Songs That Make Us Think About Arizona (That Aren't About Arizona)

There's some great songs about Arizona, one way or another.
There's some great songs about Arizona, one way or another. Wing-Chi Poon/Creative Commons
On February 14, the great state of Arizona turns 110 years old. And, sure, that’s quite an accomplishment (right?), but it’s also a weird indicator of what it’s really like in Arizona. Because our place in the ­lonesome desert makes everything feel as if it’s existed in perpetuity. And yet our status as pioneers of the great open west means that we’re continually pushing certain boundaries. So, Arizona is a place of willing contradictions, a realm of ­pristine tradition and smashed walls. There’s a reason people tend to come and go from the Copper State, and thriving here takes a real commitment — and ­decent ­sunglasses.

Lots of folks have tried to capture the state's spirit via song. Nat King Cole's "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" captures our restless energy, even if it's slightly campy. With "Tune Out," The Format nailed that mix of unassuming romance and the anxiety of life in perpetual motion. Glen Campbell, meanwhile, managed to make our capital seem like some glamorous place with the classic "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." Even the Eagles wrote about Arizona, forever casting it as some roadside attraction with "Take It Easy." And that's not even touching on the slew of other songs, like George Straits' "Ocean Front Property," Rex Allen, Jr.'s "Arizona," Dan Fogelberg's "Tucson, Arizona (Gazette)," Authority Zero's "Mesa Town," Gordon Lightfoot's "Carefree Highway," Damien Jurado's "Yuma, AZ," Johnny Cash's "The Ballad of Boot Hill," and Aerosmith's "Sedona Sunrise" — enough odes to fill a veritable jukebox.

But as quaint as those songs may prove to be, they’re only really telling half the truth. As much as we’re a place for scenic drives and tourist hangs, Arizona can also feel unwelcoming to those who are only just stopping by. While our place in the sun has some inherent romance attached, living here also means grappling with some rather regressive socio-political elements. And for all the charm in the imagery of cowboys, our state is just so much more rich culturally. (Also: Having so many songs about Arizona, especially ditties that only capture that narrow image, feels like a distinctly Arizona problem.) It takes more than ballads about plucky ranch hands, or duets about life on the open road, to really dive into Arizona at its multifaceted core. In fact, it takes songs that have nothing to with Arizona in the first place.

Because the truth of Arizona is that it’s both everything it’s played out to be in those songs and also so much more entirely. By building up a rich library of songs, we can use the power of music to both understand and celebrate the diversity and uncertainty that is Arizona. So, we’re adding to that playlist with 14 songs in honor of our state’s birthday that have zero to do with Arizona. These songs offer up just as many truths of our chosen home, and what it’s really like to truly live here. By pure accident, or maybe by cosmic machinations, these artists have presented insights about the people, the culture, and the vibes of ­Arizona. Because that’s something worth celebrating about Arizona: More than endless sunshine and desert vistas, we’re ­defined by how we feel and the world those sentiments help forge around us.

Now, grab your mini-state flag and get ready to celebrate. Arizona, we love you (mostly).

Kanye West, "Monster"

Say what you will about the Ye/Kanye West of 2022, but the Yeezus of 2010 could do little harm (mostly). “Monster” was the centerpiece of his undisputed masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a pure statement as West led a veritable squadron of A-listers: Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and — we kid you not — Bon Iver. It’s a track that most certainly shouldn’t have worked, and yet it managed to balance all those dynamic energies and personalities. Phoenix feels like a similarly impressive balancing act of young and old, liberal and conservative, hedonistic and family-friendly. This is a city that works not in spite of everything that’s going on within its borders, but because people seem to find a way to get along. He has that perfect line toward the end of his main verse, where he proclaims, “I’m livin’ in the ­future, so the present is my past.” And that sort of sums it up for Arizona: you make it all work, all the competing energies and ideas, by ignoring the past and future and just making it happen in real-time.

