer/songwriter from Cleveland, Ohio. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Michael Stanley - as front man for the Michael Stanley Band - shared the stage with some of music's biggest acts, including Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles. But while many of his musical contemporaries are still selling millions of records and filling huge arenas, the Cleveland born musician has become little more than a footnote in rock and roll history.

This article will focus on the role that Cleveland's negative image had on Stanley's inability to obtain widespread national success. It is important to note that the height of Stanley's popularity came in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before Cleveland's urban renaissance had spawned state of the art professional athletic stadiums, burgeoning cultural and entertainment districts, and a redeveloped lakefront that, ironically, includes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. In fact, several decades ago, Cleveland's image was anything but positive.

Cleveland, Ohio: The Mistake on the Lake

In many cases, media coverage of working class communities is overwhelmingly negative. And perhaps no American city has been as negatively stereotyped as Cleveland, especially in the 1970s and early 1980s. Cleveland and the nearby cities of Akron and Youngstown would certainly be part of what K.M. Dudley describes as "rust belt-that great swath of Middle America razed by the decline of the rubber, steel, and automobile factories." When the Cuyahoga River caught fire in late 1969, the media’s image of Cleveland reached a new low. According to (, "Cleveland's reputation was severely damaged by the fire because at the time there was national concern about the pollution of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River, which was among the most polluted in the country. Ironically, another oil slick burned on the Cuyahoga River in 1952, causing an estimated 1.5 million in damage without attracting much attention."

Indeed, Cleveland was becoming known as the “Mistake on the Lake.” This fact was evident by the national coverage provided by both the news media and entertainment programs. The website reminds us that in "the early 1970s, Cleveland, Ohio became nationally famous for the wrong reasons. Popular TV comedians poked fun at the community, and millions all over the country laughed. Cleveland was the town whose crooked river was so polluted that it once caught on fire and destroyed a railroad bridge over it. Cleveland was the city on Lake Erie that had so contaminated the lake that fish could no longer live in it. Algae had grown in such quantity that oxygen in the water was hopelessly depleted. Cleveland was the Mistake on the Lake. It had replaced Philadelphia as the standing butt of jokes by theatrical funny men."

This observation certainly paints a bleak picture of this once thriving community, which in the 1950s advertised itself through the slogan "The Best Location in the Nation." The new slogan painted by the media was one of a rust belt city in decay. This image was further tarnished by race riots. According to, "Cleveland was the first big city in the country that elected a black mayor. It had two devastating race riots; one before the black mayor was elected, the other afterward. The neighborhoods where the riots had raged had been the choicest residential sections fifty years ago."

Beyond a burning river and race riots, former Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich, a 2008 democratic presidential hopeful, was also causing problems in the community. His brief stint as mayor in the late 1970s was filled with controversy and tantrums. In addition, the Cleveland Indians were continually losing ninety to 100 games a year. In Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium, home of the Indians, attendance usually was around 7000 spectators in a stadium built to hold 80,000 fans (

These problems certainly didn't help the image of Cleveland or spawn an array of fans that wanted to hear about Cleveland through the music of Michael Stanley. On the contrary, these obstacles nearly turned Cleveland into a ghost town. Indeed, no city was hit harder by the loss of its industrial base than Cleveland in the 1960s and 1970s. During those decades, manufacturers left the city in droves, relocating to the sunbelt and other low cost areas, motivating many Cleveland residents to do the same. According to M.R. White, the city’s population dropped forty percent between 1950 and 1980.

Speaking on the occasion of Cleveland’s bi-centennial, then-Mayor Michael White described this time period vividly: "When the Cuyahoga River caught fire on June 22, 1969, the national media had a field day. Late-night comedians had new fodder for their routines and Cleveland became known as the “Mistake on the Lake,” and worst of all, many of our citizens came to believe it themselves. Then on December 15, 1978, we hit rock bottom. The city defaulted on a small issue of local banknotes, making us the first American city to default on its loans since the Great Depression."

White’s rhetoric succinctly summarizes the problems facing Cleveland during these decades. And it was during the 1970s and early 1980s that Michael Stanley’s musical career was hitting full stride.

Michael Stanley: The Poor Man’s Bruce Springsteen?

The argument can be asserted that some musicians’ adherence to their cultural roots helped make them recording superstars. For instance, Bruce Springsteen is affiliated with New Jersey. Even though New Jersey also carried a blue-collar stigma in the 1970s, singing about the state’s negative image actually seemed to enhance Springsteen’s national popularity, at least early in his career, yet Michael Stanley’s frequent lyrical references to Cleveland seemed to serve as an impediment to national success.

