Sprawl’s Greatest Hits: A History of Suburban Protest Ballads

The protest movements that have changed the world — for peace, civil rights or labor justice — have always had rallying songs that inspired devotees and informed the masses. The smart growth movement is no exception: sprawl and the general shortcomings of the American suburb have been a favorite theme among musicians ever since the invention of the cul-de-sac.

Rock music over the last five decades literally teems with songs about loneliness, alienation, disaffection, conformity, overbearing authority, and general malaise as they relate to the modern suburban landscape. And as time has gone on, the cries have only gotten louder.

The first musical rattlings of protest began nearly as soon as sprawl itself in the early 1960s. One of the first hits of this genre is Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes,” written in 1962 and made famous by Pete Seeger the following year. More recently, it was picked up by Showtime as the theme song for the suburban melodrama “Weeds.” Like many of its type, the song dwells on themes of conformity, material excess and spiritual poverty.

Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one / And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky / And they all look just the same.

Another classic is Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” recorded in 1970. The song was inspired by a trip to Hawaii. When Mitchell looked out her hotel window, she saw a beautiful vista, marred by a large parking lot. The trip also reportedly included a trip to the Honolulu Botanical Garden, which contained many rare and endangered tropical plants.

They took all the trees / Put ‘em in a tree museum
And they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see ‘em
Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot

The eighties was a singularly great era for sprawl songs. In 1982, Rush recorded the single “Subdivisions,” recalling a teenager’s feelings of loneliness and alienation growing up in the Canadian suburbs. It seems he wasn’t the only rock star who spent his teenager years counting the days until he could flee for the city.

Growing up it all seems so one-sided / Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided / Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone / Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone

The same year, The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde wrote “My City was Gone,” about the devastation brought upon her hometown of Akron, Ohio by suburban sprawl. Hynde told the Columbus Dispatch that when she returned to Akron in the 1980s after a decade away from home, she stood in the middle of downtown and cried.

I went back to Ohio / But my pretty countryside
Had been paved right down the middle / by a government that had no pride
The farms of Ohio / Had been replaced by shopping malls
And muzak filled the air / from Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls
I said, A, O, way to go, Ohio

We’ve also got to give props to The Police for the 1983 “Synchronicity II,” a sort of nightmarish corollary to the American Dream. Drawing from his own father’s life, Sting tells the story of a typical suburban family crumbling under everyday pressures.

In 1988, Sonic Youth recorded a song simply called “The Sprawl.” Unfortunately, most of the lyrics are not suitable for publication. Suffice it to say, they weren’t big fans of the ‘burbs.

Also, in the 1980s, Mojo Nixon expressed his disdain for low-lying commercial centers with “Burn Down the Malls.” This psychobilly singer was also responsible for the classic “Jesus at McDonalds.”

Moving on to the nineties, one memorable hit was the Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers” — which presents a utopian fantasy where commercial landscapes are converted back to nature. Frontman David Byrne, an avid cyclist and urbanist blogger (!!), takes a posture of sarcastic dismay.

I fell in love / With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate / Now it’s only fields and trees
Where, where is the town / Now, it’s nothing but flowers
The highways and cars / Were sacrificed for agriculture

But, as sprawl songs go, the current decade is no slouch. Honorable mention goes to Ben Fold’s “Rockin’ the Suburbs” (2001), which opines on the “white boy pain” of being cut in front of in the McDonalds’ line.

In 2002, the Desaparecidos, a punk band led by Bright Eyes front man Conor Oberst, wrote “Greater Omaha,” as a tribute to their sprawling hometown. This one gets extra credit for its deft handling of transportation issues: “They’re widening Easy Street to fit more SUVs.”

This year, however, may be the best year yet for the sprawl song. It speaks to the contemporary mood that Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” was named “Album of the Year” at this year’s Grammys. This record doesn’t pull any punches; it’s hard to imagine a more unapologetic condemnation on the American suburban lifestyle set to music or film.

In the title track video, director Spike Jones — setting aside any pretension of subtlety — portrays a group of archetypal, if slightly rebellious, suburban teens on bicycles being rounded up and taken away by armed mercenaries. In a particularly jarring scene, one of the protagonists leaves his fast food job to find his bicycle has been destroyed, presumably by one of the uniformed, guards that are constantly menacing, threatening to destroy all that is good.

Even more direct is “Sprawl II.” (Yes, there are two songs on the album named Sprawl.) Sprawl II touches on all the classic themes of a sprawl protest song: disaffection, conformity, commercialism, and superficiality, with a nod to oppressive authority.

Again, authority figures are inexplicably and cruelly intolerant of bicycling.

Living in the sprawl / Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight / I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights

We rode our bikes to the nearest park / Sat under the swings and kissed in the dark
We shield our eyes from the police lights / We run away, but we don’t know why.

Any favorite sprawl songs we overlooked?