Our theme for the month of March is “cities.”

My tribute to the city we have all shared is a short list of songs that characterize it in some distinct way. Obviously, my age and life situation will limit what I’ve experienced of Grand Rapids (and my music taste), but I hope these impressions are somewhat universal. Here are the songs.

1.  “Broad Shoulders” by Taylor Bennet (and Chance the Rapper). This is a kind of rap ballad about growing up. It has a mesmerizing, uneven rhythm with a central refrain, so while you don’t get bored listening to it, it always returns to this comforting lull. The main repeated lines are:

Reach for your goal, say what you’re told

Think that you know

See what you’re shown, watch it get old

Watch, it gets old

Teach what you learn, speak what you heard

Hear what you’re told

Nothin’ but words

Watch it get old, it only gets old.

The song describes a process of learning, forming your opinions, and striving after your goal, only to watch those same words and strongly-held conclusions grow stale as you grow up. It contains a few generations: a younger voice coming to terms with some harsh realities of the world and a parent’s voice questioning their own wisdom. At the same time, there’s a shared humility in the song that brings the voices together and gives the song its gravitas. Grand Rapids is a place with so much emphasis on family and school. It has a handful of significant universities, and a lot of people aren’t moving too far from home for higher education. It’s a place where you can watch yourself go through multiple seasons of learning, disillusionment, humility, and shifts in perspective. Even if it’s painful to watch something grow obsolete over time, I think there’s something beautiful about seeing all these overlapping versions of yourself in the same place.

2. “Leaning On You” by HAIM. This song has the plucky, mid-level energy that I associate with Grand Rapids. The bright mandolin sound and railroad-imitation drums give the whole song a quintessential Midwest sound in my mind. The lyrics aren’t the main thing that reminds me of Grand Rapids, but the tone of voice is spot-on: understated, realistic, slightly fatalistic. It’s the kind of song you could listen to when it’s snowing in April and you have to wake up a few minutes earlier to defrost your car windows and you don’t have too many good things going for you, but you find some kind of silver lining anyway.

3. “Stay Down” by boygenius. A number of the songs on the 2018 boygenius EP could fit on this list in one way or another, but I especially like this one. The lead vocalist, Julien Baker, has written music pretty explicitly about her church background, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Grand Rapids’ identity has so much to do with its religious roots—multiple churches in every neighborhood, faith-based universities and social services, streets and buildings named after Dutch church fathers.

Anywhere that you find strong faith communities, you will also find the underlying pain of the people who don’t fit into them easily. The most memorable lyrics in this song for me are: “Aren’t I the one constantly repenting for a difficult mind? Push me down into the water like a sinner, hold me under / And I’ll never come up again / I’ll just stay down.” Julien Baker turns a familiar symbol for redemption into a metaphor for resignation. I don’t think this is a song about being abused by the church, and I don’t think Grand Rapids’ Christian legacy is completely negative—it’s beautiful and rare and fully alive in its best moments. But this song speaks an important truth about the other side of that: how it feels when someone is trying to save you and they end up suffocating you instead.

4. “Street You Live On” by Remi Wolf. This is a funky, dancey, totally enjoyable song about avoiding people you don’t want to see anymore. The first lines of the chorus are: “I avoid the street that you live on / You’re a magnet pulling my feet and my head off.” I think it’s the perfect song for a tight-knit community where it’s easy to run into people who are no longer a part of your life. In a place like Grand Rapids, most people probably have to deal with a certain level of uneasiness around friend groups or communities that used to be their whole world but don’t really know them as they are now. Some people love it. Others feel like Grand Rapids is an inescapable vortex of Dutch bingo. Remi Wolf just helps with some comedic relief.

5. “The Yellow Jacket” by Shaun Martin. If you only listen to one of these songs, I hope it’s this one. “The Yellow Jacket” is six minutes of jazz-fusion instrumental bliss, both in the pocket and explosive. To me, this is what May and June in Grand Rapids sound like: when the magnolia flowers are weighing down the branches and the floaty wisps of cotton are everywhere. This is vibrant Grand Rapids. It’s a city that can be annoying, insular, heavy-handed—but it will always have its “Yellow Jacket” moments.


Image credit to Tay Bennet Ent. & UPNORTH Music

1 Comment

  1. Linda Rubingh

    I love the thoughtful, creative way you’ve chosen each song to accent a feature of the city — growth, nuanced truth, beauty, laughter, and musical joy.


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