While comparisons between Stanley and the iconic Springsteen are certainly less frequent today than they were thirty years ago, there remains little doubt the two have similar vocal qualities and writing styles, as each takes a traditional blue collar approach to rock and roll. Clarence Clemons, saxophonist for Springsteen’s E Street Band, even played on several of Stanley’s recordings in the early 1980s. Indeed, Clemons played on at least two key Michael Stanley Band tracks, “He Can’t Love You,” the band’s most successful single ever, and “Lover,” which remains a staple of Stanley’s live shows even today.

In an interview with fellow Cleveland musician Mike Farley, Stanley acknowledged that he has been compared to Springsteen throughout his career. Stanley also listed Springsteen as a primary influence on his own songwriting.

Both Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stanley placed some focus on the working class themes that permeated their respective hometowns, Springsteen’s Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Stanley’s Cleveland. Although Springsteen’s early tales of “the swamps of Jersey” began to reach a national audience, Stanley’s repeated musical references to his hometown failed to connect with music fans outside the Ohio state line.

But while Stanley kept Cleveland as his songwriting emphasis throughout his career, Springsteen’s road to commercial success, in large part, left his New Jersey image in the dust. In The Mansion on the Hill, F. Goodman notes that while 1975’s landmark release Born to Run was the first Springsteen effort to reach a mainstream audience, it was not until the release of the highly commercial Born in the USA in 1984 that Springsteen and the E Street cemented their national presence. And to Goodman, the man responsible for that transformation to commercialism was Jon Landau, Springsteen’s post-Born to Run manager and producer.

(Their relationship) resulted in a slavish adherence to two- and three-minute tracks on Born in the USA, a regressive preference that was completely Landau’s and would be reflected in the albums that he produced with Springsteen. Mike Appel had been enraptured with Springsteen’s unusual and ornate lyrics and had encouraged the dense, epic song-stories that highlighted the first three albums. Landau, who preached simplicity and liked records that were frankly commercial, did not. The long form vanished from Springsteen’s work.

Indeed, Goodman argues that Landau led Springsteen and his music away from the working class roots of New Jersey and toward pop-dominated mainstream success. For instance, Landau insisted – despite the objections of Springsteen – on including the single “Hungry Heart” on the 1979 album The River. But according to Goodman, Landau’s pop-commercial influence was most apparent on Born in the USA, which would go on to sell more than fifteen million copies.

Born in the USA was peddled as a generous slice of Americana, a rock and roll state of the union. But compared to Nebraska, little between the first and last tracks of the album was explicitly social or political in content. The opening title track was a bitter indictment of both America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the country’s treatment of the war’s veterans. It also suggested a shrinking American vista, a sentiment echoed wistfully on the album’s heartfelt closing song, “My Hometown.” Sandwiched in between them were pop song topics such as love, sex, growing up, loneliness, getting into trouble, friendship, and playing in a band, and it was all wrapped in the powerful iconography of the American flag gracing the album cover.

Landau’s influence on Springsteen’s career, although obviously depicted by Goodman as bittersweet, might cause one to assume that Michael Stanley’s music career was less successful simply because he lacked a similar level of management and direction. However, a look at some of Stanley’s professional collaborators will quickly dispel that premise.

Stanley’s musical mentor was the legendary producer Bill Szymczyk, who produced Stanley’s first two solo albums and later worked with the Michael Stanley Band on the production of 1977’s Stagepass. Szymczyk also surrounded Stanley with some of the top studio musicians available including Joe Walsh, David Sanborn, and Todd Rundgren.

Walsh has enjoyed considerable commercial success as a solo artist and as a member of the Eagles, Sanborn is a multiple Grammy-winning instrumentalist, and Rundgren has been successful both as a performer and producer. For Szymczyk’s part, his producing credits include Eagles: Their Greatest Hits, which has sold more than twenty-five million copies and competes with Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the distinction of being the overall top selling album of all-time.

Robert “Mutt” Lange is another high-profile Stanley collaborator. Lange, who produced the 1978 Michael Stanley Band release Cabin Fever, would later take acts as diverse as AC/DC and Shania Twain to the heights of commercial success. Indeed, Lange’s producing credits include two of the top ten selling albums of all-time, AC/DC’s Back in Black and Twain’s Come on Over.

Clearly, Michael Stanley enjoyed the support of some of the top producers and musicians in the history of rock music. It is implausible, then, to suggest that his career took the opposite path of Springsteen’s because of inadequate support from the recording industry. The far more plausible conclusion is that while Jon Landau made a concerted effort to move Springsteen’s lyrical focus away from the working class images of New Jersey, Michael Stanley continued to focus his songwriting on the people and places of blue-collar Northeast Ohio.

