Suburbs are a characteristically mid to late 20C Western phenomenon, firstly called ‘suburbs’ (below-city) because they were partly urban and part rural. They began relatively recently in history, when trains and automobiles made long commutes possible, taking hold between the two world wars, and becoming the modern norm for many people. They have boomed at various times for various reasons – urban planning, returning servicemen settlement, an escape from the filth of the city for the middle classes and bourgeoisie, or affordable houses for the poor who could also gain a little food security (Now people are rediscovering community gardens and suburban food security, but it was once one of the main points of suburbia that you could have your own little market garden in your backyard while working a job in town.)
Despite how many people live in suburbs there remain relatively few stories and songs about them. Perhaps it’s because suburbs, as this middle ground between city and country, populated by a range of middle classes, by the majority of the population, have come to represent mediocrity and mundanity. Those who live in suburbs crave stories that take us away from the safe, meaningless, vacuous humdrum to exciting extremes – whether it’s fantasy realms, authentic reality, history, wealth, ghetto, distant lands, distant cultures, country, crime, etc. There is none the less a distinct genre of songs which deal with the suburbs, and with the mediocrity, alienation and malaise that has come to characterise life in the ‘burbs.
Perhaps the most well known song of suburban malaise, a classic of the genre, is Talking Heads‘ timely and incisive comment on the 80s suburban mid-life crisis, Once In A Lifetime.
More recently, Courtney Barnett perfectly sums up the situation in Australia at the moment, when the ‘housing bubble’ has been in the news for more than a decade in Depreston. Every line has a little touch that any Australian at a certain phase in their life, or who has been through that phase, will immediately recognise – from convincing yourself it’s going to be ok to move back to the souldeath of the place you tried to escape from when you moved to the city in the first place, summed up simply in a line like, “We don’t have to be around all these coffee shops.” to the confrontation with the cold inhumanity of it all, “Well it’s a deceased estate… aren’t the pressed metal ceilings great?” And there is that mantra-like, ironic refrain, “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you should knock it down and start rebuilding” that we have all heard from someone, whether it’s canny fatherly advice or part of an estate agent’s pitch. It sums up the lifelong quagmire of ‘the aspirational middle class’, the sense that your life is changing, you have a better job, you might almost be able to afford the ideal of making money by investment, coupled with the cynical reality that you don’t have half a million, that that kind of investment is for the rich, that you’re never going to be that person and it’s going to take you a lifetime to pay off what someone who already has half a million has the luxury of idly speculating with – the kind of speculation that lead to the bubble which now means you can barely afford a place to live.
There are of course many songs with different approaches, and which are more or less within this genre. The White Stripes’ Hardest Button To Button has some cracker lines, like their quip about domestic bliss:
Now we’re a family
And we’re alright now
We got money and a little place
To fight now
There are songs which, recognising the genre, self consciously set out to be a quintessential expression of it, hitting all the buttons of nostalgia, disenchantment and ennui such as Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’.
There’s also songs which are directly about the suburbs but which aren’t quite what I’m talking about here. There are songs like Melanie Martinez’ Dollhouse and Lilly Allen’s LDN which critique the veneer of pleasantry masking corruption.
Body Count’s There Goes The Neighbourhood is about the ‘burbs but it’s a racialised attack on suburban values rather than being an expression of the suburban condition – what it is to be a suburbanite – which is what I want to get at here.
I’m guessing that for many people the ‘suburbs’ might mean something more like NWA’s Compton, rather than the degrees of mediocrity and middle class mentioned above, but as Ice T points out in Hip Hop Evolution, for people in quieter suburbs, Gangsta Rap is a vicarious escape into another more dangerous world (and yep, these examples I’m saying are ‘the modern norm for many people’ may include women but they’re all white).
A whole lot of metal can be thought of as an attack on or rejection of the suburban ideals of mediocrity, safety and so on, since so many Metal artists and lovers are from the ‘burbs and have been driven by the boredom and safety and conformity towards death, satan, war, chaos, destruction and anything else anathema to suburbia – a point which Ben Fold’s mocks in his white bread mockery of white angst in Rockin The Suburbs.
