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

9:55 AM PDT on July 29, 2011

The protest movements that have changed the world — be they 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.

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