Michael Stanley and Cleveland:
A Tale of Peaks and Valleys

Michael Stanley was born on March 25, 1948, in Cleveland, Ohio. He was a Parma Heights native who grew up in Rocky River. In the early 1970s, Stanley released two semi-successful solo albums before launching the Michael Stanley Band in 1975. From the band’s debut album in 1975 to their final recording in 1984, the Michael Stanley Band was a staple of the Cleveland music scene. In a 1981 Cleveland Plain Dealer article, A. Pantsios explained the band’s popularity: "There’s this monster in our midst, a giant that grew slowly as we watched. It’s the Michael Stanley Band which is, by a wide margin, the most successful Cleveland act in Cleveland. Not only that but, in Cleveland, it is one of the biggest of rock and roll acts, easily in the same league with such established giants as Pink Floyd, Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen."

This popularity also translated into a decent recording career. The band produced top thirty hits, top twenty hits, music videos, and eleven albums, some of which sold up to 300,000 copies. However, it seemed the band’s talent was apparent only to those who resided within the safe confines of Northeast Ohio.

Bands and musicians such as Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, and the Rolling Stones were just a few of the national acts that came to Cleveland during the 1970s and early 1980s. Even though these were superstar acts, none were more vital to the Cleveland music scene than the Michael Stanley Band. In August of 1980, MSB set attendance records at Cleveland’s Blossom Music Center, marking that venue’s first-ever consecutive day sell-outs. That record-breaking event appeared to usher in an era in which the Michael Stanley Band’s popularity was absolutely unmatched in Northeast Ohio. Pantsios explains, "The band entered a period of ever-greater popularity, locally. Heartland entered WMMS's chart at three, going to No. 1 in two weeks, faster than Pink Floyd's The Wall. Even in Cleveland, the band's popularity had never been that great; certainly it hadn't eclipsed major national stars before that. Even more astonishingly, the band came back less than five months after its two Blossom shows and did a pair of sellouts at the Coliseum, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day."

Still, even during the height of Michael Stanley’s reign as Cleveland’s favorite son, a puzzling question was beginning to emerge. Why couldn’t he engender the same enthusiasm with music fans outside the Ohio state line? It was a question perhaps first raised by B. Bornio in a 1982 Cleveland Plain Dealer article: "Which brings us to the mystery that has baffled MSB supporters and management (certainly not to mention MSB itself) for several albums now. That is - why haven't these guys made it nationally? After all, is not Cleveland the rock and roll capital of the world? And isn't MSB loved and supported with the fervor only a favorite son can elicit? So, wouldn't it seem logical that the rest of the country would pick up on what's going down in the American Liverpool? I mean, don't you think they would take the hint?"

The irony may be that while Stanley’s frequent lyrical references to Cleveland resonated with local fans, national audiences were actually turned off by the city’s negative image.

Just as the city of Cleveland was hitting bottom in terms of public perception, Michael Stanley’s musical career was reaching its peak. While much of the nation was viewing Cleveland as the “Mistake on the Lake,” the Michael Stanley Band was releasing albums whose titles paid homage to Stanley’s roots, Heartland in 1980 and Northcoast in 1981. Album sales reached “the hundreds of thousands,” but after the release of You Can’t Fight Fashion in 1983, the band’s label, EMI-America, halted funding and promotion over a contractual dispute. Consequently, at least in terms of having a spot on the national stage, the Michael Stanley Band was history.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, Stanley was not only celebrating the region that others were referring to as “the Rust Belt ” through the titles of his albums, but also in the lyrics to some of his most popular songs. “Midwest Midnight” was the autobiographical story of a “suburban boy” growing up and trying to make it in the music business. The song became a signature during live shows. Although released in 1976, the lyrics painted a picture that actually mirrored Stanley’s own career: "Chasing the fame keeps them all in the game but money is the way they keep score. And nobody told you that you would get old, strung out like some Avenue whore. Waiting release, getting shot through the grease, some L.A. madonna's maligned. And New York is calling to see if you heard about the great English band they just signed."

The lyrics to some of Stanley’s most popular songs even contain obvious geographical references to the city of Cleveland and state of Ohio. For instance, the meaning of the opening lines to “Lover” might be at least partially lost on anyone who’s never truly experienced “lake-effect” snow: "Well, the glow from the bars and a thousand stars light the cold Ohio night. And the Turnpike’s slick, the snow’s as thick as thieves. Since your call came through, there ain’t nothing new but the radio and the headlights and the news at the top of the hour that no one really believes. Do they, Lover?"

