My knowledge of popular music is far from encyclopedic. At the same time, it is an interesting challenge to think of different American cities and then wrack your brain trying to think of a song that prominently features that city. Of course, New York City tops the list. This 52 Songs in 52 Weeks Essay Project even includes a song about NYC. Los Angeles is not far behind. Off the top of my head I can come with songs about LA by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Decemberists, Liz Phair, and Death Cab for Cutie. (And that doesn’t even count NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Weezer’s “Beverly Hills”, or Rage Against the Machine’s “Down Rodeo.”)
There are numerous songs about San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia. I once made a mix CD for a friend featuring songs about Chicago and that was before Sufjan Stevens released two albums about the state of Illinois. It is far more interesting to think of more obscure cities with their own songs. Courtney Love sang, or rather screamed, about Olympia, Washington. Built to Spill recorded a song about Twin Falls, Idaho. Susan Werner wrote a beautiful folk song about Petaluma, California. Everclear sang about Santa Monica.
When I moved to Kansas City in 2003 I was a little distressed that the only song about KC I knew was from the musical Oklahoma! although both Omaha and Wichita are memorialized in song by the bands Counting Crows and Soul Coughing respectively.
Yet, there is probably no city more overlooked in song than our nation’s capital, Washington D.C. Before I heard the song I will write about this week, I knew of only one song about D.C., “Washington D.C.” by the band The Magnetic Fields. While all publicity may be good publicity, that song seems to juxtapose the singer’s desire for her loved one with her lack of desire for the city. “It ain’t no famous name on a golden plaque that makes me ride that railroad track. It’s my baby’s kiss that keeps me coming back.”
In 2003 a “band” called the Postal Service released a splendid album entitled Give Up. The Postal Service was really a collaboration of two musicians, Ben Gibbard of the Seattle-based alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie and Jimmy Tamborello, a pioneer of electronic music based in Los Angeles who recorded under the moniker Dntel.
The first song of this album is about DC. “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” is a song filled with beauty and melancholy. The song opens with low-pitched, synthesized organ chords and then quickly adds a complex rhythm of synthesized percussion and Gibbard’s plaintive voice. Backing vocals and strings signal that this is a going to be a song of longing.
The lyrics to “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” are filled with images of impermanence. “I am a visitor here. I am not permanent.” “A stranger with your door key explaining I’m just visiting.” “The District sleeps alone tonight after the bars turn out their lights and send the autos swerving into the loneliest evening.”
Several years ago when I preached on the subject about Loneliness I chose this song as a recorded postlude. You can see the video to “The District…” here.