My Fear of Cities encapsulated in a Song.

My Fear of Cities encapsulated in a Song.

The modern conception of the city is arguably mans greatest achievement. This calculated effort to concentrate architecture, culture, politics and people all in one place is utterly astounding. There are skyscrapers which pierce the heavens, roadways that channel through the earth and undergrounds so deep that they knock on Hyades door. Their museums hold the finest art, the rarest jewels and the oldest creations of mankind. Each market dazzles the eye with an assortment of goods from around the world – you can have anything your heart so desires – from the finest wines of Bordeaux to that ghastly Louis Vuitton handbag you’ve had your eye on and so readily deserve. Food! Glorious food! Breakfast bars, buffets, boozers and bakeries. You can eat until even a ‘wather thin mint’ might be too much to hold. And don’t get me started on the bars, ‘oh the bars’, what sights my dear friends. Blue neon lights, floors dripped in candy coated fluorescent plastics and shelves covered in so many colored liquids that even a 10th century alchemist would blush. The city offers its citizens the opportunity, no the right, to indulge… to have the freedom to do what they want – when they want.

But is this real freedom? Or have you just become a dog of Pavlov, unaware that the bell is ringing, drawing you in to the catacombs of the city?

‘We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine. And the machine is bleeding to death’

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Dead Flag Blues.

When people hear: ‘I live in the countryside’, they cry out: ‘How do you survive?‘, ‘You must be so bored?‘, ‘What do you do?‘. They feel that the city is central, that anything outside of this manifestation is utterly isolated, dull, drab and gloomy. ‘Why don’t you move to somewhere that has people?’, ‘You must be so lonely?’, they say. However, it is in the metropolis, with its towering towers and swathes of unknown, misty faces that conjures this feeling of solitude within me.

The self is left exiled in the city, dispersed into a collective without a community. You are but one of many faces, with each being drawn to a destination that either fills your wallet through work or empties it via consumption. For what can you do within the city that does not require expense? Fancy leaving your 12 sq/m room? Where will you go? A cafe, a bar, a cinema? Everything has a price. You are trapped in this metallic shell, in which your only method of escape is through the shrapnel that weighs down your trouser pocket.

While the Talking Heads song Cities may, for many, glorify the metropolis and the excitement that can be found there, I can’t help but feel the exact opposite.

Think of London, a small city. It’s dark, dark in the daytime The people sleep, sleep in the daytime If they want to, if they want to

Talking Heads, Cities.

Right from the outset the listener is made to feel claustrophobic. We are in a ‘small city’, so covered by its buildings and thick smog that it is ‘dark in the daytime’. While David Byrne might just be commenting on Britain’s poor weather, I still feel boxed in.

We are told that the inhabitants of this city sleep during the ‘daytime’. Has everyone gone on one large bender during the previous night? Or maybe sleeping during the day is quite irrelevant to these people as it is just as dark as the night? Whatever the reason, I can’t help but feel that we are being held within a rather depressing situation. The repetition of the phrase ‘if they want to’, certainly seems to suggest this. Why do we need this clarification? Do people usually sleep when they don’t want to? Are they being held hostage? Or have they just collapsed in their tower-block apartments, overworked and exhausted, after a long night-shift?

While the musical accompaniment to these lyrics is certainly upbeat, with its constant jigging baseline and erratic guitar strumming, the chaotic nature of David Byrne’s vocal performance and Jerry Harrison’s keyboard sound-effects ultimately leaves the listener in a rather disorientated state.

I’m checking them out I’m checking them out I got it figured out I got it figured out There’s good points and bad points Find a city Find myself a city to live in.

Talking Heads, Cities.

The first two lines of the hook (above) provoke a feeling of deep-seated anxiety, one that is aggravated by the use of repetition. Is David Byrne talking to himself, reassuring himself that he’s ‘got it all figured out’ and that everything will be just fine?

All I can picture is Byrne awkwardly moving from city to city in a state of constant neuroticism. He bites his lip, bites his thumb, while weighing up the pros and cons of living within a hive of organisms and steel. However, despite his pensiveness, he still appears to remain determined in his quest to find a city. While he is aware of the ‘bad points’ and ‘a little freaked out’, he still wishes to remain within the metropolis – for he ‘will find a city‘ for himself to live in.

There are a lot of rich people in Birmingham A lot of ghosts in a lot of houses Look over there!…A dry ice factory A good place to get some thinking done

Talking Heads, Cities.

It is important to note the use of tongue and cheek humour within the lyrics of this song. Maybe I’m a little strange but the line: ‘Look over there!… A dry ice factory’ makes me chuckle. While most people would point out exciting bars, national monuments or aesthetically pleasing skyscrapers while visiting a city, Byrne has instead noticed something as mundane as a ‘dry ice factory’. However, this comment is very telling, for it informs us about the nature of this particular city – ‘Birmingham’, an industrial town, deeply rooted in the manufacturing of products. Rather than acknowledging the most aesthetically pleasing or exciting aspects about a city, the lyric manages to discern what the most central component is within it.

The following line continues this jesticle tone by suggesting that this factory would be ‘a good place to get some thinking done’. It wouldn’t be my choice, that’s for sure! However, I think this is the point? Byrne is commenting on the fact that maybe a city isn’t designed for thinking? The hustle, bustle, lights and noise are all things that clutter the mind and prevent it from the peace and calm necessary for proper thought. In desperation, the ‘dry ice factory’ may indeed offer some respite, in that it is likely situated outside the main hub of the busy metropolis.

Down El Paso way things get pretty spread out People got no idea where in the world they are They go up north and come back south Still got no idea where in the world they are. Did I forget to mention, to mention Memphis Home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks Do I smell? I smell home cooking It’s only the river, it’s only the river.

Talking Heads, Cities.

Now I’ll admit, I find this section of the song a little more tricky to decipher. However, the motif of being lost and disorientated is still clearly maintained. In fact, maybe my confusion with these particular lyrics is rather fitting. Like the folks in El Paso, I ‘got no idea’ whats going on!

Despite this, I feel that the song has quite perfectly summed up the feeling that is conjured up inside me upon entering a city. I feel lost, confused, claustrophobic and anxious. The noises, lights, and smells are all too much – it’s sensory overload. While the lyrics (which I have pretty much singularly examined) are important, the jittery, bouncy bop of the instrumentation is just as vital in forming this atmosphere. Even if Byrne himself were to read this article and tell me that I have it all wrong, it wouldn’t matter. Like all music its a very personal experience and for myself this experience is not one of total pleasantries. Nevertheless, I keep coming back for more.

Anyhow, enough of this – ‘I smell home cooking’.

About The Author

Gregory Segal

While humanity has has continuously ventured into the unknown, today we are on the precipice of a new uncertainty. With covid, political unrest, and economic decline we feel that another sinister turn is just round the corner. Although discussion, art, and storytelling won't necesserily create any solutions for this in the short-term it might provide a conduit for productive thought, or at the very least might take our minds off our current reality.

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