Speaking of irony and metal, and critique of American suburban culture, I can’t resist adding Rammstein’s, Mein Land. Rammstein are a German band, in this clip obviously taking the micky out of smiling America, epitomised by youth beach culture of the 50s, looking like a Coke add and highlighting the sexploitation of rampant capitalism. No doubt many Americans don’t know any German but it’s not hard to figure out ‘Mein Land’ means ‘my land’. It’s a multiplay on nationalism, with much of the song repeating ‘My country, you’re here in my country.’ suggesting both the US’s anti-immigration attitudes, but even more so that all this smiling happiness in the land of consumerism is built on taking the First Nations’ land. Coming from a German, this nationalist chant takes on other overtones which, contrasted with the ‘freedom’ of American beach culture, are unsettling to say the least – moreso now than when the song was released with the rise of Trump’s Ur-Fascism. Sung by a Germanic band I can’t help being reminded of how one way of looking at Anglo colonisation of the world is as an ongoing Viking raid.
But I digress. What I’m talking about is songs which plumb the heart of what it means to be a suburbanite.
Malvina Reynolds’ Little Boxes is an early critique, and no wonder this machine of safety, security, superficiality and tedium leads to death metal. It’s interesting how quickly suburbs became the ‘norm’, how after only one generational change it seems all generations are doomed and have always been doomed to suburban mediocrity.
Some of the earliest songs about suburbs are French, focusing more on their peaceful and healthy aspects with the only regret being the need to go back to the city for work:
Damia – Aux quatre coins de la banlieue
Everyone settles in their corner
And we are going to work, to earn our bread
In the four corners of the suburbs of Paris
On Sunday, we forget our troubles
But at night
The poor suburbs become sad and black again
The lamps are extinguished
We don’t hear any more songs
And we thinks with regret of tomorrow
Réda Caire – Ma Banlieue (1937)
My suburbs, my suburbs
With charms that nothing replaces
Nearby, there are corners
Where every Sunday we relax
My suburbs, my suburbs
Thanks to you, all our troubles disappear
and we become like blue flowers
That’s why I love my suburbs
Banlieue by Robert Lamoureux
All ‘suburban houses’
Have a family air,
With a little step,
A gravel driveway,
A tool shed.
It’s a paradise
That God has put on Earth!
It is, after Paris,
The best thing we ever made!
The suburban hawkers
In their little cars,
Arrive on the door step
But when summer returns,
All the little commuters
become little truants
Some of the lyrics in these idyllic French songs echo through the century though as time goes by there is an increasing tendency towards irony and disappointment. Suburbs were invented as an ideal compromise between urban and country life, a cure for the ills of the urban world, its pollution, crime and corruption, made possible by high speed transport such as commuter train lines, bicycles and automobiles. Take a look at the Garden City Movement of the late 1800s. As completely new environments, suburbs could be designed specifically with the health and happiness of people in mind. But as with all Utopias, reality soon failed to live up to our dreams. They were designed with good intentions for workers, often funded by local capitalists. One of the earliest ‘garden suburbs’ for example was founded by Cadbury, a company run by a Quaker family, committed to protestant ethics (they also lead an industry ban on chocolate sourced from illegal West African slaves around the turn of the 20th Century, and again the turn of the 21st Century – history does repeat). The suburb was designed as a good healthy environment for workers, and plans for the purchase of houses by workers were introduced as the forerunner of mortgages so that workers could escape rent. Although it was designed with good intentions, and might have been an improvement, the suburb became a guilded cage. The suburbanite might think of themself as a free range chicken, better off than a battery hen, perhaps, but none the less in a world designed to contain them not to free them, not to give them self determination, ultimately their well being is considered only to improve their work output, to keep them docile, to continue making the company rich. Where I live in Newcastle, many suburbs were founded based on the Garden City movement at the request of coal miners and with the collaboration of the Australia Company. The Australia Company was established by British parliamentarians who made themselves major shareholders and, by act of parliament, granted the company vast tracts of land in Australia for development. They began in agriculture but soon controlled Novocastrian coal production. They still exist as a cattle company. In colonies such as Australia, and North America where there where major cities weren’t old medieval towns, planned Garden Cities, or suburbs quickly became the norm. Novocastrian’s still live in suburbs and pay mortgages and it’s a major coal export port, with the industry run by companies, and new developments, like the massive sprawl out at Thornton, ideal for young families looking for affordable housing and in commuting distance to the mines continue on. They continue on regardless of the destruction of Aboriginal heritage – a cave sacred to the Awabakal people for Women’s ceremonies is under threat from suburbs at West Wallsend, and Australia’s largest KFC stands on a significant aboriginal archaeological site, the oldest in Newcastle, dating back 6000 years with around 5000 artefacts uncovered and only 2 weeks to excavate with none of the outcome of that to be seen since. In any case all ideals are soon corrupted by reality – Suburbs became beset with problems such as cost-cutting, poverty, segregation, isolation, alienation, inauthenticity, decaying public works, poor urban design, car dependence, vandalism, gentrification, underclass, superficiality, homogeneity, boredom, mediocrity and malaise.
