By now, I hope I have established that I’m thoroughly enamored with our world’s biggest (and not so big) metropolises. I am crazy about them. Cities are like people. They have personalities, attitudes, cultures, and a way of life that differs from others — just like people. Chicago has an essence and personality that is dissimilar to Cape Town’s, or Mumbai’s, or Perth’s. The common reality of the populace of Rome is not necessarily shared with the realities of people in Shanghai or Bogotá or Harare. I hope to inevitably photograph the personalities of every major city in the world before my time on the earth is up.
For this article in the blog, I would like to incorporate my passion for world cities into a particular medium that I used to love during my teenage years and well into my late 20s — the music video. Over time, this may become a recurring topic since there are a plethora of music videos and songs solely dedicated in praise — and displeasure — of our cities.
This will be a Top 10 list and brief review of certain music videos by different performing artists that either feature a city as a character or celebrates (genuinely, humorously, or satirically) the culture or reputation of a city.
Growing up as a child in the United States, I was never truly interested in pop music, or any genre of music. Typically, I would listen to anything else my friends were listening to, but not really developing a taste or preference over time. I do remember loving the “Golden Oldies” on the radio. I enjoyed hearing the harmonies of Diana Ross & the Supremes, in particular. If I had a preference back in the 1980s, it was probably for artists who were popular in the 1950s and 1960s.
That all changed when I moved to Norway at the end of eighth grade and spent the next four years at an international school in Stavanger until my graduation. I was surrounded by nationalities and cultures from all over the world, and my worldview was expanded exponentially from that moment onwards. I have never been the same person since, and am grateful to have had the “oil brat” experience living by the North Sea. During the summer after ninth grade, I spent a week in Geneva, Switzerland with my uncle. He had a very annoying son — yes, my cousin — who was into all sorts of pop music and, more importantly, music videos. When we weren’t exploring the city, examining all the different kinds of cuckoo clocks (there are hundreds, if not thousands of designs!), and trying out different types of cuisine from neighboring countries, we were perched in front of the television watching, back then, what was called MTV Europe. I remember my first encounter with this network. My cousin entered my room, confiscated my novels for summer reading, led me into the parlor, sat me down in front of the tv, and said, simply, “Watch.”
This was the Summer of 1990, and for two weeks in June of that year, I came to know of many artists and music videos, such as: Madonna (“Vogue”), Snap (“I’ve Got the Power”), New Kids on the Block (“Step by Step”), Technotronic (“Get Up! (Before the Night is Over)”), and Janet Jackson (“Alright”). The last artist mentioned would eventually become my favorite recording artist of all time to this day. MTV Europe must have played Janet’s “Alright” at least 12 times a day. I would wake up in the morning. “Alright” was playing. Go out. Come back. Turn on MTV. “Alright” was playing. All these music videos were just running through my head constantly. It took only a short while to discover that. . .I LOVED MUSIC VIDEOS!
The Two Queens of Pop back then:
Janet Jackson – “Alright” (1990)
Madonna – “Vogue” (1990)
By the time I returned to Norway to begin 10th grade, I was unequivocally addicted to music videos, pop and dance music and, of course, remixes! ;o) My classmates would always heave a heavy sigh of anxiety when I approached them because they knew I was coming to borrow the latest in their collections to dub when I got home each afternoon. It wasn’t a one-sided exchange, though. I helped my classmates out with homework assignments and preparation for tests, so it was “win-win”, as far as I could discern. That’s how the addiction started, and the fever wore off somewhere before my 30th birthday, living in Washington, D.C. It was an excellent, good run! I believe many of these music videos, especially those featuring different cityscapes, influenced my photography while growing up.
“The City & The Music Video — Part I” Countdown
Now that you have some context, I would like to share a listing of music videos that focus on different cities, both in the United States and internationally, and why I believe the video is interesting, significant, or memorable. They are not really listed in any particular order, but I have ranked them because people typically enjoy rankings and like to debate them, so please feel free if so inclined. Please also let me know, in the response field below, if you have any favorite music videos featuring a city you love. I would love to see them. Enjoy!
10) Madonna – “Buenos Aires” (1997)
Remember when Madonna landed the role of Eva Perón in the blockbuster movie, “Evita”? If not, that’s fine. It was a huge success for the international songstress, and “Buenos Aires” was the last single to be released from the soundtrack, portraying young Eva when she moved to the Argentine capital as a teenager in the 1930s. The filming of “Evita” took place in Buenos Aires and Budapest. Though you do not see too much of 1930s Buenos Aires in this music video, you do get treated to some excellent choreography for the city’s traditional and sensual dance, the Tango!
9) Chris Isaak – “San Francisco Days” (1993)
Probably best known for his biggest hit, “Wicked Game”, two years prior, this particular song and music video weren’t nearly as popular. However, you can enjoy scenes from San Francisco — a city that is nearly impossible to portray as unattractive — as Isaak croons about his experiences and memories in the City by the Bay. I always find myself singing along at the end of the song.
8) U2 – “Sweetest Thing” (1998)
I remember a lot of ladies loving this song and music video when it was first released. “Sweetest Thing” features U2’s lead singer, Bono, profusely trying his best to apologize for what must have been something terrible to the lovely female lead who is actually his wife, Ali Hewson. In U2’s notes, we find out that Bono had missed Ali’s birthday while recording for their album, The Joshua Tree. The message of the video is simple and endearing (“I’M REALLY SORRY!”), but part of the music video’s charm is that it was filmed in a carriage traveling down Fitzwilliam Place in U2’s hometown of Dublin — a city I have rarely seen portrayed in music videos.
