Rush – Middletown Dreams

Prog rockers Rush, at their concerts, probably see a lot of grey pony tails in the audience. They were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame this year after decades of their complicated, and often philosophical, recordings being adored by a passionate, even cult-like following.

This song, from their 1985 album, Power Windows, is a deep cut with many musical and melodic niceties, though now perhaps dated by the keyboard sounds. It appears to be about suburbia.

We often read and hear how modern life is a an urban one, but it may be more apt to call it a suburban existence: most people don’t live in the downtowns of their city, but on its peripheries. The suburbs are typically criticized for a sameness most famously articulated by folkie Pete Seeger, with Little Boxes. They are also the bane of progressive urban planners who highlight the economic, social and environmental costs of sprawling cities.

Rush nonetheless notes that “life’s not unpleasant” in these neighbourhoods, so long as one holds onto their dreams, whatever they may be.

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Men Without Hats – Pop Goes The World

Canadian new wavers, also known for The Safety Dance, had a top 20 novelty hit in this, from 1987, which is mostly about two musicians, Johnny and Jenny, seeking fame. Canadian artists since rock and roll began have struggled to “penetrate” the US market, with its massive population (relative to Canada), and thus sales potential.  The album is the same name, and could be considered a lighthearted concept album, and curiously or deliberately uses toy piano like sounds and melodies that were already passé by the time of release – as if daring Americans to like it.

The lyric:

And every time I wonder where the world went wrong,
End up lying on my face going ringy dingy ding dong

…may sum up precisely the frustrations in politics of “making a difference,” be that peace in the Middle East, reducing child poverty, ending violence against women, balancing government budgets, even getting potholes filled on city streets!

Kinks – Come Dancing

From 1982, Kinks singer Ray Davies fondly remembers his older sister’s teenage years, her going on dates to a dance hall that was later torn down. It became a parking lot, echoing Big Yellow Taxi, by Joni Mitchell.

Urban renewal is when businesses may be moved, buildings knocked down, and even people shuffled elsewhere. The aim include improving neighbourhoods that may be worn down, making way more major business and government housing and other projects, and assembling room for development elsewhere by razing areas for transportation routes. Urban renewal has been criticized for changing the character of communities and even the demographics of cities. Writer Jane Jacobs, in 1961, published The Death And Life of Great American Cities, in this regard.

Urban renewal gradually came to have synonymous names such as community renewal, downtown revitalization and redlining (which also relates to the segregation of communities in the USA).

Over time, more community input and participation in such city planning has expanded considerably. Yet it still seems to be all too often the case that “progress” has little patience.

Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth

Stephen Stills composed this 1967 song that was a top 10 Billboard hit. Sometimes in politics, things are not what they seem. This song will forever be associated with protests at the time concerning the Vietnam War, and other issues at the time. It’s become an all-purpose protest song: “Hey, what’s that sound?” Well, something’s not right. So, “everybody look what’s goin’ down.” The antagonists are those in authority, “the man,” which can be the government, police, international organizations like the Group of 20 largest world economies… take your pick, and then get out there and speak your minds, young people!

Yet according to the writer, the song was inspired not by any idealistic and grand flower power, hippy call for peace and love and change, but about something comparatively more benign.

This was a curfew and loitering regulation restricting the band’s fans from hanging about where they were playing their nightly shows, on the Sunset Strip, Los Angeles. Hmm… was Stills concerned, more materialistically about potential concert goers not being able to buy tickets and drinks? Hypocritical, though perhaps not. But even if the song was not about changing the world, the broader concern it speaks to is universally important. It ties in with a belief in a basic freedom of assembly human right to come together and represent common interests – to loiter in this case – presumably so long as no harm is being caused to anyone or anything. A protest over the curfew reportedly drew about 1,000 people, including actors Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda.

Freedom of assembly is sometimes used synonymously with freedom of association. It is in section 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is part of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and is constitutionally entrenched as a freedom in many other countries, such as Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan… It is the freedom that makes more recent protests such as the Occupy Movement, possible.

Pete Seeger – Little Boxes

You might know this 1963 song as the original opening music to the television program, Weeds, before protagonist Nancy Botwin literally burned down the suburbia criticized by the tune.

Given that so many people aspire to a detached home in a nice neighbourhood, the brief song is somewhat sanctimonious. Inside those copycat homes can still be vibrant families making contributions to their country. But the song does draw attention to the conformity wrought by urban planning and can remind us of the importance of not following the crowd. Going into business for martini lunches does not have to be the American dream, nor does a rambling folkster life in the vein of Seeger or Woody Guthrie cut it for others.

The dominant paradigm today in city planning is “mixed use” and density,” a shift away from the American Beauty-movie conception of suburbia which only hides so many problems; to combine residential living with businesses: to live on one floor, with a coffee shop and office space in the same building. The thought behind this also seeks to rectify the transportation needs of suburban commutes to downtowns, in the name of the environment. In short, Seeger’s song (actually, written by Malvina Reynolds), has been influential.

Now in his 90s, folkie Seeger continues his activism, at Occupy Movement marches. In decades past he has appeared before the House Un-american Activities Committee, opposed the Vietnam War, helped clean up the Hudson River… the list goes on. A self-described communist once called “Stalin’s Songbird,” in fact he adopts the argument that the atrocities of the Soviet Union were not about the ideology, as it was improperly applied.

Also by Seeger reviewed here: Where Have All The Flowers Gone