The city in music

Photograph of graffiti on a warehouse wall

© / eliandric

Cities have long provided musicians with a source of creative inspiration. Images of cities and city environments, and the tensions of city life, are commonly promoted and addressed through popular music. The titles of many songs and albums and the names of many music groups have also incorporated references to cities and city neighbourhoods and landmarks.

The city has therefore been ingrained in popular music and popular music has responded creatively in ways that have influenced how cities are thought about and reflected upon:

"The simple fact is that pop is better on cities than on anything else, apart from love. It's taught us to be intrigued by cities, to fear them, to face up to them." (Nick Coleman, 'The Independent', 11 April 1995)

The way in which music associates cities with particular kinds of images and ideas is often connected to the particular style of music involved. In classic rock songs, for example, the city has often appeared as a place of excitement and an escape from the restrictions of family and home. Yet the city has also appeared in popular music as a much darker place. Industrial music, for example, has promoted futuristic, nightmarish images of the city, whilst for many punk musicians the city was a place of dereliction and decay. There are also the gangs and violence associated with the inner city 'hoods of rap whilst in so-called Britpop, suburbia has often been depicted as alienating and repressive, dreary and soulless.

Images of the city in popular music are also influenced by non-musical factors, such as the social and economic characteristics of cities in general or of individual cities.

Take the example of 'Ghost Town', a 1981 record by the Specials, a ska band from Coventry. When it was released British cities were experiencing a severe economic recession. This helps to explain the song. The verses tell of the closure of local clubs and of public disorder and they are sung in a minor key. At one point, however, the song shifts into a faster, more upbeat tempo and a major key in order to accompany the lines, 'Do you remember the good old days of the boom town'? This is just one small example of how musical sounds can be used to portray different images of the city and draw contrasts between the urban past and present, boom and bust.

'Ghost Town' provides a striking contrast to the classic pop song 'Downtown' released by Petula Clark in 1964 and in different economic circumstances. Inspired by New York, this cheerful, enthusiastic and upbeat song uses climactic upwards scales, soaring trumpets and gushing lyrics to celebrate 'downtown' as a place of affluence, fun and adventure. The musicologist Adam Krims (2007) argues that the song tells us something about cities and how they were thought about at that particular time.

Follow these links to explore other ways in which cities have been imagined and characterised through popular music, and find examples of how Liverpool has featured in music.