All Things Go, All Things Grow

When I signed up for this class, the first thing I realized was that, more or less, I have learned everything I know about major cities from popular culture. I love to travel, but rarely have the opportunity to do so. I can likely count on one hand the number of “major” cities I’ve visited in my life. Therefore, the persisting image of major cities that I’ve formulated in my mind comes almost entirely from my experiences with popular culture. Art, film, literature, and music, particularly, convey city life in fairly universal manners; it may be positive or negative, but either way, cities hold an incredibly tempting allure.

For the sake of discussion, I decided to narrow down my thoughts of popular culture’s portrayal of cities to the art of music. I have found myself repeatedly thinking of songs that reference cities each time we bring them up in class. Music, it seems, is an especially popular medium for expressing thoughts on city life. New York, of course, has an unlimited number of songs hailing its ability to instill awe in those looking for a place to start over or make something of themselves. More locally, Atlanta also frequently finds itself the topic of song, often as a means of expressing pride in being able to call the city home.

Artists are also warming up to the idea of dedicating entire albums to cities. For example, Bon Iver’s self-titled album is loaded with city-named tracks. However, I am most reminded of Sufjan Stevens’ album Illinoise. At the beginning of his career, Stevens stated his intent to release an album for each state in the US. So far, he hasn’t made much progress; Michigan and Illinois are the only two states he has tackled. Nonetheless, the idea alone seems to embody the fascination with incorporating city life into the arts, particularly music. This is reinforced by the fact that the album’s most popular track, “Chicago,” is not only named after one of the most important cities in history, but also references perhaps the most important city – New York. The relationship between the lyrics and the cities themselves seem vague, but the underlying appeal still persists.



[Interesting side note: Stevens’ title track “Come On! Feel the Illiniose!” (below) carries an extended title, which ends with Part 2: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream.” In the song, Stevens sings, “I cried myself to sleep last night/ and the ghost of Carl, he approached my window/ I was hypnotized, I was asked/ to improvize/ on the attitude, the regret/ of a thousand centuries of death.”]



Why is city life so important to popular culture, though? Is it purely to educate those, like myself, who have never experienced these cities in person? Is there an inherently entertaining quality to forms of art centered on major cities? Is there more appeal to showcasing these major cities than there is to showcasing small towns? If so, why are they not as entertaining or educational as major cities?

Music has made a significant shift toward highlighting city life, just as many other art forms have done over the years. The intoxicating fascination with American cities seems to be growing, rather than dying out. But why?




Filed under City Cultures

5 responses to “All Things Go, All Things Grow

  1. righteousmyer

    I like your connection between musical composition and fascination with city. For this connection, Sufjan Stevens is a wonderful example. It seems to be a musical embodiment of thoughts on the city. This differs, in my opinion, to a lot of music from and about Atlanta. I assume you were referencing many hip hop songs in which rappers refer to Atlanta. Where this is more of a cultural pride and comes from within, Steven’s “Fifty States Project” embodies a more national pride. He seems to be saying “wow this is such a cool place and I like it and things are happening in my life here and I really appreciate this city poetically” over something like “ATL, bitches”

    I also want to note how the album has a song entitled “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” (serial killer). The inclusion in the album of such a dark historical event goes to show that Sufjan doesn’t exclusively address the positive aspects of Chicago.

  2. I love this album! There’s a song about my hometown, “The Prairie Fire that Wanders About.” We really do have the oldest Christmas parade in the country. So I have two thoughts about this post:
    1. I think popular culture has served this purpose for a long time, and I think the city poems we have read and will read about are one of the first contemporary versions of that impulse, since they were mostly published in magazines that circulated through the country.
    2. I would love to hear more about how Chicago gets represented in the lyrics on this album. Feel like doing an indie rock paper?

  3. marximusvance

    You question why the fascination with cities is continuing to grow contrasted with the lack of fascination with small town life. I think it all boils down to what Simmel says. Or at least I think it’s Simmel. He says that you are actually more restricted in small towns and that you are allowed more freedom in the cities, and it is that freedom that leads to more discoveries, more diversities, and more aspects of life that can be talked about in a more educated setting.

    I also love that line about “Carl” because that song is one of my favorites on the album and I GET IT NOW. This is a fantastic album to delve in deep and understand all of the stories he tells. It is a massive album full of references to the city that I still don’t understand the context.

  4. Dr. Stalter – I’m pretty sure writing about this would make all of my wildest dreams come true. Thank you so much for encouraging it. Topic achieved!

    righteousmyer – I think it’s really interesting that you pointed out “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” It’s one of my favorite songs on the album and is also one of the few with an entirely straightforward relationship between title/song subject. The song is very clearly about the famous serial killer, which, as you say, sheds light on a darker side of Chicago’s history. This contrasts with, say, “Casimir Pulaski Day.” I’ve looked this up in the past; Casimir Pulaski is, to my understanding, a Polish Revolutionary War officer who greatly aided the US military. However, the song itself is about a girl who dies of “cancer of the bone.” The only clear connection to Casimir Pulaski/Casimir Pulaski Day is that Stevens seems to have “seen” the dead girl on this day. So, it is interesting to me that the dark subject of a serial killer is blatantly discussed through song, yet the topic of celebrating Polish history in Chicago is only mentioned in passing in its title song.

    marximusvance – I agree that the city offers more to be discussed, particularly in an educational setting. There are more people, more landmarks, more everything; there is, in general, more history. Does that mean, though, that there isn’t anything educational to derive from country life? Does that mean that its history is non-existent or, at the very least, less important? Maybe it’s just this idea that prevents people from truly analyzing the way people in more rural areas operate on a daily basis.

  5. @marximusvance – Culture seems to beget culture–pop culture especially seems to be in a constant state of dialogue, referencing and replying to other artistic statements. Cities are also cultural anchors, not just for their populations but also for the people who live in the surrounding areas. It’s like how people all over Alabama and the south rally behind the Auburn Tigers–not just Auburnites. Cities are simultaneously cultural generators and cultural lightning rods.

    @righteousmyer – I saw your “ATL, bitches” quote and felt compelled to share this. It’s a flow map showing which cities are most culturally aware regarding music, and Atlanta is at the top of the list for new music and for hip-hop. Of course, Atlanta doesn’t make the top five for indie music, but I think it’s interesting to note that Atlanta is very significant as a hub for musical tastemakers.

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