The Beatles Penny Lane is another example of a suburban idyll, from the mid 60s.
and, just because it’s one of my favourites, the Small Faces:
It’s these type of charming 60s songs that were later echoed in Blur’s hugely popular Parklife, an example of English people’s celebration of themselves as endearingly unassuming ‘common people’,
in which regard I now can’t go past Pulp’s ‘Common People’, about which any commentary couldn’t hope to say more than the song itself.
By contrast Radio Head’s ouvre in the 90s is the fullest possible expression of suburban alienation, the pathos of one’s life being so meaningless it has been reduced to the problem of not knowing where the car is parked after a bitter divorce:
where everyone ends up in institutionalised whether by drugs or having had their anxiety, depression or other personality trait pathologised
which, after all, is only to be expected if you’re stuck in the crippling ‘job that slowly kills you’ from which escape seems impossible until ‘A handshake of carbon monoxide’ is a fait accomplis:
Most songs that do suburbia best seem to be British (perhaps because so many aspects of Modernity, suburbia, mediocrity and alienation began there?). Madness’ Our House is full of sweet nostalgia for the everyday life of ordinary people that makes you wish you grew up in an English terrace, instead of being an ordinary person leading an ordinary life, growing up in a part of the world nobody heard of, in a suburb like any other, where all the houses look the same…well, not ‘instead of’, but at least you’d have the Cockney accent.
Madness and others like them make these particular suburbs, where all the houses look the same, into a ‘place’, with it’s own charms, with a history, and someone’s grandma stuck forever in an armchair drinking tea. Instead of being nobody in the undifferentiated vacuum of a new development, the age of this English suburbia has made it a culture and identity where you can have a sense of belonging and which has grown in people’s affection. The Specials have a more cynical view of this same place in Friday Night Saturday Morning.
But the suburban condition includes both these contradictory experiences at once, the idyll and the malaise, and it is when songs encapsulate this duality that we find some of the greatest poetry of the 20th Century. If you met a poet today it wouldn’t be surprising to hear them lament that poetry is no longer read, that it’s not like it was in centuries past, but as soon as you accept songs as poetry, ‘lyric poetry’, then you see that poetry has never been more popular. This is even more apparent with rap music, not even sung but explicitly poetry with musical accompaniment. The etymology of ‘rap’, goes back to the Greek term ‘rhapsody’ which referred to an oral recitation of epic poetry, though it later became a musical term. Anywhere you look outside of modern Europe you might find people don’t feel a great need to keep music out of poetry, as if poetry can only be ‘pure’ words uncorrupted by other art forms. Traditional popular poetry regularly has an instrumental accompaniment – whether it be the rap artists of Ancient Greece, Medieval Lais, the Baul of Bengal or the griots of West Africa, still rapping today. Pop songs are the poetry of our suburbia, of modernity, and have been for the past century or so.
In the Western world art periods are usually defined in retrospect, and some movements are declared at the outset, but either way they are typically manifested in each artistic medium – music, painting, literature etc. In the 1960s when suburban life had reached its postwar, car driven, maturity there was a strange disjuncture between Pop Art and Pop Music. When we think of the arts and about Pop Art and Pop Music we tend not to see Pop Music as the manifestation of Pop Art in musical form. We might think of the Velvet Underground due its association with Andy Warhol but that’s about it. I seem to recall that I read this point somewhere else before, but I’m sorry I can’t remember the source, that the difference is that Pop Art, though it dealt with pop themes, remained a movement for an elite group of cognescenti who were au fait with high art and the avant garde, while Pop Music was popular in the sense that everybody listened to it. There are crossovers of course. This is not a clear cut distinction. The Velvet Underground and their avant garde experiments, particularly with drone, and the mise en scene of the demi monde became hugely influential on many later genres of popular music but the distinction remains – only a rich art collector could buy a Lichtenstein but anyone could buy an album. Despite this fundamental difference between Pop Art and Pop Music in the 60s it is possible to re-think 60s music as Pop Art. The Who were perhaps most explicit about this. If I remember the anecdote rightly, Pete Townshend once famously did his block over some art school students dismissing them at one of their gigs. He remarked in an interview afterwards, “It’s got a lot more to do with art and all that than a lot a people realise.” (Sorry I can’t track down that clip) Despite his inarticulate statement at that moment Townshend was an Artist with a capital A, as amply demonstrated by The Who‘s often ground breaking body of work, at the same time as being popular.
The lyrics of Substitute are as perfect an articulation, in verbal form, of consumer culture as Warhol’s soup cans. The mock recorded advertisements on, and album cover of, The Who Sell Out make the connection to Pop Art explicit, albeit with their laddish (piss)take on it. It makes sense that any popular recording artist in the aesthetic milieu of the 60s would have had it somewhere in their mind that what they were doing was Pop Art as music, however that panned out. The point I’m getting at is that with the popular arts becoming the pre-eminent kind of art (after modernism), pop music lyrics are the pre-eminent kind of poetry and with so many living in the suburbs, these songs of suburban malaise become the most significant poetry of the age – and Ray Davies one of the greatest English poets.
The best and among the earliest to fully realise this poetry, full of the dualities of comfort and anxiety, of keeping up appearances and reality, of aspiration and disappointment, are The Kinks. More than a few of their songs explore a variety aspects of British culture at the sunset of the empire where the sun never sets. We see each end of the British class system in Dead End Street and A Well Respected Man.
Comparing Dead End Street with Autumn Almanac we see inescapable poverty on one hand and suburban idyll on the other, with both keeping the British character immovable on the same street.
In both Mr Pleasant and A Well Respected Man we see the thin veneer of bourgeois respectability crumble through infidelity.
Plastic Man is a more playful mockery of fakery in modern life.
For good reasons most people’s favourite Kinks songs are Waterloo Sunset and Sunny Afternoon but, considered from a lyrical point of view, for me their best, and the best of all songs of suburban malaise is Shangri La. From the first ‘Shangri-La’ is ironic – it is both an exotic ideal, the peak spiritual attainment and, in this song, it is bricks and mortar, a humble home. Nothing so perfectly captures the dualities of the suburban condition. Here is an insignificant commuter, despondent and ‘conditioned’ into this routine, who is none the less master of their own domain, who works hard all their life for that small independence and that small reward of owning your own home and affording items, of getting out of debt. It is the great achievement of being independent and paying your own way, but also a small achievement, no different from anyone else’s. All there is to show for it at the end of the day is a TV set and a radio. There is the constant concern for budget – ‘at seven shillings a week’ which affords the comfort of a warm fire – but ‘You need not worry, you need not care.’ isn’t just the reward of rest after hard work. It’s also the implicit command that all of us desperate to keep our job understand, to stay in your place, not to stick your head up and cause a disturbance, to conform or you might lose everything. In this song even the lyrics ‘la la la’ have meaning, as the attempt to shut out the anxiety that underlies these quotidian comforts. The little man has achieved this simple, humble Shangri-La, but it is also a prison. The comfort itself is a prison, it’s all too easy to stay put because you are ‘Too scared to think about how insecure you are’. With the pride of success and independence of paying off those debts comes the constant anxiety that we won’t be able to, and the longer it goes on the more there is to lose until it becomes everything you’ve worked your whole life for – any suburban home owner knows the headache of that unending list, ‘The gas bills and the water rates, and payments on the car…’ It all comes together in the bittersweet revelation of success at having reached the top and so being able to put your feet up, knowing also that that’s it, this is all there is, you’ll never be any more than this humble person in a humble home. You’re in your place because you’ve worked for it, but you’ve just as much been put in your place – and you know it. No more illusions means wisdom but it also means no more hopes and dreams:
You’ve reached your top and you just can’t get any higher.
You’re in your place and you know where you are,
In your Shangri-La.