songs for my cities

Variation on a theme

Certain songs are inextricably connected to the cities I’ve lived in, either because they are about that place, or because I listened to them so much while living there, or because they have a sound that quintessentially belongs to that city, or some combination of all three.

Here are my favorite songs about the cities I’ve called home, whether for a few months or many years:

New York

Paris

Here’s why.

Dakar

Austin

Los Angeles

Shortly after I moved to L.A., The O.C. premiered and it became my guilty pleasure. I used to watch it every week with my roommates and we would sing-shout along to the lines of the opening theme song by Phantom Planet: “California here we come, right back where we started from, Californiaaaaaaaaa, here we cuuuuuhhh-ummmmm.” Now whenever I’m about to visit L.A. I listen to this song on the way to the airport, sing-shouting along. Its 100% pertinence – I’m going back to where I started my adult life to the soundtrack of this song – gives me goosebumps every single time.

And I have to include this one, too, which feels SoCal in an almost synesthesiac way.

Dublin

And for 100% nostalgic reasons:

Philadelphia

All of these are clearly very sentimental choices.

London

No idea why, but every time I hear this song I feel visceral nostalgia for my five year-old self who lived in London. I don’t remember ever hearing it there, but it was released as a single in September, 1985, which is when I was there, so maybe I did hear it and housed it somewhere in my subconscious, to make me teary-eyed at that distinctive guitar riff decades later.

This one is more on-the-nose London appropriate:


And just for good measure, here’s my favorite song that, though not necessarily about my home state (although it very well could be), is by the band I most strongly associate with New Jersey (and whom I adore).

Revisiting the past

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I use the terms “foreign” and  “travel” loosely on this blog, to refer to anything strange and unfamiliar on the one hand, and any journey – physical or emotional – on the other. This post is about psychic time travel, through music. 

As is my tradition (in the United States at least), I went to a Stars show by myself last week. The first time I saw them live was around twenty years ago, when they were just starting out and played in the basement of my university chapel. I don’t think I was alone that time but I can’t remember who I was with… All I remember was that I went on the advice of my little sister, I was blown away, and when I ran into the singer/guitarist Amy Millan in the bathroom I gushed to her about her angelic voice and awesome dance moves.

In 2002 I was 22 years old and I had just moved to Los Angeles. I saw that Stars was playing at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. I had no friends to go with me, so I went alone. I had recently gone to my first movie by myself, which felt really awkward at first and really liberating by the end, and I figured this would be similar. It was not. I felt really awkward the whole time. But still I was glad I went, and in the times I’ve seen Stars since then I’ve almost always chosen to go alone. It seems fitting for music that is thematically all about solitude, nostalgia, longing, and bittersweet loss.

At the show last week I thought about all of the different me’s I have been each time I’ve seen Stars live (which is too many times to count), including the me I was when I flew on a whim to see them play in Paris, not by myself this time, but coming into my own in a way that made me feel very singular.

Sometimes you’re communing with the past so hard that it’s practically running alongside the present, and that’s how I felt at the show – awash in my various ages. The words of the songs and Torquil Campbell’s always flamboyant commentary kept uncannily echoing the feelings all those memories evoked.

At one point he told the audience, “Put your fists up for your ghosts. They’re on the guest list. Bring ´em along,” and I just thought, Yup.

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These musings are apropos of nothing; it’s just that I’ve written about Stars a few times here and I find it interesting how they’re always weaving in and out of my own personal zeitgeist. 

Orelsan in New York

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About a year ago, on the very angsty eve of my 38th birthday, a song I had never heard before, but which was apparently a new French chart-topping hit, lifted me out of my malaise. It was called “La Pluie,” and Spotify fatefully served it up to me at the exact time when I needed it most. Buoyed by the words and the music, I listened to it about a hundred subsequent times while walking around Paris, which more often than not was fittingly rainy. By that point, I was just coming out of what had felt like a bottomless well of depression and anxiety. I was in the middle of battling a health issue that would require a hospital procedure to resolve. And I was staring down my persistent French underemployment, my dwindling bank account, and my lack of any clear direction. I was finally beginning to accept the inevitability of returning to the United States to become financially solvent and figure out what to do next.

“La Pluie” wasn’t responsible for my unexpected pivot from dread to beatific acceptance, but it was while listening to the song that I realized the change had already happened, and I felt a kind of aching serenity wash over me – sadness and hopefulness at the same time. Also silliness, because for French rap to inspire such profound feelings is ridiculous.

