Thursday, January 3, 2019

Carpool Karaoke and Sense of Place

I'm late to the game on this one. As we wrapped up 2018, a number of "best-of" articles cycled through our social media feeds. One in particular caught my attention. Given the darkness and gloom that seems to be pervading popular culture, The Gospel Coalition's "18 Pieces of Goodness in 2018 Pop Culture" by Brett McCracken provoked a click.

The article highlighted the story of Crazy Rich Asians, the reconciliation between Dan Crenshaw and Pete Davidson on Saturday Night Live, the much needed civility of the Great British Baking Show, the story of foster parenting as told through Instant Family, the sheer talent demonstrated by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper as they sing "Shallow" in A Star Is Born, and the story of Mr. Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, among others. Of everything included, James Corden's Carpool Karaoke with Paul McCartney stood out.

Again, I'm late in watching this segment, as it originally aired in June of 2018, but the interaction and commentary in the segment provoked some deeper thought. The segment made me think about the connections that the music of Paul McCartney and the Beatles had to their hometown of Liverpool, and how those type of connections were facilitated by the build environment and a sense of place. As an urban planner and lover of cities and memorable places, this is a concept called topophilia, a love for a place. McCracken wrote about the segment back in June 2018, highlighting the joyful longing that is prevalent as McCartney goes site to site through Liverpool:

Throughout the clip, McCartney describes what he remembers about Liverpool, about the contexts of the songs. He points out the room in his childhood home where he wrote “She Loves You” with John Lennon, and recalls how the house inspired lyrics in later songs like “A Day in the Life.” Driving on the literal Penny Lane (while singing the song), he points out the church—St. Barnabas—where he was once a choir boy. He stops by the barbershop made famous by the song.
“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes,” he sings. And while most of us don’t have Penny Lane (or any other Liverpool site) in our ears and eyes, we can relate to the way that places shape us and stay with us.

It's hard to imagine what the music of The Beatles would have been had they not had the experience of place to inform their music and lyrics. Without a local barbershop on Penny Lane, they might be singing about a fast food place on a stroad. But, I shouldn't be too quick to dismiss other places. Surely, you can have meaningful connections with places that aren't like Liverpool, or like the towns and cities we all revere and love to visit, and in turn make many memories. You can sing about your grandmother's backyard, lakes and rivers, or a county fair. Country music is ripe with songs about corn fields, riversmixed use developments (okay, it's a stretch...) and Walmart parking lots. People certainly have meaningful connections to fairly mundane places, and there's not a loss of dignity in living somewhere without the richness of idyllic cities and towns.

But, I'd argue that rich places can give us a finer palate of memories and observations. These fine grained places evoke memories that can't be replicated anywhere else. That was part of McCracken's thoughts about the segment back in June:
Thinking of these childhood experiences brings me joy, not because I want to replicate them but because they cannot be. The joy is in the longing for these things, their irretrievability.

I don't remember the feeling I had when walking into the produce section in a Walmart in Virginia, where I lived for a while after college. But I do remember what it was like walking into the Ferry Building in San Francisco, and walking through their farmer's market. There's not another Ferry Building, but there are thousands of Walmarts, and they typically all look the same. While this is probably an extreme example, it's emblematic of why many city planners and architects strive to create places that aren't cookie cutter in style or design, and that facilitate human interaction. What's more is that rich places often attract people and allow us to use our senses.

There's a difference in the experience one has within a city or neighborhood on foot and within a particular radius of your home or a destination compared to what which you might have as you drive in a car fixed behind a windshield. Eric Jacobsen summarizes this well in his book, The Space Between, in that "the accelerated speeds in which cars propel our bodies through the environment means that we receive limited sensory input from the landscape outside of our cars." In addressing exurban areas, Jacobsen continues: "The exurban environment is not only engineered for the convenience of automobiles but also usually fails to accommodate this kind of sensory exploratory delight that we seek while walking."

Proximity matters in this discussion. It's why we're prone to forget what places look like as we sit in our car, but are probably more likely to remember places as we walk them. That's what we saw in Paul McCartney as he recounted his old neighborhood; the barbershop that inspired lyrics for Penny Lane, the church where he sang in the choir, or his childhood house at 20 Forthlin Road. Now, I know you're thinking, "But this whole discussion is related to driving through a city." Yes, but the memories being discussed are cultivated from something different, not the car rides (lifts?) that Paul, John, Ringo and George might have shared in Liverpool.

Generations can certainly be thankful for The Beatles and their music. But we can thank the planners, architects and city builders in Liverpool for giving four young lads an interesting landscape to base their songs. The sense of place for Paul McCartney offered him a way to connect with others, but also as Jacobsen writes, "temporarily with those who have preceded us and those who will succeed us through holding memories." The resultant music does much the same.