You Don't Have To Be From Chicago To Write A Good Song About Chicago
By Samantha Abernethy in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 30, 2012 9:20PM
Justin Townes Earle's "Rogers Park" is one of the best songs about a Chicago neighborhood ever. (Photo Credit: Drew Baker
You can't really boil the essence of a whole city into one little song.
What really bothered me about this tourism song commissioned by Choose Chicago is who made it. Buddy Guy is the best part of it, and he's barely in the song. (Plus he's sort of cliched at this point.) Umphrey's McGee... because Chicago is so known for its jam bands?! Oh, and they're from South Bend. And last, the band Chicago is actually based in LA.
We have so many good musicians to choose from, and that's what they picked? Wilco wasn't available? Billy Corgan? JC Brooks? Mavis Staples?
One of the best songs about Chicago by a Chicagoan is Kanye West's "Homecoming," but even the president thinks Kanye is a jackass, so he's not likely to be chosen as the spokesman for the city. We're not sure the city would even consider a rap song for a tourism campaign, but they have dozens of songs to choose, even if the search were limited to Common, Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest.
A country song doesn't make sense to represent Chicago either, but Merle Haggard was right about that lonely "Chicago Wind."
Do you really have to be a Chicagoan to write a song about Chicago? British rock band The Cribs recently wrote a rocking ode to the city. Hell, Sufjan Stevens wrote a whole album called Illinois, and he's from [gasp!] Detroit.
Not every song with the word "Chicago" in it is necessarily about Chicago. Take for example British band Paper Lace's "The Night Chicago Died." It's about a fictional shootout between Al Capone and the cops on the fictional east side of Chicago. In Snow Patrol's "Hands Open," they do say Chicago, but they're actually singing of the Sufjan Steven's song "Chicago." Jeff Tweedy is coming home "Via Chicago" but doesn't that mean he was actually just passing through? Considering he was born and raised near St. Louis, does it even matter?
And just because a song is about Chicago, doesn't mean it's necessarily flattering. Take Portugal the Man's "Chicago," which features the lyrics "Chicago is dancing in xylophone laughter / We say burn the fucker down / Burn the motherfucker down." We don't think that will make the ad campaign either.
Perhaps bands would have more luck if they focused on landmarks and neighborhoods. Allister's "Somewhere on Fullerton" is an ode to the former punk venue Fireside Bowl. Before her song was called "Star Witness," Neko Case called it "Humboldt Park." And non-Chicagoan Bloodshot Records artist Justin Townes Earle writes poignantly about snow and the lake and the lonely streets in "Rogers Park."
So here are a bunch of songs that may or may not have anything to do with Chicago. Who are we to say what they're really about? The beauty is in the [ear] of the beholder. Grab the Spotify playlist and give it a listen.
Welcome to Chicago, Motherfucker.