In our “Romanticism Beyond the Academy” series, we invite literature-lovers to reflect on the significance of Romantic-era writers and ideas in the contemporary world and/or in their own lives. In the following post, Maddy Mikinski compares Romantic pastoralism with pop music’s idealization of the cityscape. See more entries from this series here. To write for this series, contact us.
Is the sun setting on pop music’s Romantic era?
During the 2017 MTV European Music Awards, Camila Cabello emerged from the pupil of a massive, stylized eye to perform “Havana.” At the time, the song was climbing the Billboard Hot 100 chart, where it would eventually peak at #1.
Through the performance, the eye sits static. The motif is, frankly, a bit weird, though it can be read as a metaphor for the song’s narrative: a clear-sighted recollection of a love affair that physically transports the narrator from Havana to East Atlanta. “I knew it when I met him,” Cabello sings. “I loved him when I left him.”
The song is about persistent nostalgia and dissonance from one’s geographic surroundings: “Half of my heart is in Havana,” sings Cabello, who was born in Cuba before immigrating to the U.S. as a child.
Cabello’s music video recalls the effervescent nightlife typical of pre-revolutionary Havana. The nightclub is a chronotopic, neon oasis. Patrons gossip and salsa, while Cabello struts through the building’s many rooms before eventually running into a former beau. The video pays tribute to an obsolete mode of daily life. This elevation of the pedestrian elements of a vanishing moment—in a place free from the torrents of time and encroaching modernity—is an unexpected nod to the Romantic pastoral.
In his 1802 “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, the poet William Wordsworth draws a clear line between revolution, Romanticism, and the pastoral.
Wordsworth describes the genesis of Romantic poetry in near-scientific terms. Poetry, he says, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Those emotions are “recollected in tranquillity,” but, with the right catalyst, become a creative force. (It’s worth noting that, Wordsworth, at later points in his career, shifted his stance on this.)
Some of those creative catalysts, Wordsworth suggests, are “the great national events which are daily taking place.”
As Wordsworth prepared a third edition of Lyrical Ballads, France was led by a jingoistic First Consul, and the Napoleonic Wars loomed. By 1802, Wordsworth had witnessed a cluster of revolutions—from the social and political to the literary. The intellectual upheaval of the Enlightenment and had given way to revolt in America, France, and Haiti, Cuba’s close neighbor.
Wordsworth and his contemporaries were also witnessing significant social change at home.
He writes of “the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.”
The pastoral mode favored by the Romantics provided a stark aesthetic contrast to this swift political and social change, as well as a framework for understanding the effects of these shifts on individuals.
When “Havana” hit radio waves in 2017, it entered a world still grappling with the deep effects of those daily monumental events that so affected Wordsworth and his fellow Romantics more than a century before.
Relations between the U.S. and Cuba were once again cooling. Under the Obama administration, the two countries had restored diplomatic ties, culminating in the reopening of embassies and a historic meeting between Obama and Raul Castro in Havana. By the time of the release of the “Havana” music video in October of 2017, the Trump administration had rolled back many Obama-era policies, reducing staff at the U.S. embassy and restoring Cuba to the government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In other parts of the globe, international conflict more explicitly impacted the pop music industry. In May, amid a worldwide uptick in attacks charactertized by Western authorities as ‘Islamist terrorist activity,'” a suicide bomber targeted an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, killing 22 people and injuring hundreds more.
Political destabilization in regions like the Caribbean and Middle East has a direct connection to the unchecked colonialism America and European powers practiced in the 19th century and beyond.
Well before 2017, communication had reached a rapidity that would have been unthinkable to Wordsworth and his contemporaries. The prominence of social media now allows news of major incidents—like the Manchester bombing—to quickly reach a global audience.
The “accumulation of men in cities” Wordsworth mentioned is accelerating, to the point that the UN projects, by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas.
If Romanticism is intrinsically linked with political strife and rapid social change of the moment, Cabello’s song ticks all the boxes.
“Havana” juxtaposes two traditionally antonymous concepts—Romantic pastoral and the cityscape—though the song and video itself were far from revolutionary at the time. Some of Cabello’s peers at the 2017 EMAs had already taken similar approaches in their own work.
Taylor Swift, Cabello’s fellow nominee for Best Pop artist, had opened her 2014 album 1989 with “Welcome to New York,” a pastoralist ode to one of America’s grimiest cities. “The Village is aglow / Kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats,” she sings in the first verse. And later: “When we first dropped our bags on apartment floors / took our broken hearts, put them in a drawer/ everybody here was someone else before.”
In Swift’s telling, the city is a preternatural place where “the lights are so bright, but they never blind me.” Real-life New York’s glare fades away, replaced with a restorative luminosity.