Garbage, "Only Happy When It Rains"

The Valley isn't exactly known for its rainfall. (Even if 2021 set the record for the second most rain days, per KTAR, that only translates to 23 days total.) But Garbage’s classic 1995 single isn’t necessarily about rain itself, but celebrating one’s circumstances. It’s a ballad for finding some level of joy or even acceptance for your lot in life, even if that means perpetually wearing galoshes. Life in Arizona is very much the same way: we find some semblance of peace and normalcy in routinely contending with 120-degree temperatures. Shirley Manson says it best when she croons, “My only comfort is the night gone black / I didn’t accidentally tell you that.” Which is to say, you mostly have to own up to your decisions in life, even if that means living somewhere extremely hot and dry and with scorpions galore. We’re a stubborn lot out here, for sure, but we’ve also collectively found a way to make a life shine in the worst of conditions. There’s a certain element of pride to that lifestyle, even if we’re always walking around slightly sweaty.

Johnny Cash, "Ring of Fire"

Okay, calling Arizona a “ring of fire” does seem more apt than anything to do with rainfall. And so, much like the Garbage selection, this Johnny Cash classic is similarly about being unafraid to embrace one’s circumstances. But more than that idea, it’s also about this notion that not only can suffering lead to happiness but that the act itself can also be enjoyable. Living two inches from the sun isn’t just about carving out your own way of life, but the fact you’d do so in the first place is somehow commendable (if unwise), and also the sign of greater heart and fortitude. There’s that classic line, “I fell for you like a child / Oh, but the fire went wild,” which you could assume is about a young romance gone astray. But it’s just as much about realizing when things went off the track — like living on the face of Venus — and accepting that with renewed heart and vigor. The song’s ultimately an ode to embracing diversity as a way of life, and that speaks volumes of our state’s general ethos. If you don’t like it, there’s always Texas.

Less Than Jake, "Last One Out of Liberty City"

This entire feature is mostly in praise of Arizona, which makes this ’90s ska jam a seemingly odd choice. But if you live in ­Arizona long enough, you may grapple with the heat and the weird politics and at one point decide you too would like to leave the state in a blazing inferno. Not everyone goes through in slamming the eject button, however, and those that stay may find a newfound appreciation. (Or, if you do leave, you’ll likely feel the state’s rather hefty pull.) That’s a mostly novel phenomenon, and Arizona is all the more charming and appealing for how it makes residents “engage” with their place here. The song has a similar mantra, when it tells listeners who’ve “lost faith in what you believe” that addressing the problem means starting simple (“It gets up from the ground).” Which is a mostly long-winded way of saying that the world doesn’t need you to always escape your problematic hometown. In fact, it can be better because we all recommit to it from time to time and find new ways to love the things that matter.

Cypress Hill, "Armada Latina"

Living in Phoenix especially can mean having folks from other “big” cities ask what it’s like to call it home. Answering that question, though, is easier said than done, especially given the sheer diversity of cultures and lifestyles that permeate the city and state at large. Next time you get the query, just play “Armada Latina” by ­Cypress Hill, Pitbull, and Marc Anthony. Sure, the single’s likely about some beach town like Miami, but the vibes just feel so equally perfect for Arizona. Maybe it’s the Latin swing and references, or the fact that it samples a Crosby, Stills, & Nash tune and that mix of sonic ideals just within our multifaceted little home. Or perhaps it’s the genuinely resonant lyrics, like, “Came out the gutter man/Southern land/Didn’t have an upper hand/Never had another plan.” And given the perception elsewhere — it’s still the wacky Wild West out here — lines like that feel decidedly empowering and almost encouraging. Either way, it beats playing someone the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” for the 627th time.

Modest Mouse, "We Are Between"

The standout of 2021’s The Golden Casket, “We Are Between” sees Modest Mouse grappling with heavy questions of mortality and our place in the universe. So what’s such grand thinking got to do with ­Arizona? Well, in some ways we’re also grappling with such uncertainty. We have one of the nation’s biggest cities, but ­Phoenix is, for better and worse, very much a small town. And as we grapple with our increasingly purple-to-blue status, it’s clear we’re in a period of societal transformation. Even the fact that we have lush forests and arid desert feels like a slice of poignant uncertainty. But as with other forms of dichotomy, Arizona celebrates this “in between” status by finding ways to flourish. You could latch onto the song’s most poignant lyrics, “Somewhere ­between dust and the stars” as a mantra. But a gem like, “So open, then snap shut, yeah, but here we are” builds on that sentiment expertly, and captures the kind of joy and mania that comes with a permanent in-between status. Still, it’s not about being woefully undecided, or avoiding decisions, but seeing that life often happens in those spaces between it all.