I went to see Orelsan at Irving Plaza in New York a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to revisit that absurdly intense period of my life and the emotions that – even though often highly unpleasant – had made me feel so alive.

I suppose I set myself up for disappointment. I should know by now it’s impossible to recapture the past, especially when you’re trying. Orelsan played “La Pluie” in the first half of the show, and it somehow didn’t hit the right notes, so the trip down memory lane I had wanted to take instead turned into five seconds of full-fledged emotion followed by another minute or two of trying unsuccessfully to force it to stick around.

The rest of the show I just took it all in without trying to make it something it was not. Yes, the place was filled with more French people than I have ever seen gathered in one place outside of France. But they did not make me feel the way I did in Paris. There, I felt like an outsider but in an intrepid and exhilarating way. At the show, I felt like an insider rendered an outsider by other outsiders who lost their caché outside of France. I don’t know how to adequately express it except to say that when Orelsan led the crowd in a call and response complete with a lot of ’90’s era hand waving, “Quand je dit Irveeng, vous dites Plahzah. Irveeng? Plahzah! Irveeng? Plahzuah!” I both smiled and flinched at the awkwardness of it all.

So it wasn’t a transcendent night, but it was still a lot of fun.

My Dakar places

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On Valentine’s Day two years ago, I flew to Dakar. So much has happened since then that it feels more like a decade.

It also feels like I left Dakar ages ago, but it’s actually only been eleven months, which is so unbelievable to me that I redid the math twice. Still, eleven months is long enough to lose touch with a place, and the list I’m about to post may be a little outdated. But I’ve been promising it to myself and others for too long to let it evaporate. And things change far more slowly in Dakar than in New York, so even though there are surely new places to discover, almost all of these old places could still be going strong. (I’ll edit the post accordingly if I learn differently.)

Without further ado, and in no particular order, my favorite places in Dakar… Continue reading

all of digital life is a foreign country

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I haven’t had much time to devote to this blog since being back in New York, but I recently found a nearly complete post that I wrote two or three years ago in my drafts folder. I dusted it off, and here it is for your reading pleasure until I have time to write something new:

The online sale for an in-demand concert was about to begin, and I knew it would be tough to snag tickets. As I waited anxiously, itchy trigger finger hovering over the Return key until the appointed moment to click furiously and hope for a miracle, a memory came rushing back.

Continue reading

my Senegal playlist

Before I left Senegal I gathered all the West and Central African songs that I had either heard for the first time and loved, or learned to love better, while in Dakar and I put them onto an itunes playlist. I just transferred them into a Spotify playlist so that I can share them with you:

If you are eagle-eyed / eagle-eared you will notice that one of these things is not like the others… I heard “Prayer in C” for the first (and second, and third, and fourth) time during a twelve-hour stint in the Casablanca airport and it grew on me so much that I googled the lyrics to identify it. When I got back to Dakar I downloaded it on itunes and continued to play it repeatedly, so that it is now inextricably linked with my time in Senegal even though the song is French.

Following my foray into French new wave, my next digging project is to find the best of Nigerian and Ghanian highlife music. Any ideas about what’s good, let me know!

some French new wave for your Wednesday

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A child of the 80s, I grew up with new wave music. I loved it then, and I love it even more now.

When I attended junior high in the early 90s, my first French teacher started every class by playing a few songs from one of her old records for us. Most of the stuff on heavy rotation was awful (I remember hearing this particularly terrible song about 8,000 times), except for Indochine. I loved them despite the fact that my hopelessly dorky teacher did, too.

A few years ago, I rediscovered Indochine on iTunes, and I found myself again adoring them.

Over the past year or so, a question repeatedly occurred to me: who are the other icons of French new wave? Surely Indochine must be just the tip of a vast and mighty iceberg. Yet the only other quasi-new wave French song I had heard apart from the Indochine catalogue is Ça Plane Pour Moi. I began a quest for the other gems that heretofore never made their way across the Atlantic to my American ears.

What I discovered is that, sadly, there are not many gems after all. Whereas the 80s were a time of utter magic for American and British music across several genres, the era did not seem to treat the French nearly as well, at least in terms of pop. I did copious digging to find French new wave and cold wave songs that stand the test of time and sound as great today as they did back then. Unfortunately, most of what I listened to was tepid at best; banal, outdated, and embarrassing at worst. (Though the videos – and dancing and fashion therein – were often pitch-perfect, highly enjoyable parodies of themselves. Case in point.)

But I did find five songs that I truly love, which I hereby present for your listening (and viewing) pleasure. Continue reading