View of South Street, from Maiden Lane, New York City, ca. 1825 by William James Bennett. Credit: Met Museum
Four years after 1989’s release, Benny Blanco, Halsey, and Khalid stamped their passports in this urban green world. Set in “the city where the sun don’t set,” “Eastside” follows two childhood sweethearts as they turn toward the city to flee life’s growing complexities.
Much like “Havana” and “Welcome to New York,” “Eastside” casts the city as a place of endless possibility and brightness, where the hard edges of our mistakes can be blunted—or even disregarded completely. In the chorus, Halsey and Khalid implore each other to “come away, starting today / To start a new life together in a different place.”
Notably, all three of these songs are performed by Millennial or Gen Z artists. Also notably, only Khalid and Cabello grew up in major cities; Blanco, Swift, and Halsey grew up in that busy intersection of urban and rural called the American suburbs.
Suburbia, a lasting symptom of the country’s postwar prosperity, has long been viewed by America’s middle class as an economic and social promised land. Throughout booms and recessions, the suburbs have retained their immense popularity.
Between 1950 and 1970, 83% of all population growth occurred in the suburbs, thus creating Boomer kids, who grew up to be Boomer parents, who passed down their manicured lawns for the next generation to mow. In a survey conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2017, 52% of Americans described their neighborhoods as suburban.
Millennial resentment of this suburban lifecycle is well-documented in music, especially early 2000s punk. Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia,” released in 2004, denounces a “land of make believe / And it don’t believe in me.”
Following the vitriol of 2000s pop-punk, 2010s urban pastoral reads like a daydream. Hostile depictions of the mundanity of suburban life are replaced with yearning for a whimsical urban landscape. Swift, who spent her early teen years in Nashville’s suburbs, describes New York as “a new soundtrack / I could dance to this beat, forevermore.”
In “Closer,” another Halsey track—this time with The Chainsmokers—the city is somewhere you can stumble upon a long-lost love and reconnect like no time has passed.
Though these fanciful portrayals of urban life seem detached from reality, like the pastoralist work of the early Romantics, pop pastoralists can’t quite escape real-world issues.
In “Welcome to New York,” Swift celebrates the city as a place where “you can want who you want / boys and boys and girls and girls,” a reference to the state’s Marriage Equality Act, which went into effect in 2011. Many places in the country, however, wouldn’t see same-sex marriage legalized until 2015.
“Closer” winks at the ever-widening wealth gap between Millennials and their parents: “So, baby, pull me closer / In the backseat of your Rover / That I know you can’t afford.”
For a generation that has witnessed 9/11, several financial crises, decades of war in the Middle East, climate change, and the rise of social media, it wouldn’t be difficult to trigger the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling” Wordsworth attributes to creative productivity.
In 2022, however, the real-life context that Romantic pastoral relies upon may be threatening to overpower the urban green world.
COVID-19 has intensified an already present exodus from American cities, especially in places like New York and San Francisco. In the pandemic’s first year, 84% of city dwellers who decided to relocate remained in the outskirts of their cities. Americans—including Millennials—have once again sought the economic and social stability of suburbia, in what Bloomberg has termed an “urban shuffle.”
Pop music may already be adapting to this shuffling, if Swift’s quarantine album folklore is any indication.
Swift, an artist with the special ability to simultaneously function as tastemaker and cultural thermometer, populates folklore with no-frills suburban imagery. folklore’s world is one of irreversible heartbreak and flimsy happiness, set against a backdrop of bus stops, shopping malls, movie theaters, and school dances. The album was an immediate smash, becoming the bestselling album of 2020 and earning Swift her third Album of the Year award at the Grammys.
Olivia Rodrigo’s album Sour, which came out in May 2021 and instantly earned its pedestal in the pop culture pantheon, picks up where folklore left off: “Today I drove through the suburbs / Crying ‘cause you weren’t around,” Rodrigo sings on “drivers license.”
Nearly two decades after “Jesus in Suburbia,” suburban sprawl is once again a byword for disillusionment and emotional turmoil.
Ironically, the urban pastoral may soon function in much the same way as Cabello’s Cuban nightclub: reflecting the bright, quotidian moments that precede the kind of monumental upheaval we cannot dream ourselves away from. Whether pop music has truly relocated to suburban reality from the lush fantasy of the urban green world has yet to be seen. It’s too soon to tell if Netflix’s hit series Bridgerton, which (in)famously juxtaposes Austen-inspired settings with string covers of pop music, will pull pop pastoralism from the brink. Personally, however, I hope at least half of its heart remains in “Havana.”