Real McCoy, "Another Night"

Alright, amid a slightly questionable list of song choices, this is another tune that may elicit a head scratch or two. But as with “Armada Latina,” this 1993 Eurodance classic is all about the endless vibes of its full four-minute runtime. Try this: wait till mid-spring, right when the temps hit the mid-80s, drive down Central at about 8 p.m., and blare this with the windows rolled down. Good luck not feeling like this song somehow fits the uneven nature and downhome-meets-urban vibes of Central Phoenix. It’s equally sensual and cheesy, and the whole thing just feels like a perfect kind of dance song for what happens in places like Phoenix or Glendale. Even if the lyrics themselves are mostly meh — did you even know it actually had lyrics beyond “In the night, in your dream, of love so true” — it’s a rare example of a song capturing something magic and ethereal in just the mix of synth and drums. It’s music made not for us but that feels absolutely resonant. Plus, if nothing else, listening to it will also provide a huge rush of ‘90s ­nostalgia.

Van Halen, "Panama"

There’s a rumor (that’s mostly unverified) that this Van Halen classic is about a stripper David Lee Roth met in Arizona. Even if that’s not the case, that story alone feels like it could permeate conversations statewide for years to come. But if we’re just focusing on the song, then it’s still a mostly perfect fit for this state. Because over the years, a lot of great rock music has emerged from Arizona, and not an insignificant amount has the same mix of swagger and silliness as this classic rock standard. In that sense, then, it feels like a perfect musical encapsulation and a song that helps us understand the tendencies of so many people and artists that call ­Arizona home. Sure, it’s not exactly Bob Dylan, especially with good-bad lyrics like “Got the fearing, power steering.” But much like with the Real McCoy entry, it’s another instance of providing great vibes, and a mix of sonics and emotions that tell a story about weirdness, unfettered joy, and a certain machismo. Or, a song that’s ­actually perfect as Arizona’s unofficial state ­anthem.

Leonard Cohen, "Stories of the Street"

There’s been a not-insignificant amount of fun so far in exploring Arizona’s multifaceted makeup. And while there’s a certain joy to the unevenness of Phoenix, there’s also a tragic undercurrent when you have, say, a sick pizza spot next to an abandoned tire shop. But that’s part of the story of cities like Phoenix, and it’s one this unsung Leonard Cohen tune can fully celebrate. “Stories of the Street” is, in theory, about feeling totally lost in any city, contemplating your insignificance amid the skyscrapers and yearning for a prompt escape. But the city’s all there ultimately is, and we all have to live there and tell our own stories. And there’s quite a few stories being told here that align brilliantly with Phoenix: the sense of tension between past and future (“All these hunters who are shrieking now/Oh, do they speak for us?”); the yearning for simplicity (“We will find that farm/And grow us grass and apples there”); and our mix of big-city and small-town vibes (“And lost among the subway crowds/I try to catch your eye”). None of this actually makes up for suffering and inequality statewide, but the song does unite us all in this singularly existential experience.

The Mattson 2, "Obvious Crutch"

If the aforementioned ­“Armada Latina” is the song for driving across Central Phoenix, then this neo-jazz number from the twin brothers of The Mattson 2 is the soundtrack for walking down the street. The surf rock elements result in a soundscape made for moving down the road to one’s own personal rhythm, taking in whatever sights may pop up. And that’s one of the best parts about cities across ­Arizona: you can find so much joy and personality just by cruising up the galleries of main street Sedona or the shops of downtown Scottsdale. Unlike other songs on the list, there’s zero lyrics to gravitate toward (whereas “Panama,” for instance, has ­lyrics that are best ignored). Instead, it’s all about the vibes — more specifically, another profound stream of nostalgic energies and the anxious hum of what comes next. It’s a song about being unafraid to catch those vibes, and even if that sounds hokey or somehow difficult, this song’s energy makes that process seem all the more thrilling. Sure, you’re almost entirely forced to drive in Arizona, but take the time to hit the streets with this tune swimming in your ears.