7) Randy Newman – “I Love L.A.” (1983)
Aaah, Los Angeles in the “Me! Me! Me!” decade that was the 1980s, when music videos were still a relatively new concept for promoting artists and boosting album sales. Although I didn’t come to know the song until seeing the film, The Naked Gun, the original video and song itself are actually Newman’s satirical tribute to the City of Angels, showcasing American capitalism at both extremes in tongue-in-cheek ways. The song and similar renditions of it live on to this day at various sporting and entertainment events in Los Angeles.
6) Kylie Minogue – “Come into My World” (2002)
This very sexy singer from Melbourne has been around for many years, and is still at the top of her game today. In this video, you can enjoy watching Kylie roam around a crowded intersection of the alluring Boulogne-Billancourt neighborhood of Paris. The video doesn’t stand out only for the charisma of the city (another of which is painfully difficult to make unattractive in any form), but also the special effects where you can see Kylie — and many of the people — strolling around in quadruplicate (almost quintuplicate, if you watch closely) without running into herself! I’ll admit that I just like watching her.
5) Janet Jackson – “Come Back to Me” (1990)
Given my admiration for Janet, I almost forgot about this lovely ballad from her album, Rhythm Nation 1814. To complement the hit single is Dominic Sena’s very memorable portrayal of Paris in the music video, with very familiar sights such as the Eiffel Tower, Bir-Hakeim Bridge, and Austerlitz Station. The mood and ambiance of this video, in addition to the romantic, nostalgic, soft lens setting is so fitting for this location that it is no wonder that Janet, herself, has said that Paris is her favorite city in the world.
4) Jay Z & Alicia Keys – “Empire State of Mind” (2009)
With over 100 songs — and perhaps thousands of music videos — regarding the City that Never Sleeps, it was quite difficult to choose one music video in dedication of New York. In fact, a future edition of this series may have to be solely based on music videos in and around New York exclusively. If there was a music video for Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” (or Liza Minnelli’s cover of it), I would rank it here. However, in the music video era initiated by MTV in August 1981, I would have to say “Empire State of Mind” is one of the ultimate tributes and accolades for an entire city of people. You can’t hear this song and not think about the resilience, longevity, and prevalence of the Big Apple, frequently coined as the “Crossroads of the World”, where almost every nationality on Earth can be found in one of the city’s five boroughs. The cinematography of the video is magnificent and the tribute is undeniable.
3) Indila – “Dernière Danse” (2013)
My good friend and Canadian author, Kirk DeMatas, introduced Indila’s video to me a few weeks ago. You may not have heard of her yet because she is still rising to stardom in her native France. One of my favorite artists of all time is Mylène Farmer, who is arguably France’s most successful pop artist and has been making music and videos for close to three decades. As a result, I have a propensity to know a little bit more about what’s coming out of France in the music scene. Indila’s music video for “Dernière Danse” (“Last Dance”) ranks high in this chart because of its enigmatic and bewitching portrayal of Paris. The scenes in this video are so close to what I love to capture in cityscape photography. Paris, itself, is a key character in this video and the viewer gets to witness the city transform itself from the lively and spirited City of Love into a dark, brooding, unforgiving — dare I say, sinister — metropolis that grips the viewer. (Well, I know I was moved by it)! One sees Paris as one doesn’t typically see it, which is why I love this music video wholeheartedly. I hope to see more music videos like this one for other cities.
2) Roxette – “Fading Like a Flower (Every Time You Leave)” (1991)
I came to love Roxette while living in Norway. This was easily achieved since this group reigned over Norwegian airwaves from next door in Sweden. “Fading Like a Flower” is one of my own personal favorite ballads of all time. The lyrics, the melancholy melody, and Roxette’s delivery struck a chord in me the first time I heard the song. Thinking it might be hard to top the success of the previous single, “Joyride”, was completely erroneous. The music video is Roxette’s tribute to the City of Stockholm, one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals partially situated on several tiny islands and connected via bridges and canals. Some of the interiors featured in this video are compelling as well. I often feel nostalgic when I see this, knowing that I once lived so close to Stockholm, and never had the opportunity to visit — perhaps someday in the future.
1) Pet Shop Boys – “West End Girls” (1985)
There’s a good chance most of you know this song from one of the UK’s most successful pop/electronica groups. “West End Girls” is probably one of the most definitive and iconic videos of the music video era, and the Pet Shop Boys have been enjoying a long, enduring career in music ever since. The music video is an entertaining and creative coverage of ancient Londinium, the Roman Empire’s moniker for what we call “London” today. We see the hustle and bustle of 1980s London which, in many ways, seems to be true to life almost 30 years later.
We often say — subjectively — that “people don’t change” or “personalities don’t change”, so could the same not be said of our cities? In French, there is the saying, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même.” (The more things change, the more they stay the same). Many aspects of our cities’ endemic cultures reflect this truth. There are some cities where certain things can only happen there and nowhere else. There are cities where a behavior is notorious for occurring exclusively within their boundaries and remain completely foreign or unheard of in other cities. I believe this is what makes our cities so fascinating, and so much like the people we know (or don’t know)!
Thanks for reminiscing with me.
If you have any favorite music videos that feature your favorite city, please share!