On “Take the Time,” Stanley sings, “they’re laid off in Ohio, the Heartland’s under strain.” On “In the Heartland,” he sings that “the boys are out on Mayfield, everybody dressed to kill.” It’s unlikely that Californians would be any more likely to relate to the Cleveland suburb of Mayfield than they would be able to relate to lake-effect snow.

The Michael Stanley Band’s last top thirty hit, released in 1982, is appropriately titled “My Town.” There were nearly 100 different versions of the song - each with the name of a different city inserted, but Stanley admitted in the liner notes to his greatest hits compilation Right Back at Ya, that “although the generic version could have been about any city, for us it was about Cleveland…special thanks to the North Coast!”

The Answer:
A Combination of Place, Culture, and Fandom

Since The Michael Stanley Band songs represented the city of Cleveland with pride and intensity, the theme of place would be obvious in their music. Just as Springsteen has informed his listeners of the neighborhoods and characters evident in New Jersey, Michael Stanley lends a voice to facets of Northeastern Ohio often times neglected by mainstream media or musicians. Certain components of the Cleveland community can be described through Stanley’s music as representation of real communities, real values, and real politics, as M.R. White has described it.

Social place becomes an important criterion in enabling listeners unfamiliar with Cleveland the opportunity to glean the concept of place through the music of The Michael Stanley Band. According to Philipsen, “place may simultaneously suggest notions of social, physical, perceptual and heuristic location.” In Stanley’s music, place becomes important for the following reason. For example, the topics discussed in his music about the places, people, weather, and politics in Ohio resonate with individuals residing in discursive parts of the state, especially individuals from Northeastern Ohio. In a sense, every cultural way of speaking is a distinct answer to the questions of what is a person? What is a society? And how are persons and society linked through communication? The Michael Stanley Band, through their lyrical adherence to the city of Cleveland, Ohio, provided individuals unaware of such themes as winters in Ohio, blue-collar work ethic, unemployment, and other cultural insights into groups of people from the region of Northeast Ohio - themes seldom heard in mainstream music. According to J.M. Carey in Communication as Culture, researchers attempting to understand a culture through its rhetoric, including its music, would be well advised to highlight the ritual view of communication, which stresses sharing participation, association, and fellowship. From a rhetorical frame of reference, the ritual view enables the audience/researcher to understand how some of Stanley’s songs become artifacts that become a code that draws his community of listeners together in fellowship. Members outside of the community of Cleveland and other parts of Northeastern Ohio may label Stanley’s music as a joke because he is from Cleveland, but some of the themes and norms of parts of Ohio are highlighted through the lyrics and songs of the Michael Stanley Band.

If place is an important indicator of this music, it would seem imperative to look at the people who have followed Michael Stanley throughout his career. Musicians have always shared a special bond with their listening audiences. Specifically, some bands have a culture of listeners that follow them throughout the country. Some of these include, but are not limited to, the Grateful Dead, The Dave Matthews Band, Bruce Springsteen, and Phish. These examples are indicative of the culture that forms by e-mail, newsletters, or personal gatherings through sharing the enjoyment and news of a favorite artist or group.

These individuals became fans, and these fans then gather to form a culture that can be described as fandom. In Tramps like Us, D. Cavicchi defines fandom as “the creation of much needed meaning in the daily lives of otherwise ordinary people, a way in which members of this modern media-driven society make sense of their selves and their relations to others.” The ritual view of communication would be evident when studying the concept of fandom. In fact, fandom brings together a group of people that have reliance to a particular musician and find meaning and comfort with others that adhere to the symbolism of the musician’s lyrics and persona. It can be seen as an important meaning in the daily lives of ordinary people, which enables modern day media consumers to make sense of their selves and their relations to others who might understand the rhetoric of a particular musical artist or band.

Numerous artists have built a common community of listeners that are local, national, and international, which allows their messages to be heard in diverse environments and enables them to become recording superstars. Michael Stanley and the Michael Stanley Band also created a culture. However, in Stanley’s case, the culture was limited to Northeast Ohio. According to B. Hall in "Theories of Culture and Communication," culture is “the concept that describes the situated meanings that community members create, recognize, share, and enact that identifies them as members of that community.” But it should be noted that even if the band or artist has not become as successful as others, it still creates a unified culture of fans from a specific part of the country. This music and these fans need to be studied in accordance to their affiliations with Michael Stanley and the region of Northeast Ohio.

Certainly, Stanley’s website ( shows his fans’ enthusiasm for Stanley and their impressions of his music and memory of his live performances. Cavicchi states, “On the whole, fandom is not some particular thing one has or does. Fandom is a process of being; it is the way one is.” This is evidenced by the fans of Michael Stanley and his music. These fans would constitute the word culture, meaning coming together as people who understand the meaning of this musical artist on their lives.

