Pop Songs and Solastalgia in a Broken City





music, Christchurch, earthquakes, nostalgia, popular culture, community, lyric,

How to Cite

Vavasour, K. (2017). Pop Songs and Solastalgia in a Broken City. M/C Journal, 20(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1292
Vol. 20 No. 5 (2017): history
Published 2017-10-13


Musically-inclined people often speak about the soundtrack of their life, with certain songs indelibly linked to a specific moment. When hearing a particular song, it can “easily evoke a whole time and place, distant feelings and emotions, and memories of where we were, and with whom” (Lewis 135). Music has the ability to provide maps to real and imagined spaces, positioning people within a larger social environment where songs “are never just a song, but a connection, a ticket, a pass, an invitation, a node in a complex network” (Kun 3). When someone is lost in the music, they can find themselves transported somewhere else entirely without physically moving. This can be a blessing in some situations, for example, while living in a disaster zone, when almost any other time or place can seem better than the here and now. 

The city of Christchurch, New Zealand was hit by a succession of damaging earthquakes beginning with a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in the early hours of 4 September 2010. The magnitude 6.3 earthquake of 22 February 2011, although technically an aftershock of the September earthquake, was closer and shallower, with intense ground acceleration that caused much greater damage to the city and its people (“Scientists”). It was this February earthquake that caused the total or partial collapse of many inner city buildings, and claimed the lives of 185 people. Everybody in Christchurch lost someone or something that day: their house or job; family members, friends, or colleagues; the city as they knew it; or their normal way of life. The broken central city was quickly cordoned off behind fences, with the few entry points guarded by local and international police and armed military personnel.

In the aftermath of a disaster, circumstances and personal attributes will influence how people react, think and feel about the experience. Surviving a disaster is more than not dying, “survival is to do with quality of life [and] involves progressing from the event and its aftermath, and transforming the experience” (Hodgkinson and Stewart 2). In these times of heightened stress, music can be a catalyst for sharing and expressing emotions, connecting people and communities, and helping them make sense of what has happened (Carr 38; Webb 437). This article looks at some of the ways that popular songs and musical memories helped residents of a broken city remember the past and come to terms with the present.


Existing songs can take on new significance after a catastrophic event, even without any alteration. Songs such as Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? and Prayer for New Orleans have been given new emotional layers by those who were displaced or affected by Hurricane Katrina (Cooper 265; Sullivan 15). A thirty year-old song by Randy Newman, Louisiana, 1927, became something of “a contemporary anthem, its chorus – ‘Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away’ – bearing new relevance” (Blumenfeld 166). Contemporary popular songs have also been re-mixed or revised after catastrophic events, either by the original artist or by others. Elton John’s Candle in the Wind and Beyonce’s Halo have each been revised twice by the artist after tragedy and disaster (Doyle; McAlister), while radio stations in the United States have produced commemorative versions of popular songs to mark tragedies and their anniversaries (Beaumont-Thomas; Cantrell). The use and appreciation of music after disaster is a reminder that popular music is fluid, in that it “refuses to provide a uniform or static text” (Connell and Gibson 3), and can simultaneously carry many different meanings.

Music provides a soundtrack to daily life, creating a map of meaning to the world around us, or presenting a reminder of the world as it once was. Tia DeNora explains that when people hear a song that was once heard in, and remains associated with, a particular time and place, it “provides a device for unfolding, for replaying, the temporal structure of that moment, [which] is why, for so many people, the past ‘comes alive’ to its soundtrack” (67). When a community is frequently and collectively casting their minds back to a time before a catastrophic change, a sense of community identity can be seen in the use of, and reaction to, particular songs. Music allows people to “locate themselves in different imaginary geographics at one and the same time” (Cohen 93), creating spaces for people to retreat into, small ‘audiotopias’ that are “built, imagined, and sustained through sound, noise, and music” (Kun 21). The use of musical escape holes is prevalent after disaster, as many once-familiar spaces that have changed beyond recognition or are no longer able to be physically visited, can be easily imagined or remembered through music. 

There is a particular type of longing expressed by those who are still at home and yet cannot return to the home they knew. Whereas nostalgia is often experienced by people far from home who wish to return or those enjoying memories of a bygone era, people after disaster often encounter a similar nostalgic feeling but with no change in time or place: a loss without leaving. Glenn Albrecht coined the term ‘solastalgia’ to represent “the form of homesickness one experiences when one is still at home” (35). This sense of being unable to find solace in one’s home environment can be brought on by natural disasters such as fire, flood, earthquakes or hurricanes, or by other means like war, mining, climate change or gentrification. Solastalgia is often felt most keenly when people experience the change first-hand and then have to adjust to life in a totally changed environment. This can create “chronic distress of a solastalgic kind [that] would persist well after the acute phase of post-traumatic distress” (Albrecht 36). Just as the visible, physical effects of disaster last for years, so too do the emotional effects, but there have been many examples of how the nostalgia inherent in a shared popular music soundtrack has eased the pain of solastalgia for a community that is hurting.

Pop Songs and Nostalgia in Christchurch

In September 2011, one year after the initial earthquake, the Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) announced a collaboration with Christchurch hip hop artist, Scribe, to remake his smash hit, Not Many, for charity. Back in 2003, Not Many debuted at number five on the New Zealand music charts, where it spent twelve weeks at number one and was crowned ‘Single of the Year’ (Sweetman, On Song 164).  The punchy chorus heralded Scribe as a force to be reckoned with, and created a massive imprint on New Zealand popular culture with the line: “How many dudes you know roll like this? Not many, if any” (Scribe, Not Many). Music critic, Simon Sweetman, explains how “the hook line of the chorus [is now] a conversational aside that is practically unavoidable when discussing amounts… The words ‘not many’ are now truck-and-trailered with ‘if any’. If you do not say them, you are thinking them” (On Song 167). The strong links between artist and hometown – and the fact it is an enduringly catchy song – made it ideal for a charity remake. Reworded and reworked as Not Many Cities, the chorus now asks: “How many cities you know roll like this?” to which the answer is, of course, “not many, if any” (Scribe/BNZ, Not Many Cities). The remade song entered the New Zealand music charts at number 36 and the video was widely shared through social media but not all reception was positive. 

Parts of the video were shot in the city’s Red Zone, the central business district that was cordoned off from public access due to safety concerns. The granting of special access outraged some residents, with letters to the editor and online commentary expressing frustration that celebrities were allowed into the Red Zone to shoot a music video while those directly affected were not allowed in to retrieve essential items from residences and business premises. However, it is not just the Red Zone that features: the video switches between Scribe travelling around the broken inner city on the back of a small truck and lingering shots of carefully selected people, businesses, and groups – all with ties to the BNZ as either clients or beneficiaries of sponsorship. In some ways, Not Many Cities comes across like just another corporate promotional video for the BNZ, albeit with more emotion and a better soundtrack than usual. But what it has bequeathed is a snapshot of the city as it was in that liminal time: a landscape featuring familiar buildings, spaces and places which, although damaged, was still a recognisable version of the city that existed before the earthquakes.

Before Scribe burst onto the music scene in the early 2000s, the best-known song about Christchurch was probably Christchurch (in Cashel St. I wait), an early hit from the Exponents (Mitchell 189). Initially known as the Dance Exponents, the group formed in Christchurch in the early 1980s and remained local and national favourites thanks to a string of hits Sweetman refers to as “the question-mark songs,” such as Who Loves Who the Most?, Why Does Love Do This to Me?, and What Ever Happened to Tracey? (Best Songwriter). Despite disbanding in 1999, the group re-formed to be the headline act of ‘Band Together’—a multi-artist, outdoor music event organised for the benefit of Christchurch residents by local musician, Jason Kerrison, formerly of the band OpShop. Attended by over 140,000 people (Anderson, Band Together), this nine-hour event brought joy and distraction to a shaken and stressed populace who, at that point in time (October 2010), probably thought the worst was over.

The Exponents took the stage last, and chose Christchurch (in Cashel St. I Wait) as their final number. Every musician involved in the gig joined them on stage and the crowd rose to their feet, singing along with gusto. A local favourite since its release in 1985, the verses may have been a bit of a mumble for some, but the chorus rang out loud and clear across the park: 

In Cashel Street I wait,
Together we will be,
Together, together, together,
One day, one day, one day,
One day, one day, one daaaaaay!
(Exponents, “Christchurch (in Cashel St. I Wait)”; lyrics written as sung)

At that moment, forming an impromptu community choir of over 100,000 people, the audience was filled with hope and faith that those words would come true. Life would go on and people would gather together in Cashel Street and wait for normality to return, one day. Later the following year, the opening of the Re:Start container mall added an extra layer of poignancy to the song lyrics. Denied access to most of the city’s CBD, that one small part of Cashel Street now populated with colourful shipping containers was almost the only place in central Christchurch where people could wait.  

There are many music videos that capture the central city of Christchurch as it was in decades past. There are some local classics, like The Bats’ Block of Wood and Claudine; The Shallows’ Suzanne Said; Moana and the Moahunters’ Rebel in Me; and All Fall Down’s Black Gratten, which were all filmed in the 1980s or early 1990s (Goodsort, Re-Live and More Music). These videos provide many flashback moments to the city as it was twenty or thirty years ago. However, one post-earthquake release became an accidental musical time capsule. The song, Space and Place, was released in February 2013, but both song and video had been recorded not long before the earthquakes occurred. The song was inspired by the feelings experienced when returning home after a long absence, and celebrates the importance of the home town as “a place that knows you as well as you know it” (Anderson, Letter). The chorus features the line, “streets of common ground, I remember, I remember” (Franklin, Mayes, and Roberts, Space and Place), but it is the video, showcasing many of the Christchurch places and spaces only recently lost to the earthquakes, that tugs at people’s heartstrings. 

The video for Space and Place sweeps through the central city at night, with key heritage buildings like the Christ Church Cathedral, and the Catholic Basilica lit up against the night sky (both are still damaged and inaccessible). Producer and engineer, Rob Mayes, describes the video as “a love letter to something we all lost [with] the song and its lyrics [becoming] even more potent, poignant, and unexpectedly prescient post quake” (“Songs in the Key”). The Arts Centre features prominently in the footage, including the back alleys and archways that hosted all manner of night-time activities – sanctioned or otherwise – as well as many people’s favourite hangout, the Dux de Lux (the Dux). Operating from the corner of the Arts Centre site since the 1970s, the Dux has been described as “the city’s common room” and “Christchurch’s beating heart” by musicians mourning its loss (Anderson, Musicians). While the repair and restoration of some parts of the Arts Centre is currently well advanced, the Student Union building that once housed this inner-city social institution is not slated for reopening until 2019 (“Rebuild and Restore”), and whether the Dux will be welcomed back remains to be seen. 

Empty Spaces, Missing Places

A Facebook group, ‘Save Our Dux,’ was created in early March 2011, and quickly filled with messages and memories from around the world. People wandered down memory lane together as they reminisced about their favourite gigs and memorable occasions, like the ‘Big Snow’ of 1992 when the Dux served up mulled wine and looked more like a ski chalet. Memories were shared about the time when the music video for the Dance Exponents’ song, Victoria, was filmed at the Dux and the Art Deco-style apartment building across the street. The reminiscing continued, establishing and strengthening connections, with music providing a stepping stone to shared experience and a sense of community. Physically restricted from visiting a favourite social space, people were converging in virtual hangouts to relive moments and remember places now cut off by the passing of time, the falling of bricks, and the rise of barrier fences.

While waiting to find out whether the original Dux site can be re-occupied, the business owners opened new venues that housed different parts of the Dux business (live music, vegetarian food, and the bars/brewery). Although the fit-out of the restaurant and bars capture a sense of the history and charm that people associate with the Dux brand, the empty wasteland and building sites that surround the new Dux Central quickly destroy any illusion of permanence or familiarity. Now that most of the quake-damaged buildings have been demolished, the freshly-scarred earth of the central city is like a child’s gap-toothed smile. Wandering around the city and forgetting what used to occupy an empty space, wanting to visit a shop or bar before remembering it is no longer there, being at the Dux but not at the Dux – these are the kind of things that contributed to a feeling that local music writer, Vicki Anderson, describes as “lost city syndrome” (“Lost City”). Although initially worried she might be alone in mourning places lost, other residents have shared similar experiences. In an online comment on the article, one local resident explained how there are two different cities fighting for dominance in their head: “the new keeps trying to overlay the old [but] when I’m not looking at pictures, or in seeing it as it is, it’s the old city that pushes its way to the front” (Juniper). Others expressed relief that they were not the only ones feeling strangely homesick in their own town, homesick for a place they never left but that had somehow left them.

There are a variety of methods available to fill the gaps in both memories and cityscape. The Human Interface Technology Laboratory New Zealand (HITLab), produced a technological solution: interactive augmented reality software called CityViewAR, using GPS data and 3D models to show parts of the city as they were prior to the earthquakes (“CityViewAR”). However, not everybody needed computerised help to remember buildings and other details. Many people found that, just by listening to a certain song or remembering particular gigs, it was not just an image of a building that appeared but a multi-sensory event complete with sound, movement, smell, and emotion. In online spaces like the Save Our Dux group, memories of favourite bands and songs, crowded gigs, old friends, good times, great food, and long nights were shared and discussed, embroidering a rich and colourful tapestry about a favourite part of Christchurch’s social scene. 


Music is strongly interwoven with memory, and can recreate a particular moment in time and place through the associations carried in lyrics, melody, and imagery. Songs can spark vivid memories of what was happening – when, where, and with whom. A song shared is a connection made: between people; between moments; between good times and bad; between the past and the present. Music provides a soundtrack to people’s lives, and during times of stress it can also provide many benefits. 

The lyrics and video imagery of songs made in years gone by have been shown to take on new significance and meaning after disaster, offering snapshots of times, people and places that are no longer with us. Even without relying on the accompanying imagery of a video, music has the ability to recreate spaces or relocate the listener somewhere other than the physical location they currently occupy. This small act of musical magic can provide a great deal of comfort when suffering solastalgia, the feeling of homesickness one experiences when the familiar landscapes of home suddenly change or disappear, when one has not left home but that home has nonetheless gone from sight. The earthquakes (and the demolition crews that followed) have created a lot of empty land in Christchurch but the sound of popular music has filled many gaps – not just on the ground, but also in the hearts and lives of the city’s residents.  


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Author Biography

Kris Vavasour, New Zealand Broadcasting School at Ara

Lecturer, Media Ecology