Music and place are inseparable. So many songs have been written about landscapes, countries, buildings, and cities that it’s impossible to look at a record sales chart without finding at least a handful of toponyms. As a geography site, it’s time we examine which toponomically-themed songs have embedded themselves into popular culture by looking at the top eight-selling music singles with places in their names (as per Wikipedia; sadly, there is no other resource either reliable enough or comprhensive enough to source the list any deeper and make it a complete top ten). This list doesn’t include allegorical places, fictional places, generic places, nicknames for places, or songs with titles that coincidentally happen to be place names but aren’t in the context of the song. All singles on this list have sold at minimum 5 million copies worldwide.
T7. Bee Gees, ‘Massachusetts‘ (1967, 5 million copies)
Considering the sheer ubiquity of their 1975-1979 disco singles, it’s easy to forget that the Gibb brothers had earlier international success in the late 1960s as part of a five-member line-up commensurate with their relocation from New South Wales to London (trying to pin down the globetrotting Bee Gees to a single location or even a single nationality is an impossibility). The then-baroque pop/soft rock-tinged Bee Gees had a number of hits during this phase (e.g., ‘To Love Somebody’, ‘Words’, ‘I Started a Joke’, and the also-named-after-a-United-State ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941’), but ‘Massachusetts’, their third international single release, was the biggest hit and first Number One. Interestingly, two of the eight songs in this top eight list are expressly about heading to San Francisco during 1967’s so-called ‘Summer of Love’, only ‘Massachusetts’ was written as a rebuttal to the many San Francisco-themed songs populating the airwaves that summer. In this case, it was a song about a man feeling homesick for his homeland (and his girl) and preparing to abandon San Francisco. At the time the song was written, the band was touring in New York and had never yet stepped foot in Massachusetts; they just liked the way the name sounded.
T7. ABBA, ‘Waterloo‘ (1974, 5 million copies)
Tied with ‘Massachusetts’ is another song that represented the artist’s first Number One, ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’. Presented outside of Sweden for the first in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest as shown in the video above, ‘Waterloo’ properly introduced the Swedish quartet to the world and unleashed a eight-year torrent of hits that made the group the second-highest selling group of all-time (370 million units when albums and individual singles are combined). The song lyrics themselves liken Napoleon’s surrender at Waterloo (today an exurb of Brussels just inside the Walloon border) to one lover’s surrender to her partner. As evidenced by the pronounced Swedish accents on display in the song (they became far less pronounced over the years), the single also represented a major breakthrough for musical artists from outside the Anglosphere in English-speaking countries.
T5. Paul McCartney/Wings, ‘Mull of Kintyre‘ (1977, 6 million copies)
In the 43 years since the dissolution of the Beatles, Paul McCartney’s biggest single hit (not counting Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ charity single) is this rather maudlin bagpipe-filled tribute to the mist-covered beauty of the southern Scottish peninsula where he has owned a farm for nearly a half-century. The ‘mull’ specifically refers to the southwest headland of the peninsula. Outside of music, the peninsula also infamously lent its name to the British Board of Film Classification’s 1990s-era ‘Mull of Kintyre test‘, which regulated the acceptable level male anatomic display on film (an explanation, if you really find it necessary).
‘Mull of Kintyre’ also drives home the cultural gulf between the United Kingdom and the United States, even when it comes to the exploits of one-half of the most successful songwriting partnerships in the history of recorded music. A ridiculously huge hit in the UK (and numerous other countries) at the end of 1977, the song remains the highest-selling non-charity single in British history to this day, yet was barely visible in the United States (it didn’t even make the Hot 100 chart in the US, where its B-side, ‘Girls’ School’, charted instead).
T5. Miley Cyrus, ‘Party in the U.S.A.‘ (2010, 6 million copies)
Single sales began declining as a business with the advent of cheaply-made cassettes and especially compact discs prompting record labels to market album sales instead. By the 1990s, massive-selling singles were largely confined to dance genres. With the advent of Internet-based digital download sales allowing buyers to choose individual songs for purchasing, however, individual song sales began to resurge in the mid-2000s, creating a new wave of massive-selling digital singles that continue to this day. The 2009 teen dance hit ‘Party in the U.S.A.’ is the first example we see of that on this list. Originally intended for the English singer Jessie J, she passed on the song to Cyrus; the lyrics were then re-written to highlight Cyrus’ relocation from Nashville to Hollywood. Approximately 5.3 million of the 6 million copies sold at the time of the last sales estimate were in the United States.
4. Scott McKenzie, ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)‘ (1967, 7 million copies)
The second San Francisco-related song on this list. Written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas as a theme song for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival he was co-promoting, ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)’ would be the only hit in the rather brief recording career of McKenzie, Phillips’ frequent collaborator and former bandmate in the Journeymen. Oddly enough, San Francisco is a good 190 km (188 mi) north of Monterey. Two decades later, Phillips and McKenzie would be responsible for another geographically-themed hit, the full-frontal assault to the temporal lobe known as the Beach Boys’ ‘Kokomo’.
3. Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg, ‘California Gurls‘ (2010, 7.7 million copies)
Speaking of the Beach Boys, it may come as a surprise, but the California girl-related song on this list is not the 1965 classic written by Brian Wilson after his first dalliance with LSD, but the 2010 Katy Perry/Snoop Dogg collaboration that nearly saw the Boys’ record publisher sue the duo and their co-writers for lyric infringement (one of those co-writers, Dr. Luke, was also a co-writer on ‘Party in the U.S.A.). The lyrics essentially function as a response to the 1965 song (answer songs have long been a staple of pop music). From a geographic standpoint, locales mentioned specifically include Los Angeles, Venice Beach, and Palm Springs.
2. Roy Acuff, ‘Wabash Cannonball‘ (1936, 10 million copies)
The runner-up on this list of toponymically-themed singles predates the album era entirely, dating back nearly 80 years. The song itself is even older than Acuff’s single, published as early as 1882 (as ‘The Great Rock Island Route’) and likely written before that. As such, numerous artists sang the reverential song about a fictional train named for the Wabash River that meanders through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois; each putting their own spin on the lyrics. There was indeed an actual Wabash Railroad centered out of Indiana that operated from 1889 to 1962 before being subsumed under the Norfolk Southern line.
1. PSY, ‘Gangnam Style‘ (2012, 11 million copies)
Yep, ‘Gangnam Style’. The most-viewed video in the history of YouTube; a song so ubiquitous Noam Chomsky even appeared in a parody video; a song you’ve likely tired of months ago. Often lost in the buzz surrounding the song’s video is the actual meaning of the lyrics: a sly, lighthearted jab at poseurs attempting to pass themselves off as being as trendy as the residents of Seoul’s Gangnam district, renowned as a centre for high-end shopping and higher education. Indeed, PSY is seen doing the ‘Gangnam Style’ dance atop Gangnam’s ASEM Tower 31 seconds into the video.
Boucher, G. (2007). ‘California Girls’ The Beach Boys | 1965. Los Angeles Times, 12 August 2007. Available at http://articles.latimes.com/2007/aug/12/entertainment/ca-socalsong12. Accessed 11 September 2013.
Waltz, R.B. and D.G. Engle (2013). Wabash Cannonball, The. The Ballad Index. Available at http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/R840.html. Accessed 11 September 2013.
Williams, R. (1999). Media: The censor goes public. The Independent, 8 June 1999. Available at http://web.archive.org/web/20120506010807/http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/media-the-censor-goes-public-1098868.html. Accessed 11 September 2013.