My considerations of musical urbanism owe a good deal to the work of Adam Krims, particularly his book Music and Urban Geography. Like much scholarly work on popular music, at times it’s a little weird to read his highly academic language (I had to look up one of his favorite terms, “cathexis”) applied to the Wu-Tang Clan, to name just one example. But Krims’ knowledge and love of music are clear, and his ideas are often quite helpful for thinking about the relationship of music to the urban. Case in point: the “urban ethos,” his framework for understanding how cities are represented, fictionally or otherwise, in a context of real history and social structure:

[T]here is a range of possible, and more or less likely, representations of the city in the corpus of… commercial popular music, and… certain representations call for framing at certain times… It is the scope of that range of urban representations and their possible modalities, in any given time span, that I call the urban ethos. The urban ethos is thus not a particular representation but rather a distribution of possibilities, always having discernable limits as well as common practices. It is not a picture of how life is in any particular city. Instead, it distills publicly disseminated notions of how cities are generally, even though it may be disproportionately shaped by the fate of particular cities… (pg. 7).

I’ve been trying on this concept of the urban ethos recently while listening to Suede, the 90s British group. In their heyday I didn’t pay too much attention to Suede; some of their songs were undeniably catchy, but at the time I was generally more focused on American indie-rock. However, the intervening years recast the mix of influences at the heart of Suede in a more favorable light. Jeff Buckley especially rehabilitated the genius of the Smiths for anyone who didn’t identify as an introspective, sexually confused kid (or a member of a chicano subculture, apparently); a string of exciting British 70s glam-rock compilations led me into a serious reappraisal of Mick Ronson-era David Bowie; and I discovered the early Scott Walker albums. Finally, last year’s excellent retrospective The Best of Suede made a persuasive case for the band’s role as the first band to spearhead the Britpop revolution. Add in Suede’s excellent songwriting and “muso” sensibility in recycling retro elements of musical styles and visual signifiers, and you’ve got a formula for repeated listenings.

Many Suede songs evoke a concrete urban location, but an urban ethos is particularly evident on their excellent 1997 single “Saturday Night.” At first glance, the song suggests a variant on the “we’re gonna have a good time/we’re gonna rock tonight” genre of lyrics: the “we’re going out into the city tonight” theme. For other examples, think Petula Clark’s “Downtown” (which Krims discusses in some length in Music and Urban Geography), or Foghat’s “Fool For The City.” The video for “Saturday Night” suggests only a general, contemporaneous relevance for that theme; its signifiers of 90s youth fashion and London’s underground Tube could be meaningfully placed into any number of British pop music videos of that era.

The outlines of a historically specific urban ethos begin to appear, however, when we get to the lyrics of the bridge: “We’ll go to peepshows and freak shows/We’ll go to discos, casinos/We’ll go where people go and let go.”  Just where does one find peepshows and freak shows in the city? Maybe these refer to destinations in the ‘immoral’ city’s notorious zone of vice and deviance, but then why would the narrator want to take a female companion there? And why to the tune of a sad but ultimately hopeful ballad?

I think these lyrics suggest an older, historic orientation to the city: the attraction exerted by urban arcades, boardwalks, and other zones of proletarian mass leisure in the modern city. Mass leisure because escape into the crowd and its anonymity is the draw; proletarian because these zones draw the disapproval but evade the regulation of bourgeois morality’s guardians. Please, anyone with greater authority on British cities should correct me, but “peepshows and freakshows” to me evoke a Victorian era of mass leisure. Admittedly, casinos and discos bring us closer to the corporate amusements found in the present day, but their inclusion simply extends the resonance of these urban emblems to contemporary listeners. The unbridled enthusiasm for the city depicted by the lyrics suggests a much older view of the city, one that (at least for Americans) is interrupted by the middle-class fears evoked by the post-WWII urban crisis.

Two further aspects of “Saturday Night” clarify this urban ethos. First, the lyrics carefully skirt any mention of romance between the narrator and the female “she” that he describes. Considering Suede’s penchant for androgyny and sexual ambiguity, I like to believe the relationship evoked by the song is a platonic one between a gay or sexually confused male and his female friend—the proverbial “girls who like boys who like boys” scenario. The high-register la-la-la-la-la-laaaa’s of the coda, so evocative of a Morrissey vocal (“The Boy With The Thorn In His Side,” for instance), further suggests this interpretation. Hesitating to identify the narrator’s sexuality might be the songwriter’s technique to broaden the song’s appeal (it could be about two best girlfriends), but the heteronormative machismo that working-class culture famously enforces makes it likely a male narrator wouldn’t be able to announce his homosexuality, even to himself.

Second, there’s the music. I plead guilt in my analysis of the urban ethos here to overemphasizing lyrics over musical content, which is a shame when we’re talking about melody, arrangement, and performance this beautiful. The descending chords of the verse (Bowie’s “Life On Mars,” anyone?”) juxtapose with the elevation of the chorus, in its vocal register and ethereal keyboards, to convey a musical sense of escape not usually associated with the “we’re going out into the city tonight” theme. Think about how “Downtown” or “Fool For The City” are pointedly upbeat; they convey an excitement and enthusiasm for the city that never calls into question the mundane rounds of private life, only normalize the city as an acceptable site for temporarily having some fun before returning to home and work. But in “Saturday Night,” the melancholy chord structure of the verse emphasizes the sadness, even alienation, of daily life, while the uplift of the chorus emphasize the solace and refuge offered by the city. However briefly, it’s only in the anonymities and carnival of city life that we can begin to find ourselves.