The Pack a.d., "Everyone Looks Like Everyone"

Life in cities dotted across a vast desert landscape is a genuinely weird experience. It can be beautiful but also kind of monotonous, as if you’re living in a kind of surreal cycle of light, heat, and imagery. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing — if you have the right soundtrack. “Everyone Looks Like Everyone” is very much about this “repetition,” and how living in the modern world can feel like you’re a sitcom character without much stage direction. (See the lyric, “I’m paralyzed into you/And plans are makin’ me.”) It’s ultimately about being OK with that idea, or at the very least, recognizing that it’s the pattern of this day and age (“Everyone looks like everyone/Passing days just likes batons.”) Embracing the truth can be freeing somehow, and it’s a way to keep sane amid all the noise. More than that, though, when you understand the game of it all (like local politics, for instance), there comes a chance to have fun with that knowledge and live your life a different way. I can’t think of a better mantra for life in Arizona in the 21st century.

Pedro The Lion, "Model Homes"

Technically, we’re cheating by including this song. Frontman David Bazan lived in Arizona as a boy, and this song, from 2019’s aptly-titled Phoenix, grapples with said experiences. Still, that doesn’t mean that ­Bazan didn’t capture something substantial about Arizona. Namely, as much as model homes are a blight on the state’s pristine face, they’re also representative of status, or escaping one’s circumstances to gain a more stable life. (There’s that great imagery about driving around looking at new homes as opposed to staying home, and that line “Where Sunday afternoon felt like a tomb” could be Bazan being dragged toward something else beyond his adolescent emoting.) For better and worse, that’s life in Arizona, and we all ultimately grapple with being OK with what we have (life in a mostly great state) and coveting something more grand (that’s often owned by neighbors). We’re locked in a permanent state of coveting and accepting, and trying to find a kind of growth in that midst of that robust struggle. It’s a song about facing hard truths, and it speaks things about ­social yearning that more residents should really hear.

Protomartyr, "Don’t Go to Anacita"

Speaking of life in modern cities, we have this gem from Michigan’s own Protomartyr. There’s no telling what city frontman Joe Casey actually had in mind, but the tune certainly fits places like Scottsdale and Tempe, especially with lines about “a hidden incorporated town ... that glows like zircon in a fire.” But, as Casey warns shortly thereafter, they’ve got “goon squads on patrol,” and any so-called urban oasis can turn out to be more sinister than you’d ever expected. Is the East Valley as bad as this titular city? No, even if lines like “Their god is such a strange, vindictive beast / He only blesses those who prosper” are frighteningly perfect encapsulations of some of our local cities. Because, with the ever-­increasing crawl of gentrification and similar threats, it’s important to understand that things aren’t always as they seem. That lesson is important, as it helps us understand the cities we call home and what they’re actually doing (or not doing) for their residents. So, find your “Anacita” in Phoenix or cities adjacent, but be cautious about any similar offerings of “technology and kombucha.”

Sara Watkins, "Move Me"

If you learn nothing else from this list, it’s that Arizona is a truly wonderful place. But if you learn two things, the other is that ­Arizona is also a maddening hellscape. As much as the city has to offer culturally, it can also feel like it’s stuck in the past socially or politically. So, where this song by Sara Watkins is about demanding some spark from your lover, it can also be about wanting more from your hometown. (“You like a clear drawn line, partitioned and defined/So you can rest knowing everything is as it should be/But I want you to move.”) Maybe that’s just about having more White Castles around, or finally making important collective progress. But it’s also about slowing down (“Talking quickly doesn’t leave much time for questioning”) and overcoming one’s own fears (“I won’t give you all I got/Cause I fear you’ll disapprove”) to try and make things better despite the endless apprehension. It’s OK to love a place much like a person and to want more from it, and that ideal feels very central to a lot of people’s connections with Arizona as this ever-evolving thing. Nothing gets better if we don’t speak up or ­instead move to, like, Los Angeles.
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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan