It started fittingly, with the chills. An arctic cold that burrowed deep into my bones. Then came the spins, followed by low-grade anxiety that made my head numb. Days turned into months, and when I couldn’t shake the mystery illness, my doctor stepped in.
One look at me and she said, “North fatigue.”
What’s that now?
“North fatigue. Textbook case. Minnesota’s attempt to position itself as the Stockholm of the Midwest has worn you down. Your body can’t take much more of #TheBoldNorth.”
I should have seen it coming. Five years ago, the governor’s sons launched a line of colorful winter hats with their favorite cardinal direction emblazoned on the front in blocky white script. The “North” hats seemed innocent enough — hipster kitsch that mined nostalgia for a time when pom-pom beanies bore the names of high schools, hockey teams and car dealerships.
The Dayton brothers’ remake was a hit, selling out at their North Loop boutique, Askov Finlayson. They made more hats, sold those too, and in the process sparked a branding revolution, which, it turns out, was the idea all along.
“Why can’t we be cool?” Eric Dayton asked GQ in a February 2017 article about his quest to show the world that Minnesota is more than the sum of its folksy stereotypes. The beanies became the Che Guevara T-shirt of the North revolution, which the Daytons pitched in TED talks and op-eds, recasting Minnesota as a Nordic utopia run by innovators who evangelize the cold rather than apologize for it.
The movement has been catnip for media and marketers. We are the Bold North. The North is rising. Defend the North. The respective taglines of Super Bowl LII, our pro soccer team and the Minnesota Vikings show how quickly the revolution went mainstream. Of course, it helps to have foot soldiers spreading your message. In 2015, R.T. Rybak — cheerleader-in-chief of the North — penned an editorial for local beer magazine the Growler. “It’s time to call ourselves exactly what we are: the North,” wrote Rybak. “And Minnesota is the Star of the North.”
In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, I heard more than one TV meteorologist utter some variation of, “The Bold North is chilly tonight!”
I’m not immune to pushing the narrative. A couple of years ago I assigned an essay called “What is North?” to writer Steve Marsh for Mpls.St. Paul magazine. The article asked more questions than it answered, one of which gets to the heart of what has always bugged me about the brothers’ crusade: “Is the North a tribe of wealthy, white-collar marketers who hire advertising firms to come up with legends of Paul Bunyans in order to sell North stocking hats and artisanal hand-forged axes?”
To answer Steve’s question, yes, that’s exactly what “North” is. The Daytons say their intentions are pure, but Peggy Olson couldn’t have written a better marketing plan. First came the hats that doubled as billboards. Next, our media and creative shops appropriated “North” to suit their needs. And finally, in a blockbuster finale, the country’s biggest sporting event introduced our new brand to the world. It was the coldest Super Bowl on record. The revolution was very much televised.
And seriously, kudos to everyone on Team North for running a super-effective campaign. It probably convinced a few young professionals, and maybe even a business or two, to relocate to Stockholm on the prairie.
But let’s not mistake branding for authentic identity. How the Daytons want the world to see us, and who we actually are, are two very different things. In the Daytons’ northern genre fiction, we’re all Scandinavian (or Scandinavian-adjacent), with plenty of disposable income to drop on $200 sweaters at Askov Finlayson before heading next door for beef tartare at the siblings’ upscale Bachelor Farmer restaurant. In the Daytons’ northern genre fiction, winter is religion (don’t tell the Lutherans!) and congregants plow through the snow on fat-tire bikes. And after taming the cold: Hygge!
The Daytons aren’t redefining collective identity. They’re selling a lifestyle, because that’s what Daytons do. Ironically, their vision is as tired as the “Ya, sure!” caricatures they rail against.
I love Nordic culture. I love the snow. But the siblings’ New Scandinavian wonderland is nothing more than “A Prairie Home Companion” told as an Instagram story — a slightly cooler version of the white Minnesota mythology that died long before Garrison Keillor’s career did.
As usual, the facts are more interesting. Nonwhites are spurring most of the state’s population growth. And though it’s hard to fathom after this recent stretch of Narnian weather, our winters are among the fastest-warming in the country. Will “North” have the same impact when our climate mimics Missouri’s? Or when whites are the minority?
If we were truly bold, we’d spend less time worrying about what to call ourselves and more time acknowledging that Minnesota 2018 is a unique, complicated place where one person’s lefse is another’s injera. If we were truly bold, we’d admit that it’s actually pretty lame to give yourself a nickname.
My wife is shaking her head as I write this. She’s all for Minnesota seceding from the Midwest. So is my son, who hardly ever removes his blue and green North hat. Trust me, I don’t want to play Andy Rooney in this story, but I just can’t shake the fatigue.
New symptoms arrive daily: Stress hives. Permanent side-eye. Whatever the opposite of FOMO is.
“Relax,” says my doctor. “You’re overthinking things.”
To which I’ll respond the way a copywriter might: Sometimes a hat is more than just a hat.
Chris Clayton, of Mahtomedi, is a freelance journalist.