Thursday, June 21, 2012

Songs About the Suburbs

Although a majority of Americans live in suburban areas, apart from three months of my life spent crashing on the suburban couch of two of my college friends, I have lived either in urban neighborhoods, college towns, or rural outposts.  For that reason, they've always seemed a little exotic and strange to me, but despite that fascination with suburbia I have no desire to live there.  I like having either access to the culture, walkability, and excitement that urban concentrations bring or the quiet and nearness to nature of small towns.  I do like to visit, mostly since my wife's folks live in the suburbs, and when we spend a Sunday afternoon there we get to enjoy easy access to convenient shopping and tree-lined curvy streets made for bicycle riding.  I say this at the start just to let y'all know that I do not possess any knee-jerk snobbishness about suburbia, it's just not the type of place where I'd prefer to hang my hat each night.  I think we as a society make our mole-hills of personal preference into mountains of perceived elemental differences and should just let everyone like what they like.

Now that I'm spending more time in the suburbs, songs about suburbia keep popping in my head.  These tunes tend to be pretty critical of suburban life, mostly as a protest against the shallow consumerism of the postwar American Dream.  With the current housing crisis and growing environmental consciousness, the suburbs have lost much of the allure that the songs I am about to discuss were protesting against.  Perhaps this sub-sub-genre is about to come to an end.  Anyway, here are some of the more interesting songs about suburbia as I see it.


The Monkees, "Pleasant Valley Sunday"

This is the first song about the suburbs I ever really got into, although it's meaning was a little unclear what it was all about.  Back in 1986-87 I religiously watched reruns of the Monkees' TV show and via my cousin listened to all of their classic albums.  This song confused me a little since I was used to pop songs about love and romance rather than wry bits of social commentary.  As I got I got older, I started hearing lines like "rows of houses that are all the same/ and no one seems to care" in a different light.  Of course, by that time I had gotten pretty tired of my monocultural home town, and even though it was rural rather than suburban, when Mickey Dolenz croons "I need a change of scenery" I could hear him loud and clear.

Rush, "Subdivisions"

I used to hate Rush in large part due to Neil Peart's rather daft lyrics, but now I love his drumming and the band's musicianship so much that I just tune out the words.  This is one case where his emotive, teen-angst riven "nobody understands me" standpoint actually works.  Instead of building up some kind of Ayn Randian superman battling anti-individualism as the center of his song, the criticism of conformity hits a less ephemeral and more tangible target: modern suburban life.  In fact, the line about the subdivisions' "geometric order" creating an "insulated border" against the city is actually quite artful.  The main irony here, of course, is that the suburbs that Peart and co. depict as a soul-sucking wasteland also produce about 90% of their fan base.  (The video pretty much lets the cat out of the bag on this point.)

The Kinks, "Shangri-La"

Ray Davies of the Kinks is probably rock music's greatest poet of daily life, and someone who has written songs about the perils of moving to the city ("The Big Black Smoke") and idealizing traditional life in English villages ("Village Green.")  He also penned one of the greatest songs about postwar suburban life, since it gets at the illusory nature of its promises.  At the start Davies terms the suburban home a "paradise" and "kingdom to command" so much more comfortable than the "lavatories in back yard" of the old working-class neighborhood, but soon all is not well, since there's nothing else to aspire to.  In the key words in the song's opener, "You've reached your top and you just can't get any higher/ you're in your place and you know where you are."  It's a place with creature comforts like a TV set, car, and radio, that increasingly begins to feel like a trap where "you're too scared to admit how insecure you are" and everyone gossips about you.  If this is all there is to look forward to, life is pretty damn bleak, a point that Davies makes just as effectively as literary critics of suburbia like John Updike, Richard Yates, and John Cheever.

Weezer, "In the Garage"

Of course, not all songs about suburban life are necessarily so heavy-handed and didactic.  Sometimes they just give the listener a nice little slice of daily life, and "In the Garage" is a great example.  The narrator of the song, who appears to be a disaffected nerdy kid with few friends, talks about the garage as his suburban refuge where he can look at his KISS posters and read his Dungeon Master's Guide without being mocked.  I bought this album right when it came out in the summer of 1994, right before I left home for college, and when my first roommate loved it too (and understood what it meant) I knew we'd get along really well.  Much of my adult life has been spent making friends who, like me, spent their adolescence sheltered in their geeky cocoons.

Arcade Fire, "Sprawl II"

It seems to have become a sport in the indie-rock world these days to attack Arcade Fire, the reason being something I call "Malkmusitis" in honor of Stephen Malkmus, former lead singer of indie greats Pavement.  There is no greater sin in indie music than unironic earnestness and emotion.  If your songs are anthemic without being satirical (like the Arcade Fire's), they are deemed cheesy or uncool.  I for one love their last album, appropriately titled The Suburbs.  (On it they get a little revenge on their too-cool-for school hipster detractors with "Rococo.")  My absolute favorite song on the record is "Sprawl II," a sweeping number that combines New Wave and disco with an emotional evocation of suburban sprawl as an endless, suffocating Moloch-like beast eating its children alive.  As a child of rural Nebraska, I do have to say that when I first went to sprawled-out cities like Denver as a kid, the sight of sprawling "shopping malls like mountains beyond mountains" made me queasy in its endlessly repetitive artificiality.

Parliament, "Chocolate City"

I know this song is about cities and not suburbs, but it's a pretty sly and powerful riposte to the white flight to the suburbs.  Clinton refers to cities with a black majority (like my own city of Newark) in the beginning, before building up to the revelation that the nation's capital is "Chocolate City."  He imagines a black president and cabinet in what was once the White House, and the chorus proclaims "we're gaining on you!"  It's a very different American Dream than the one being propagated in the "vanilla suburbs."  Although it's not one of George Clinton's better songs from a groove perspective, the musicianship is great as always, and the political message ought to let folks know that George Clinton wasn't just about laying down party jams.


Elliott Marx said...

I enjoyed your piece a good deal. I have nearly always lived in suburbs (a shift or two in college towns and a year in Big City, Korea withstanding.)I live outside of Los Angeles and do not feel culturally devoid at all. In fact, the ease of parking and lack of overall traffic frees a lot of time and eliminates loads of potential frustration.

For better dining, theater, concerts I can hop on a freeway and reach my destination in 45 minutes - the bulk of that 45 minutes is actually the 4 or 5 miles nearest my destination and not the 25 miles before it. Since I could not afford meals, performances and city happenings but on a weekly basis, I much prefer the day to day relaxation of my suburb.

Where LA may be different from other metro areas is that our suburbs are incredibly culturally varied. I would rather live in a congested hell hole than a leafy suburb that is culturally homogeneous.

I actually love every song on your list, but find Shangri-La to be one of the best songs, by any band, of any time. You are quite right to describe Ray as a poet of daily life. He is a magnificent observer. His recent works continue in that tradition.

YoungUrbanAmateur said...

Great topic! I think my favorites were your take on the Kinks and on Arcade Fire... but great post overall, too!
You really hit the nail on the head with Shangri-La... it really captures a sense of horror at the idea that maybe that thing you worked so hard for really wasn't worth it, and that maybe people have been selling you a false idea of happiness for your whole life.
Did you time this to match Ray Davies' birthday or was this a happy accident?

Anonymous said...

David byrne's Nothing but Flowers is a keeper in this genre.