September 6, 2021

Last hit song with a sense of place: "Waking Up in Vegas" by Katy Perry

What ever happened to songs that were about a specific place? I decided to look through the Billboard Hot 100 year-end charts, and they've been rare for decades.

Although I'm still working on the full picture going back to 1960 (maybe '55), I thought it worth noting briefly when it officially ended -- in 2009. That year saw "Party in the USA," "Empire State of Mind," and "Waking Up in Vegas" released as singles.

As far as capturing a distinctive atmosphere, the Katy Perry song wins over the others. The Jay-Z song relies more on dropping a bunch of names, which are distinctive of New York, but do not really capture an atmosphere (which is just "moving to the big city to chase your dreams," and describes all sorts of cities). Vegas is more all-American anyway.

By the 2010s, songs with place names were rare, and the ones that do exist are using them as throwaway references, or a name-dropped background for some relationship. They don't really flesh out the place, evoke its atmosphere, etc. For example, "Budapest," "Havana," "Paris," and so on. Also, they rely more on non-American place names.

The only partial exception is "Malibu," since it does describe what the beach is like -- but it could really be any beach, and the lyrics are more about her relationship than the place they're visiting on one occasion.

Chalk it up to the rootlessness of the yuppie status-striving era that began around 1980, but people just don't resonate with specific places anymore. And the last time there was any such energy left at all was the 2000s. During the 2010s, "America" as a unified concept of who we are rapidly evaporated, and does not exist at all in the 2020s.

Hard to believe that as "recently" as 2009 -- which seems like 1000 years ago -- you could make a hit song about an all-American tourist destination like Vegas. Imperial disintegration means these songs are never coming back into style, but we can still enjoy the ones that were made back in the good ol' days.


  1. To de-romanticize things, it's not like anybody lives in Vegas, let alone were they born there. Nevada has always been the most rootless state (percent of residents who were born there).

    And sure enough, this song is not about what it's like to live there, for its residents -- it's about the tourists' experience. Not in the "interacting with locals" way, but as a destination for tourists per se.

    Contrast to other travelogue songs in the Simon & Garfunkel or John Denver vein, where they may be passing through a place, but it still has its own flavor, its locals, its way of life, all of which make an impression on them and can be captured in a song.

    It may not be the singer's hometown, but it's *somebody's* hometown.

    The final three examples of place-name songs are all about transplant magnets, whether temporarily like Vegas or ongoingly like New York and L.A.

    But after the 2000s, even the "destination anthem for transplants and tourists" did not resonate. They're not very distinctive anymore, all the transplants are the same, so why bother singling a particular one of them out by name?

  2. It's not just polarization either. That would just means that the red states, flyover country, and non-urban areas would be phased out of awareness, while cities in coastal blue states would remain or get played up even more.

    But even New York doesn't resonate with audiences anymore, whether in music, TV, movies, etc.:

    So it seems more like rootlessness, not polarization or culture war, that is driving this trend.

    And the breakdown of national cohesion means we don't care about anybody else's hometown or transplant magnet.

  3. Consider "Please Come to Boston" from 1974. It briefly but skillfully describes three cities (Boston, Denver, LA) against the backdrop of tension in a romantic relationship (he wants her to join him on the road, she wants him to settle down with her).

    A hit at the time it doesn't seem to be remembered now. And it's impossible to imagine any current pop song with half the verbal or emotional depth.

    I try to imagine a modern version and come up with a female influencer killing it and rebuffing a former boyfriend trying to hold her down, which he can't cause she's too all that...

  4. I think the reason it's not remembered well is because it's from 1974, infamous among critics as the worst year in pop music history.

    Gatekeeping Boomers must've refused to acknowledge any of those songs, so that by Gen X and after, we just don't know of them to begin with, not that we remember them as cringe.

    Most of the songs on the list from 1970-'74 are fairly obscure to modern audiences, in fact, compared to those from the '60s or '80s. Maybe one of those "you had to be there" zeitgeists, because it was at the transition between the New Deal and the Neoliberal cultural eras.

    The '60s are clearly before our time, the late '70s are clearly of our time. But the early '70s are a liminal space in cultural history, especially a year smack in the middle like '74. Could be giving it an uncanny valley effect.

    I have trouble imagining modern versions of any love songs. Guys and girls simply do not interact with each other IRL, and they have no complicated and intricate feelings one way or another, since those feelings come from social relationships.

  5. Some people noticed the same trend for 2004:


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