Sometimes it’s not what you sing about, but where. American songwriters have often used well-known locations as a shorthand — know the place and you know the cultural message. Some of these associations are known worldwide; others need a little deciphering outside the U.S.
New York: “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z with Alicia Keys
Jay-Z’s duet with Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind,” is very specific about locations. “560 State Street” (in Brooklyn”s Boerum Hill neighborhood) was Jay-Z’s home in the late 1990s. To be “out that Bed-Stuy … down in TriBeCa,” as Jay-Z boasts, is to have moved up economically from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to Manhattan’s “Triangle Below Canal,” a trendy area south of Canal Street.
Colorado: “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver
The Rocky Mountains run 4,800 kilometers across North America, but their highest peak is Mount Elbert, in Colorado. John Denver, who lived 40 miles away in Aspen, Colorado, took his last name from the state’s largest city, and his 1972 hit “Rocky Mountain High” describes watching meteor showers in those mountains.
Philadelphia: “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen was asked to write “The Streets of Philadelphia” to accompany the movie “Philadelphia” starring Tom Hanks as an AIDS victim. In the song’s video, Springsteen visits some of Philadelphia’s loveliest sites — such as the Liberty Bell and Rittenhouse Square — and some of its most impoverished and run-down neighborhoods, suggesting a parallel to the Hanks character’s physical decline.
New York: “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers
New York also turns up in the Lumineers’ hit “Ho Hey.” “If you took a bus to Chinatown,” Wesley Schultz sings, “I’d be standing on Canal and Bowery.” Cheap bus lines run between the Chinese neighborhoods of many American cities, and the intersection of Canal Street and Bowery is right in the middle of New York’s Chinatown.
Las Vegas: “Viva Las Vegas” by Elvis Presley
The King of Rock & Roll tells you everything you need to know about the city whose casinos draw visitors worldwide: “Bright light city gonna set my soul my soul on fire / Got a whole lot of money that’s ready to burn / So get those stakes up higher.” In 2002, Las Vegas negotiated with Elvis’ estate to make it the city’s official song, though copyright issues eventually stopped the effort.
Music, influenced by artists and styles from every part of the world, is deeply ingrained in American culture. Center Stage is a public-private arts program initiated by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Produced by the New England Foundation for the Arts, it brings international artists to tour the U.S., where they build mutual understanding through cultural expression and people-to-people connections.
Freelance writer Douglas Wolk contributed to this article.