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?