I’m not exactly what you’d call “well-traveled.” I’ve been to some excellent places and seen the great things they have to offer, for sure, but I’m not some jet-setter who can readily put forth an opinion on many of of the major cities of the world. Instead, I’ve learned about them largely through the lyrics of the musicians I listen to. Below are some of the songs that have whisked me to far-off locales over the years.
London: “London Calling” – The Clash
Yeah, so this was a little bit of an obvious choice, but can you think of a better song about the British city of fame by people who knew it so well? This is one of the most well-known Clash songs, and for good reason – it depicts London as a foreboding monster-city issuing a call to action to its surrounding areas. In the song, London seems attractive, but dangerous – the geographical version of a bad-boy lover like James Dean. Then again, anything The Clash sings about invariably takes on this image, but to lend it to an entire city was certainly very ambitious. Luckily for everyone – both band and listener – it turned out to be incomparably cool.
Philadephia: “Philadelphia Freedom” – Elton John
First and foremost, this song is just so much fucking fun. Sir Elton John extols the virtues of the city of brotherly love in a way that makes it sound like a friendlier version of what people look for in New York City: “If you choose to you can live your life alone/Some people choose the city/Some others choose the good old family home/I like living easy without family ties/Till the whippoorwill of freedom zapped me/Right between the eyes.” This verse is particularly fun because a) he sings in, like, every different register possible, alternately shrieking and doing a mock-Elvis voice, and b) it includes the lyric “the whippoorwill of freedom.” Now there’s a concept that could get me interested in bird-watching. Also, how hard is it not to think dirty things when EJ sings that “Philadelphia freedom took me knee-high to a man, mmmm?” Ooh er, Elton. Ooh er.
Los Angeles: “Angeles” – Elliott Smith
What I’ve gathered from the tales I’ve heard of L.A. is that it seems to be the home for mostly two kinds of people: the exceedingly successful and the people who are struggling to reach their ranks. Elliott Smith outlines his experiences with the first of those archetypes here. The finger-picking is skillful and lovely. The real focal point of this song, though, lies in the poetry Smith was inspired to write as probable result of being worn out by dealings with sharklike executives. “Someone’s always coming around here trailing some new kill/Says I seen your picture on a hundred-dollar bill.” This song has been one of many that have helped me to form the opinion that Los Angeles is all business, all the time, and that that’s not always a good thing. Of course, this is a stereotype, but aren’t stereotypes in place for a reason?
San Francisco: “Come Back From San Francisco” – The Magnetic Fields
The Magnetic Fields’s San Francisco is a place filled with “pretty boys and disco,” which the singer worries will lure her love away permanently. I mean, with a description like that, wouldn’t you be concerned, too? This song is especially fitting because I’ve lost a number of close friends to San Francisco, and I know what it’s like to think “It can’t be all that pretty when all of New York City misses you.” Unfortunately, both I and the band know we’re no match for the place.
Sao Paulo: “Baby” – Os Mutantes
This song has no qualms about bragging about its fair city. It’s in Portuguese, but the lyrics translate into such beautiful lines in English that it’s hard for me to pick which to speak about. “You know, you must take a look at the new land/The swimming pool and the teeth of your friend/The dirt in my hand” is part of the opening verse, and that’s honestly enough to make me want to catch the next flight, but they continue to make Sao Paulo sound like the city of my dreams throughout the song. They’re very immodest (“This is the biggest city of South America”), which I normally don’t like, but I have to say that it worked like a charm on me this time around. Maybe it’s the subject matter that makes me so forgiving: It sounds like an honest narrative about what must be one of the finest cities in the world.
Tokyo: “Tokyo” – The Adicts
If I had one of those nasty, cool personalized leather jackets, I would stencil The Adicts’s name across the back in white paint. This song goes out to those of you who find Asian girls simply irresistible. You’ve found kindred spirits in The Adicts. Their main mission in this song is spelled out time and time again – the words “got to go to Tokyo” are repeated more times than I can count. Tokyo must really be something special if these guys are so hell-bent on getting there, don’t you think?
Paris: “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” – Morrissey
Paris is often portrayed as one of the most romantic locales on Earth. Even Morrissey, ever the loner, has found a way to find truth in this idea. Although he couldn’t quite get the object of his affections to join him, he’s still determined to feel the love, singing “I’m throwing my arms around all of Paris because only stone and steel accept my love.” If ever there were a person, place, or thing to interrupt Morrissey’s perpetual loneliness, Paris seems like a worthy candidate. Check out the music video – it’s hilariously, charmingly bad, in typical Morrissey-video fashion.
New York City: “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” – LCD Soundsystem
God, how many songs have been written about our fair city by now? My guess is hundreds of thousands. Of these, this elegiac beauty by LCD Soundsystem probably speaks best to the current cultural condition of the city that perpetually conflicts so many of its residents. Do we love it? Are we disappointed in it? Are we captivated by it, sometimes against our will? This song correctly posits that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes. This sound is equal parts love note and letter of warning directed at “the kids who think it still exists.”