Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

When I first saw the music video for Vince Staples’ ‘FUN!’, I was concentrating more on the song’s beat than the video. FUN!’ is catchy, and it would be easy to sway to the beat versus listening to the lyrics—or most importantly, watching the video. The music video, directed by Calmatic, shows various scenes of a neighborhood through a Google Maps filter. The video zooms in and out and jump cuts to scenes of people being robbed, men evading arrest, men and women strolling with their babies and children dancing in the front lawn. During these scenes, Vince Staples describes the neighborhood in his lyrics and continues to sing that “we just want to have fun. We don’t want to (f)*** (u)p (n)othing.” By the end of the video, we see a young boy who has been revealed to be watching this neighborhood through Google Maps.

From the outside, this boy sees the violence and scenes he may not be accustomed to. From inside the maps, from the neighborhood, Staples’ lyrics show that the violence or the unusual occurrences are a part of their character. He sings that they are not hurting anybody, they just want to have ‘fun’. I should say that I am not sure if the young boy is watching the music video, like the audience, or if he is viewing the map and is unable to hear Staples’ words. The zooms in and out and jump cuts to scenes make me believe that he is viewing the maps without words and out of curiosity for what happens in a neighborhood like the one Staples depicts. Rodney Carmichael of NPR noted that the ‘FM!’ album “questions whether you could ever listen to the radio and understand the black artists who give it [the lyrics/songs] life to have full lives of their own” in his 2018 article.

Staples’ ‘FUN!’ came in at #37 on the US Billboard’s Hot 200 in November 2018 and the ‘FM!’ album containing the ‘FUN!’ single ranked #23 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums upon its release. It stayed on the charts for one week. Vince Staples often references neighborhoods and cities in California in his music. Ramona Park and North “Norf” Side Longbeach are just a few that have been referenced in ‘Norf Norf’, ‘Big Fish’ and ‘Ramona Park is Yankee Stadium’. These are places hold significance to Staples, and his songs paint a picture of what the places mean to him and his experiences to its listeners.

Most Sung about Places

Now, Vince Staples is not the only one to talk about cities in their songs or use music to describe a geography. Duncan Madden of Forbes wrote in a 2019 article about the most sung about places in the world. The top 10 artists that sang about the most places were Drake, Jay Z, Elvis Presley, Tinie Tempah, The Beach Boys, Public Enemy, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and T.I. Celebrity Cruises of the UK collected the music data and visualized the places by decade and genres with this interactive map . The top 10 most sung about places in the US were 1. New York, 2. Los Angeles, 3. California, 4. Hollywood, 5. Miami, 6. New Orleans, 7. Brookyln, 8. Texas, 9. San Francisco and 10. Memphis.

Some of most mentioned U.S. cities in Pop songs in the 2010s were New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Hollywood, Atlanta and Chicago. The R&B songs of the same decades talked mostly about Houston, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Boston and Decatur. Rock songs in the 2010s referenced mostly states rather than cities. When looking at this analysis, there are a few questions that I still wonder.

Music Geography

How does music reflect geography? Music geography’s origins date back to the 1970s. Nash and Carney wrote in a 1996 article (link https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1541-0064.1996.tb00433.x) that the subfield of music geography has seven themes which are 1. origins, 2. world distributions and types, 3. location analysis, 4. source areas of musical activities, 5. trends based on electricity, 6. impact on landscapes and 7. global music; an emerging theme, they noted, was technological innovations. With the advancement of mp3 players, downloadable music, streaming services and music players on mobile phones and computers, we have certainly seen music be consumed on a completely different level than decades before.

Richard Florida of CityLab wrote in their 2013 article (https://www.citylab.com/design/2013/05/geography-americas-pop-musicentertainment-complex/5219/) of how pop music “seems to have no geography”. Florida asked the question “Which cities are the epicenters of today’s pop music production complex”. The group organized their data into maps by genres. The pop genre epicenters were in California: Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, Tennessee: Memphis and New York: New York. The country epicenter was overwhelming concentrated in Nashville, Tennessee. The rock epicenters were in Seattle (WA), Los Angeles (CA), San Diego (CA), Chicago (IL) and New York (NY). Florida later discussed Los Angeles, California’s role in popular culture. Celebrity culture, fame and hope are usually associated with places in California and New York, and famously, Frank Sinatra sang the dreamy “New York, New York” ballad telling of making a ‘brand new start’ and becoming part of ‘it’ in New York City.

Further information about geography’s relationship with music, check out:

National Geographic Society – The Geography of Jazz

PBS – American Roots Music

The Musical Geography Project

My Research Questions

Sinatra’s ballad of ‘New York, New York’ is the type of song that I aimed to analyze here. This is a song that included a place and evoked a feeling about what that places means to them. I aimed to understand how songs in popular culture discuss places in music. Are the artists talking about a city because of the good memories or because of sad memories? Do most of the artists talk about the same place in the same way? These are the things I set out to uncover. The next few sections describe my methods of analysis and my results.

Mapping out the Songs

For this activity, I used Billboard’s Hot 100 song list from the week of March 8-March15. I chose this song list because I wanted a working music database. I thought about listening to newer albums or going through a few of my favorite artists’ previous works. I chose to use Billboard’s Hot 100 artist list because it offered a range of artists and songs that are relevant in today’s popular culture. With my music taste, I would have cherry picking songs from all different genres and hoping that there would be a place reference sprinkled in there somewhere. With the Billboard’s Hot 100 list, I was able to use songs that have been shown to be a piece of pop-culture, and my task would be to uncover how (or if) place was discussed in those songs.

The songs were scanned to see if it had any reference to a U.S. cities. A that mentioned of non-U.S. cities or only U.S. states was not included in this analysis. AZlyrics.com was used to read the lyrics of each song. Some songs on the reviewed week’s list were in Spanish, and this website provided Spanish to English translations.

Analysis is forthcoming. Check back for part 2 which shows the locations of the U.S. cities discussed from Billboard’s Hot 100!