“In art, depictions of urban landscapes are common since antiquity, and one is constantly reminded of city life. But the city is not only made up of physical building, streets, and squares. It also carries its own history in the form of memories and stories. Together they become interweaved into a soul and identity that gives the city meaning.”
Two weeks ago I was travelling in Sweden, where I spent some time perusing Gothenburg’s (ab fab) Museum of Art. The extract above is taken from one of the main exhibitions, which explores urban landscapes and piqued my interest. So much so that I decided to write this post, in which I casually explore what music tells us about some cities that are important to me.
The first song on our sojourn is “Amsterdam”, which has been my home for several years. As many of you probably know, Amsterdam has a unique vibe. In some ways Amsterdam’s bad weather adds to its charm, as the following music video alludes (NB: If you watch carefully at the begining of the video, there is a reference to Amsterdam’s street network).
This song mixes wanderlust fairy-tale with urban grit. Flower-lined canals, cobblestone streets, and the “howling wind, she takes everything”. Amsterdam’s personality has other dark sides; “she’ll follow me down every street, no matter what my crime.” Even so, the city remains “easy on the eye.”
I’ll soon be moving back to Australia, which is the birthplace of “Depreston” by Courtney Barnett. Warning: This is a dry, lilting, melancholic tale of house-hunting in unaffordable cities, specifically Melbourne. I love it to pieces, just like my two baby nieces (NB: My preferred gender-neutral term “nibbling” unfortunately didn’t rhyme).
Underpinning Depreston is a wry contempt for the absurd cost of housing: “if you’ve got a spare half a million, you could knock it down, and start re-building”. The opening verse also provides intuitive insight into the key trade-off in urban economics (proximity versus price), warming the cockles of my cold ol’ homo economicus heart:
You said we should look out further
I guess it wouldn’t hurt us
We don’t have to be around all these coffee shops.
Now we’ve got that percolator
Never made a latte greater
I’m saving 23 dollars a week.
The first and second lines express what economists call “spatial general equilibrium”, which is a concept that I discuss in my thesis. The general premise is that the cost of housing adjusts to leave people indifferent between locations in a city, taking into account amenities (like distance to jobs and coffee shops). I wonder if that’s what Courtney had in mind?
Continuing with the suburban theme, but upping the tempo slightly to drug-induced-haze level, we have Arcade Fire’s epic “Sprawl II (Mountains beyond mountains”). This is, incidentally, my favourite song of the post.
The singer escapes life in the suburbs using headphones, music, costumes, and dance:
‘Cause on the surface the city lights shine
They’re calling at me, come and find your kind
Sometimes I wonder if the World’s so small
That we can never get away from the sprawl
Living in the sprawl
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight
I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights
One of the good things about suburban sprawl, I think, is that it prompted Arcade Fire to pen this amazing album.
What does New Zealand music have to say about our cities? In his song “Welcome Home”, Dave Dobbyn traces Auckland’s trajectory from colonial outpost to melting pot, and expresses an unabashedly positive view on the latter. The song explicitly addresses migrants and refugees (NB: Te Reo version):
Tonight I am feeling for you
Under the state of a strange land
You have sacrificed much to be here
‘there but for grace…’ as I offer my hand
Welcome home, I bid you welcome, I bid you welcome
Welcome home from the bottom of my heart
Out here on the edge
The empire is fading by the day
And the world is so weary in war
Maybe we’ll find that new way
Next up, we have one of Lorde’s little pop gems, “Team”, which — like many of her songs — is a rhythmic tale of the situations and environments that young people face.
Was this song shaped by Lorde’s own experiences in Auckland? The chorus observes:
We live in cities you’ll never see on screen
Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things
Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams
And you know, we’re on each other’s team
The line “living in ruins of a palace within my dreams” reminds me of the opening scene of Once Were Warriors. Panning back from a tranquil image of New Zealand’s high country, we find ourselves looking at a bill-board mounted on run-down buildings next to SH1. Popular perceptions of New Zealand meet the reality of life for some Aucklanders.
Similar scenes reappear ~15 years later in the music video for the song “Brother” by Smashproof, featuring Gin Wigmore. For those of you who are skipping through this post quickly, this is probably the one music video that I’d recommend listening to somewhat carefully, as it contains the most Auckland-specific content and relates to the discussion below.
Important questions being raised in, and about, challenging personal and societal circumstances. And in the process shining a not particularly flattering light on life in Auckland.
Why am I interested in the stories musicians tell about our cities? The main reason is because music helps me understand other people’s experiences. Even if the music itself is not my usual cup of Lady Grey.
It’s not all good news; many songs tell stories of struggle and angst. What gives rise to the angst these artists are expressing? Can we address the causes, or at least mitigate their effects? For me, music fosters empathy; evidence suggests I am not alone.
I think a key moment in our recent election was when Bill English and the National Party (finally) committed to a target of lifting 100,000 New Zealand children out of poverty. This followed what seemed to me to be a quite remarkable shift in New Zealand’s public discourse on poverty. Consider this contribution, for example, from the New Zealand Head of Chartered Accountants. Such shifts have the potential to dramatically change the face of Auckland for the better.
Artistic introspection can be precursor to political action. I think art helped raise public awareness of child poverty to the point where political action was necessary. Toby Morris over at the Pencil Sword to provide a recent example. Of course artists are not working in isolation; civil society groups like Child Poverty Action Group and Greater Auckland also facilitate understanding. As do elected representatives. But let’s not delude ourselves: Information is necessary but not sufficient for progress.
Cities are more than concentrations of people. They are concentrations of different people. Music, and art more generally, can bring these differences and commonalities into sharp relief. In a democratic society, art is a complementary — and often under-rated — way to raise awareness of the need for political action. Emotive? Yes. Effective? Most certainly.
What sorts of music will people make about Auckland in the years ahead? As well as music that helps us dance and feel good, I hope for music that tells tales about Auckland. Empathic tales. Honest tales.
Please share your own favourite urban-themed tunes in the comment thread. There’s a lot of wonderful music that I do not mention here, but which tells similarly valid tales about our cities. The Mutton Bird’s 1992 single Dominion Rd, for example.
And finally, I’d like to thank all the musicians and artists out there. Your efforts are appreciated — perhaps more so than is immediately apparent.