“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.”

Gothenburg Museum of Art.

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.

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  1. As I read your post I was thinking Dominion Road Dominion Road

    Muttonbirds are probably the best Kiwi band at the sense of place you examine. Theres another on the same album

    I wish I was in Wellington, the weather’s not so good
    The wind it cuts right through you and
    it rains more than it should
    But I’d be there tomorrow, if I only could
    Oh I wish I was in Wellington
    I wish I was in Wellington – the bureaucracy
    The suits and the briefcases along Lambton Quay
    The Harbour City Capital, the lights beside the sea
    Oh I wish I was in Wellington
    It just isn’t practical, you down in the capital
    And me at the other end of the island

    And there’s no easy way to reconcile it
    I wish I was in Wellington, the cafes and the bars
    The music and the theatre, and the old Cable Car
    And you can walk everywhere ’cause nowhere’s very far
    Oh I wish I was in Wellington
    Oh I wish…
    Oh I wish I was in Wellington, the wind it cuts right through
    I wish I was in Wellington, there’s so much more to do
    I wish I was in Wellington, and you wish I was too
    Oh I wish I was in Wellington, ’cause then I’d be with you
    Oh I wish I was in Wellington, ’cause then I’d be with you

    1. I tend to agree, but I am somewhat biased: I’ve been approached in the street twice by people asking me whether I am Don McGlashan’s illicit love child.

      P.s. I begrudgingly focused on more modern music, not becuse it’s better but simply because it provides a more contemporary portrayal of Auckland. I also had a sneaking suspicion that people such as Patrick would help fill the historical gaps.

  2. No doubt politically incorrect given the autocentric sentiments but it’s Bacharach genius and the wonderful Dionne Warwick from 1968:

      1. Two great songs. Perhaps the difference just depends on your cultural galaxy? Passenger relates more to the US while Ghost Town seems more relevant to Europe.

        1. Ghost Town is great too, and yes specifically London, showing the great cultural cross-pollination that occurs with immigration of people from very different places… London would be a much poorer place with that wave of West Indian migration, like Auckland with the Pacifica influence.

        2. I like them both and have lived in both the US and UK for extended periods, and a number of other countries as well so I would say that my cultural galaxy is broad. The fascination with Ghost Town stems, I think, from the two-tone rocksteady/ska influences that were normally upbeat dance music and putting a sinister twist on it…slightly disturbing somehow…but if you want to explore the cultural aspect of city-specific music how about:

          Galveston: Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb. An anti-vietnam-war country song.
          San Francisco: Scott McKenzie. A pop celebration of flower power and the “Summer of Love”
          Warwick Avenue: Duffy. Modern UK soul (with tube references!)
          Allentown: Billy Joel. Industrial decay pop

          To address Patrick’s point re cultural influences; love that Jamaican flavour, particularly classic reggae from Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff…but it is not just cities that are thus influenced. Most US music styles draw heavily on what was african music: jazz, soul, rock, gospel, Motown etc. even bluegrass features the banjo which is derived from an african instrument.

  3. And now a veritible pot-pourri of US cities from Huey Lewis:

    New York, New York, is everything they say
    And no place that I’d rather be
    Where else can you do a half a million things
    All at a quarter to three
    When they play their music, ooh that modern music
    They like it with a lot of style
    But t’s still that same old back beat rhythm
    That really really drives ’em wild

    They say the heart of rock and roll is still beating
    And from what I’ve seen I believe ’em
    Now the old boy may be barely breathing
    But the heart of rock and roll, the heart of rock and roll is still beating

    La, Hollywood, and the Sunset Strip
    Is something everyone should see
    Neon signs and the pretty pretty girls
    All dressed so scantily (‘sexily’ on the live version)
    When they play their music
    That hard rock music
    They like it with a lot of flash
    But it’s still that same old back beat rhythm
    That really kicks ’em in the

    They say the heart of rock and roll is still beating
    And from what I’ve seen I believe ’em
    Now the old boy may be barely breathing
    But the heart of rock and roll, the heart o’ rock n’ roll is still beating

    (Johnny!… Oh!)

    Dc, San Antone and the Liberty Town, Boston and Baton Rouge
    Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City, Seattle, San Francisco, too
    Everywhere there’s music, real live music, bands with a million styles
    But It’s still that some old rock and roll music
    That really really drives ’em wild

    T-T-T-T-They say the heart of rock and roll is still beating
    And from what I’ve seen I believe ’em
    Now the old boy may be barely breathing
    But the heart of rock and roll, heart of rock and roll is still beating

    1. super thanks — I think I missed this song completely when it was released. Must have been going through one of my heavy metal relationship break-up phases ;).

    1. so we meet again miffy! I had an inkling that this post might draw you to the flame …

      what’s radio with pictures? Is that a reference to music videos?

  4. And who could forget Auckland band Hogwild (2005-2008), with their song Rock’s Last Gasp including a reference to “city of sales”, although the song isn’t primarily about Auckland but the slow demise of rock music?

  5. OK the 1968 song “America” by Simon and Garfunkel came to mind having lots of place names & hey even Greyhound buses! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W773ZPJhcVw more of a road trip song though I guess:

    “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together
    I’ve got some real estate here in my bag
    So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies
    And we walked off to look for America
    Cathy, I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
    Michigan seems like a dream to me now
    It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
    I’ve gone to look for America

    Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces
    She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
    I said, be careful, his bowtie is really a camera
    Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat
    We smoked the last one an hour ago
    So I looked at the scenery
    She read her magazine
    And the moon rose over an open field

    Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
    And I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
    Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
    They’ve all come to look for America
    All come to look for America
    All come to look for America”

    …and the top interpretation comment found here:http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?lyrics=3323 is probably pretty right (I couldn’t quite figure what some bits were on about so looked this up while ago):

    “Paul Simon is talking about the persist of happiness in this song. The main character and his girl friend have made plans to travel around the country because they believe they will find freedom and happiness in doing so. As the song continues we begin to see little things breaking down. Kathy and he attempt at entertaining each other or having interesting conversation is reduced to each other trying to be witty or funny ( “she said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy. I said be careful his bow tie is really a camera.”), they run out of cigarettes and we get the feeling they didn’t plan ahead to buy extra packs or they don’t have enough money. Their adventure is reduced to him staring at the scenery and her reading her magazine. Not the most exciting stuff, and they’re not inter-reacting anymore. Finally the realization that he won’t find America (happiness) in this manner or with this person hits him. (Kathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”. Why doesn’t he tell her when she’s awake? Because he has been faking it with her and pretending to be happy so he is telling himself first.”

      1. …and of course the car dominated cities that had developed at that time….hmmm soo much could read into this: “..And I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
        Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
        They’ve all come to look for America
        All come to look for America …”

  6. Not strictly a song, but still tells a tale – James K Baxter’s “Ode to Auckland”. I particularly liked this graphic description.

    “…Auckland, even when I am well stoned
    On a tab of LSD or on Indian grass
    You still look to me like an elephant’s arsehole
    Surrounded with blue-black haemorrhoids…”

  7. I was watching these videos and suddenly the wire of my headphone is broken, Is someone here as a headphone expert that guides me which wire is used in headphones so I repair it by myself.

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