In the guest book provided by the website, the years of 1996-1999 are presented. Not surprisingly, almost all fan comments have a tie to Cleveland or other bordering towns in Northeast Ohio.

In these examples, we can discern how place and fandom are important for understanding and appreciating Stanley’s music. For example, one individual states: "I was introduced to MSB by my girlfriend in about 1987 or 88 when MSB would play the Christmas/New Years shows at Music Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. Since the first time I have been hooked. In my eyes, his music is the type you can listen to over and over and never lose interest ( June 11, 1998)."

As we can see, Stanley’s music had an influence on this individual, especially in terms of place and fandom. John Fiske has characterized fans as “excessive readers, involved in a heightened form of all popular culture audiences’ behaviors.” However, as is the case in virtually all of the comments made by fans on the website, the place they always mention is Cleveland. If someone from outside the state of Ohio does place an e-mail on this server, it is almost always an individual with Ohio roots: "I grew up in Painesville, Ohio, listening to the music of MSB. In junior and senior high school (1978-1984), I bought every album and attended every concert. Some of my best friendships I’ve ever had started because of mutual love for the Michael Stanley Band. After graduating from college, I moved down south, but I still have family in the Cleveland area and I visit every chance I get. I was thrilled to discover this webpage today (September 9, 1999)."

What the above two quotes discern is that even though Stanley’s fan base may not be as large as that of Springsteen or Tom Petty, it doesn’t mean the fans lack the ability to be passionate and expert spectators on Stanley’s music. Fandom in this instance can be seen as quite different from other types of audience behavior. As L. Grossberg explains, fandom is based on giving a certain significance, or weight, to popular culture, while ordinary audience behaviors are based on the pleasure and enjoyment of it. The website shows that through the music of Michael Stanley the fans experienced a heightened awareness of music as a sojourn to a past that symbolically means something to them in their present tense. His music and concerts are events that they, as participants, actively understand as having some meaning to them as members of the culture of Michael Stanley. According to Cavicchi, “For fans, music has a unique depth and power; it hits them with such force that it becomes an important part of their daily lives.” In a sense, these fans don’t simply take the meanings of the songs or concerts at face value, but rather the music is always constructed by members of this community as they encounter it.


Ironically, Michael Stanley’s regional allegiance may actually be responsible for his lack of national success. While Stanley was proclaiming the spirit of Cleveland’s citizenry in “My Town,” the national media was describing the city as a “laughing stock” and the “Mistake on the Lake.” As Stanley was paying tribute to Northeast Ohio with album titles such as Heartland and Northcoast, writers were characterizing the region and its struggling steel, automotive, and rubber industries as a “rust belt.”

While Stanley’s musical tributes to Cleveland’s working class values and traditions resonated with music fans in the region, the messages were actually contradicted by the negative perceptions that were held by most Americans outside the state of Ohio. Consequently, the regional blue-collar issues and images that formed the heart of Stanley’s music failed to connect with a national audience.

Stanley continues to enjoy a loyal regional following, playing to small but enthusiastic crowds, despite the fact that he hasn’t had a major record deal in more than two decades. According to Malcolm Abram, music critic at the Akron Beacon-Journal, local critics still praise Stanley’s powerful musical energy and “straightforward songwriting style that highlights melody and traditional verse-chorus-verse song structure over rhythmic flash and riffs.” Abram encapsulated Stanley’s enigmatic career into this nutshell: "Outside of Ohio, Michael Stanley is a rock ‘n’ roll obscurity. The singer-guitarist has been churning out solid, blue collar, heartland rock for 30 years, but once you cross the state line, the Stanley name takes a big dip in recognizability. But here in the Buckeye State, Stanley…is the beloved leader of a rock ‘n’ roll cult."

This conflict - and its relationship to Michael Stanley’s own career - was perhaps best expressed by Stanley himself on “In the Heartland,” a song in which Stanley makes specific reference to the Cleveland suburb of Mayfield. In the song, Stanley describes Cleveland, not as a city that would attract new residents, but as a place that people would consider leaving behind: "It’s 10:35 in the heartland. Make your move or you never will. The boys are out on Mayfield, everybody dressed to kill. Some of them got their reasons. Some of them just got time. Some think about last season. Some think about a life of crime…But nobody writes their names down, just something that they gotta go through. Nothing ever seems to work out the way they planned. Some of them think about leaving. Not many of them ever do. They give it one more try tonight. In the Heartland…"

December 2008

From guest contributors Anthony Peyronel and Anthony Esposito, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania

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